“Let me present to you My Volkswagen blues.
Ready to carry me away, a long way, to reach the moon.”

–          “Volkswagen Blues,” Gilberto Gil

I was never what you would call a handyman.

At a relatively young age, I experienced an epiphany. I realized I was the reason God had created plumbers, painters and electricians. If the screwdriver or wrench wasn’t working, I would grab my favorite tool – the hammer – and make fast work of whatever the project was. If there were parts left after I assembled something, I would put them away in case I ever found out what they were for. If the object I built didn’t teeter or fall apart right away, then in my mind, there was no need to worry about the leftover parts. Two or three years later I would come across the parts and still have no idea what they were for. Of course, I still couldn’t throw them away – you never knew when you might need them in case something did fall apart – so I would add them to an ever-growing stash of unidentifiable leftover parts.

Normally the most valuable and expensive player in my lineup of admired handy people was the auto mechanic. He was indispensable. If a washing machine broke, there was always the laundromat. If the wiring needed to be replaced in the house, it could wait as long as the house didn’t burn down. But when the car wasn’t running? That was a major catastrophe requiring immediate addressing. Even though a visit to the mechanic always seemed like highway robbery, whatever was wrong with a car had to be fixed. Period. No matter what the cost.

Though my step-dad was pretty handy with tools, for the most part, he didn’t mess with cars and auto shop was not an elective in my high school. So I learned nothing about cars except how to drive them. Auto mechanics continued to be wizards in my book.

My lack of mechanical knowledge came to light in a big way when I was in the Army. While in Viet Nam, I was assigned to perform preventive maintenance on our radio repair shop’s truck. A much better preventive maintenance plan would have been to keep me from performing preventive maintenance on any truck. I was responsible for a minor maintenance that included an oil change. I thought I’d done an ok job. I replaced the oil filter and checked the tires to make sure the pressures were correct. The lights and communications radio were working fine, all connections were made and everything was in good working order. I drained the old oil, replaced the drain plug and put the new oil in. Everything on the checklist was checked and I was headed back to the radio shop feeling good that I had actually done an oil change and light maintenance on a small truck for the first time.

As I drove the truck back from the motor pool, it suddenly stopped running. The engine refused to turn over when I tried to restart it. After the truck was towed and checked out, it was determined that I had refilled the engine with solvent instead of oil! There were barrels of each sitting right next to each other in the motor pool. I must have grabbed the wrong hose when I went to refill the engine. My minor preventive maintenance had turned into a major engine replacement. For the rest of my army career, I was never again assigned preventive maintenance on any vehicle.

Five years later, I’m back in civilian life and no more knowledgeable about auto repairs. I had a ‘68 VW that developed a severe oil leak, bad enough to have seriously damaged the engine. Young and relatively poor at the time, I had no idea how I could find the money to fix the engine. I had a good friend at the time named Wayne who was an active duty Air Force pilot and had actually taken auto shop in high school. He said he and I could rebuild the engine and save me a lot of money. Who was I to disagree? The price was right.

“VW motors are like glorified lawnmower engines. There’s nothing to them,” Wayne assured me. “We’ll break that puppy down and rebuild it in no time. It’ll run better than new when we’re done with it.”

“Neither of us has a garage. Where do you plan to do this?” was my question.

“On the dining room floor in my apartment, of course. The engine is small and light enough that we can pull it, put it on a dolly and wheel it into the apartment.” And that’s just what we did.

So, after buying a copy of HOW TO KEEP YOUR VOLKSWAGEN ALIVE – A MANUAL OF STEP BY STEP PROCEDURES FOR THE COMPLEAT IDIOT – which I still own today, we proceeded with the resurrection of my car. According to the manual, there was actually a cassette recording available allowing you to compare what a normal VW engine sounds like versus engines with various problems. Even though it sold for only $6.50, Wayne believed we didn’t need it.

Wayne flew C-141’s out of McGuire Air Force base and was gone much of the time. During his trips, my deconstructed engine sat on his dining room floor, staining the carpet through the newspapers and blankets we had put down. When he returned from his trips, our “engine sessions” would start well enough. But then, as the partying began, we would veer off the intended flight path and end up crash landing after a couple six packs of beer and whatever else we happened to be indulging in at the time. As a result, it took almost two months to finish rebuilding the engine. Of course, other interruptions like realizing on a Sunday evening you forgot to buy the new rings, having to have the bearings pressed onto the crankshaft three times after bending them out of shape twice, and purchasing the wrong gaskets a couple times also tended to slow things down and give rise to the “Oh well. The hell with it. Let’s just party” attitude.

Slowly, but surely, the engine went back together and finally the day came to reinstall it. Amazingly, it went back in with a minimum of problems. It matched up perfectly with the motor mounts and everything reattached easily. We had installed new wiring, spark plugs, filters, even a new battery. We added the oil and checked and double checked to make sure we had done everything correctly. It took a bit of coaxing, but the engine finally fired up after 4 or 5 tries. It sounded so sweet that I thought about recording the sound on a cassette so I could send it to the manual’s author. I wanted him to know he had nothing on Wayne and me. I drove the car home the five miles from Wayne’s place to mine.

The next day my friend, Donna, came over to my place. All proud and excited about rebuilding my car, I suggested that we go for a ride. I wanted her to hear how good the rebuilt engine sounded. Driving down a street just a few miles from home, I lost power. The VW just conked out. All of a sudden I “flashed back,” thought about the truck in Viet Nam and had a bad feeling.

I coasted to the curb in front of a house where a man was watering his lawn. I got out, walked around to the back of the car where VW engines were located and lifted the hood. The engine was on fire.

“You may want to get out of the car,” I announced. “It’s on fire.” Needless to say,  Donna, who eventually became my wife in spite of the day’s heated activities, was not nearly as calm about the situation as I seemed.

Turning to the man watering his lawn, who by that time had a rather panicked look on his face, I asked for help. He said sure. He responded by running into his house, coming back out with his keys, pulling his car which was in his driveway into his garage and disappearing back into his house. Evidently he finally called for help because a few minutes later a police car came racing down the street, lights flashing and sirens wailing. The officer jumped out, opened his trunk, pulled out a fire extinguisher and instantly extinguished the fire. The new wiring, belts and plugs and all the work we had put in was just a pile of melted plastic, burnt rubber, and nasty smelling smoke.

About 10 minutes later, the local volunteer fire department arrived on the scene. One of the fireman, dejected because he missed the fire, grabbed a pair of bolt cutters and proceeded to sever the battery cable that ran through the firewall and into the battery compartment under the back seat. Even more major damage.

“You can never be too sure,” was the fireman’s self-satisfied justification.

Eventually, I did find out what caused the fire. There was a tiny hose between the carburetor and the fuel pump that we had forgotten to replace when we put the engine back together. It was old and frayed. It had worked itself loose and started leaking gasoline all over the engine which then caught fire. For the sake of a two inch, fifty cent hose, the greatest mechanical accomplishment of my life had crashed and burned.

That day I learned to live by the axiom that it’s cheaper to call someone who knows what they’re doing right away instead of having to call them after you’ve totally screwed things up.

I don’t refurbish bathrooms. I don’t build bird houses or remodel kitchens. I don’t even put oil in my car. I open the hood, look around, instantly get lost and close the hood again. The only thing I know for sure is where to put the window washer fluid. After that old VW motor, I don’t mess with anything else under any hood anymore.

So thank you, God. Thank you for making all those carpenters, computer techs, and shoe makers. For the tailors, the brick layers, and the refrigerator repair men, who were the original pioneers of baggy pants. And most especially, for the auto mechanics.

And thank you to Wayne, wherever you are, for teaching me the value of earning enough money to pay other people to fix my things.


  1. I always thought I was the most un-handyman ever until I read this article. Last summer I hired a friend to re-tile the shower off my bedroom. Even though I only handed him things or held something for a second, I tell people “we” retiled the shower.

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