On Towel Throwing

Last week, my mom's 1999 Oldsmobile 88 stopped working while my parents were visiting my uncle. Unable to get it running again, my parents had to have it towed. I arrived home to find it facing in the opposite direction in our driveway, propped up on a safety jack with wood blocks behind the rear wheels. My father may be 79 years old, but he will always be a mechanic.

Logically, the first suspect in a no-start situation would be the battery. But the dashboard lights were working, and the battery tested out okay. The engine simply would not crank, which led to the starter as the next culprit. My dad replaced that, and it still didn't fix the problem. I began to have deja vu, remembering one long Winter with my old car in which my father practically replaced everything. The car would start fine, but after driving for a while if I shut her off, I couldn't turn her over for at least half an hour, until she cooled down. After replacing sparkplugs, the starter, the fuel pump, a thermometer and more, it turned out to be a faulty wire inside a MAF sensor. It took months, and even though we used refurbished parts from a junkyard, we still ended up spending more money than the car was worth.

I pride myself on being able to find answers. When people are stuck with something technical at work, they often come to me. When people are stuck with something trivial such as an actor's name, they also come to me. What I don't know, I seek out online. Someone else's question becomes my own, and I don't rest until it's resolved. It's how I continue to learn new things as an adult. Automotive issues tend to be inexplicably challenging. Oftentimes, a question might be too specific as far as a make and model are concerned. In the case of my mom's car, 1999 was the last year that model was made. I didn't even know all Oldsmobiles were defunct until my dad told me. He thought the company went under in 1999, but it was actually 2004 that the last new vehicle was produced.

My search led me to various message boards and question sites, and a lot of times I'd find people with the same questions as we had, with no answers posted. Broadening my search to more general terms led to the possibility that it was the ignition switch, though my father had his doubts. Still, with my help, he removed the mess of wires underneath the dashboard. On Tuesday evening when I arrived home from work, he asked for my help putting the new one in. I knew I wouldn't have time on Wednesday morning because of the construction induced traffic I'd been encountering on my commute. With ten minutes to spare before Reaper began, I struggled with what should have been an easy job while my dad held a hot drop lamp a little too close to my face for comfort. He grew impatient and I got frustrated with some of his inquiries: “Turn it clockwise; are you turning it clockwise? It should turn clockwise. You know what clockwise is? Clockwise is like this. Look; are you looking? Clock--”

“I KNOW what ****ing CLOCKWISE is! Stop talking to me like I'm an idiot!” I snapped, in a moment of weakness. I stormed into the house, regaining my senses, and set the VCR to tape my show. My dad was already coming back in the house, muttering that he didn't need this and that he had friends who could help him, who would work with him. I get too sensitive sometimes, but sometimes there's something in his tone that makes me think he sees me as a child, and that without his years of experience it would be impossible for me to see or comprehend something that he can. I'm sure a lot of that is me projecting my own insecurity into what he sees as innocent remarks, but it's definitely counter productive when I have those little fits. I managed to apologize and get him back outside, because I wasn't ready to throw in the towel. My dad is someone who never gives up, and I want to be like that someday. For me, if something is too challenging, I tend to take the path of least resistance. From relationships to career moves, when the going gets tough I take naps or watch cartoons.

I held my tongue as he once again asked if I had everything plugged in correctly. There was really only one way everything could fit together, and conceptually it was similar enough to the old SCSI hookups I used to maintain on the computer network at my first job that I could figure it out. In the end, my dad had to climb under the dash to check, and discovered that, as I suspected, he had given me the wrong size ratchet. He had argued that with me because it was the same as the old ignition switch, but the new one was slightly different. With the screw finally snug, he hooked up the battery again and asked me to start it. Unfortunately, while lights worked on the dash, there wasn't so much as a click or crank when I turned the key.

More research was required. I'd already missed enough of my show to wait until the whole thing finished taping, and I was determined to prove myself to my dad while making amends for my outburst. As when my old car gave me problems, I could not find a wiring diagram online. I have no idea why those are so hard to find. My dad gets books easily enough, but I've yet to find a digital resource with updated information. Occasionally a site will promise a wiring diagram in exchange for a small fee, but none of them strike me as trustworthy enough to use my credit card. Honestly, if I have to pay for it, my dad might as well go out and buy a new book. I did come across some other possibilities, from a flaw in the security system to a faulty sensor inside the car's computer. My dad still had his doubts, and was leaning toward the neutral safety switch. That keeps the car from starting when it's not in park or neutral, but if it malfunctioned it might not recognize that the car was in a safe gear.

I asked my dad once more to call me if he needed help, telling him I'd be perfectly willing to skip the gym and come straight home after work. He called me around 5:30 on Wednesday, not to ask me to come home but to tell me to go to the gym. His mechanic friends, after visiting, determined that the problem lay elsewhere, and ended up towing it to their shop for one of the younger guys to work on. Among the possible problems were things I'd found in my own research, which my dad had been skeptical about. He didn't think the car had a security system, but apparently there's a chip in the key that could malfunction. It may also be the computer, but we'll know soon enough.

I could hear in my dad's voice that it had been a difficult decision to give up. With his shoulder problems, arthritis, and age, it's becoming more and more difficult to do this work physically. But as cars change, he's falling behind on some of the mental aspects, and the old ways may not be correct. Even before he retired, the introduction of computers in cars was starting to make some of his knowledge outdated. Just as I have trouble deferring to his expert opinion sometimes, and my pride won't let me admit that I can't do something, so too does he have trouble turning over the problems with our vehicles to another mechanic. Money isn't an issue, especially since he'll end up spending more through the process of elimination than he would if he took it to another mechanic to begin with. It's definitely pride. At his peak, he was known for his diagnostic skills and ability to save his customers money by repairing the correct parts and not replacing things that didn't need replacing. It must be very difficult to go from being the guy that fixed something on his first try to the guy who fixed something on his eighth, to the guy that failed to fix something after nine tries and then gave it to someone else to fix. I guess we all reach that point eventually. I hear some of the younger guys in the cubicles outside my office, and some of their web design jargon is practically a foreign language. Eventually, print design might be obsolete. People will always need something tangible, and paper will never go away completely, but there's definitely going to be a shift toward online communication. I'll do my job for as long as I can, and in the next 30 or 40 years will take whatever classes and do whatever independent research I need to stay sharp. But there will come a day when I have to defer to someone else to do what I can't, and I'm not looking forward to throwing in that towel. And so, as I've realized many times before, my dad and I don't argue sometimes because we're so different, but because we're so much the same.


Anonymous JobSearchNinja said...

In order to win the best jobs and ultimately your dream job in today's world, you have to work like a ninja. Your job search must be different than everyone else's. You have to search where others don't search. You must have a strategic plan of attack.

5/21/2009 4:21 AM  
Blogger MCF said...

I think I see what you're saying. To succeed, we must both strike like a ninja AND cut like a razor blade...

5/21/2009 7:53 AM  
Blogger Lorna said...

of course your dad still sees you, at least sometimes, as a child. It's natural but really, really annoying.

5/21/2009 10:14 PM  
Blogger b13 said...

I always read the automotive questions and answers in the Friday Newsday and the "Master Mechanic" swears by https://www.identifix.com

He mentions it every other week. Also, have you ever thought about getting a scan tool? The newer cars almost always need it for diagnostics and in the long run may save you some duckets.

5/21/2009 11:08 PM  
Blogger MCF said...

We have one; scan came up negative, with a "no codes" message. Thanks for the site though; I'm going to check that out...

5/21/2009 11:17 PM  
Blogger b13 said...

oh, besides identifix, he also raves about http://www.alldata.com/

Google Junior Damato. Dude is usually spot on.

5/22/2009 2:45 PM  

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