Yesterday, I replaced the fuel pump in my new $500, 1990 Subaru Legacy. This is what men do, well, most men. There are men who don’t do these things, they have someone else replace the fuel pump in a $30,000 car, or they just buy a new car, but when buying a $500 car one knows there are going to be some problems. What type of problems? Well, the type of problems that a college degree can’t solve. The type of problem that even a full beard can’t fix. The type where one puts a key in the ignition and the car doesn’t start.
I have never been a car guy. When other guys start to talk about drive shafts, box and rotors, horsepower, and horizontally opposed engines, I change the subject to the new exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum (Pop Art for those of you who are curious). This doesn’t bring me a great deal of cachet in the world of grunting and scratching, but I had my chance to join the tribe of gear heads back in high school. I had a little hole in my schedule my senior year and so I signed up for Auto Shop. I figured this would be a good way for me to become the Renaissance man I had always wanted to become and, as an added benefit, the Auto Shop was close to the cafeteria so I could get in line before all my friends who were slaving away in a stupid class called Advanced Math.
This Auto Shop class lasted three days for me. I was bored out of my mind. Everyone in the class had to pass the basic (and I mean super basic) safety test before he would let us turn any nuts. For three days my fellow classmates flunked the test and I sat there looking through the dirty glass of the classroom into the dark shop area where the static cars sat waiting for my nimble fingers to soothe their broken parts. On the third day (a Biblical transformation is about to occur), I went to my counselor and asked to be moved into Advanced Math. The Auto Shop teacher said, “I don’t see many of these,” when I handed him my schedule change. I felt pretty smug leaving these guys behind. I was off to Advanced Math where I would earn a D in the first semester and then get an F in the second semester. (It is still the only F I have ever gotten in a class, but I earned it. Boy, did I earn it.)
I also had plenty of opportunities to learn about cars from my dad. He knew how a car worked and did his best to try to interest me by having me hand him tools while he stood looking into the car’s engine. He did his best to try to explain car stuff to me: gas, spark, electricity, gears, oil…but I could not sit still long enough to watch anyone do anything. I wasn’t hyperactive, I had a vitality that required movement. This vitality shortened my attention span and had me burning about five billion calories a day. If I wasn’t shooting baskets, riding a bike, throwing dirt clods at people, climbing fences, jumping off the roof, or breaking something, I wasn’t happy. (This vitality never translated well into household chores for some odd reason.) So standing there watching my dad turn a nut twenty times just didn’t do it for me. One minute I would be there handing him a crescent wrench and then I would be gone: probably off doing something that would end up getting me grounded from television.
My next opportunity to learn manly car stuff was from my friends who took Auto Shop. I went over to my friend’s house a couple of times to help him work on his car, what I discovered wasn’t that working on cars was fun, but this would give me a great opportunity to meet girls without telling my parents. In other words, I would lie to my parents about going over to my friend’s house to work on his car and then I would meet a young lady for some car related activities that never put dirt under my fingernails. My parents were probably just happy to have me out of the house, but I never learned anything about cars other than where to park them. (Corn fields are great. Dead end roads always draw attention.)
When I finally turned the corner into adulthood (defined as, having to do things you don’t want to do) I bought reliable cars that required little or no maintenance. I had a few brushes with auto repair that I worked out with a hammer or other blunt instrument, but I had given up on learning about how a car worked. Gas here, oil there, key goes there, was enough for me. Then something funny happened, the old vitality slowed down. I could sit still for hours at a time and I could do really boring things for long periods.
So when my new $500 car didn’t start a few weeks back, I decided to work on it, but like all problems in my life, I let my subconscious work on it first. (This is a lazy person’s excuse to leave things alone for a time.) One day I checked the battery. It worked. Then I changed the spark plugs; in a 1990 Subaru Legacy this is not an easy task. I then looked at the fuel filter, it was new. It had to be the fuel pump.
While eating Christmas dinner, I talked to my dad about what he thought. He offered to help and I took him up on the offer because, well, because I knew he would be able to help and it would give him a chance to hand me some tools. He had a pretty significant health scare recently and isn’t supposed to do too much physical activity. We set up a work date for 10 AM, Monday. At 9:30, I got a call from my mom. My dad had left to drive over, they live about 40 minutes away, and I was to make sure he didn’t do too much. She started to cry about dad not being okay and she was worried about him. I promised to behave and did not make morbid jokes about the will and wanting the new couches. (This focus on death is part of my family tradition. I make light of it because that is my job as idiot son.) I don’t think my mom believes me sometimes, but what can you do when you spend most of your teen years telling your parents you are going to work on cars and you never smell like gasoline once.
I put on my Carhartts, my dad arrived, and we got to work. He handed me tools, tested a few things, and the next thing I knew I was at an auto-parts store ordering a fuel pump. I hate going to auto-parts stores. I feel like the skinny guy in weight room, the illiterate guy in a library, the guy in a Sephora, or me in an auto-parts store. The 12 year-old kid who worked at the store did his best to make me feel stupid (I don’t know if this is on purpose or just my self-conscious feelings of incompetence, but he accomplished his task). My dad made sure we ended up with the right pump (it had to be delivered from a different store) and I paid for it. My dad headed home in good condition and I waited for the call that my fuel pump had arrived.
By 4:30 I was back in the garage, this time with my son, putting in my new fuel pump. We worked slowly not because I didn’t know what I was doing, but because I didn’t want to break anything, and around 6 the car was running. My son asked a few questions, and here is the funny thing, I knew the answers. Cars aren’t that complicated. I don’t plan on opening an auto-repair shop, but if you can replace a fuel pump in a Subaru, you can do most of the other stuff too. I’d still rather go to the Pop Art exhibit at SAM.