One of the more pitiful memories I have of my dad as a kid was seeing him try to fix the car. He’d be in his weekend clothes (dress shirt and slacks, he never wore jeans until he was in the nursing home), hunched over the car with its hood open, muttering to himself, cigarette in hand. It was a bad combination: Dad’s tendency to buy old, beat-up cars with his lack of mechanic skills.
Car troubles were one of the bigger stress factors we had as a family. We’d be ready to run a weekend errand, and boom, Dad couldn’t get the car to start. Up went the hood, and Dad would poke the parts a few times before lighting a cigarette, having exhausted his limited skills as a car mechanic. Mom would yell at him not to smoke around the car, Dad would yell back that it didn’t matter, the engine wasn’t running. He would walk around the carport of the apartment complex, with smoke trailing behind him, hoping to catch the eye of a neighbor. Sometimes we’d get lucky and he’d run into Joe, our next-door neighbor who knew a thing or two about cars. Like magic, the car would start, but there was a catch. We had to keep the engine running or it might stall out on us.
So instead of a lazy Saturday or Sunday strolling the mall, running errands became a hurried, tense ordeal. Dad would wait in the car and keep the engine alive while we dashed in from store to store. On more than one occasion, the car died on us anyways. Then we would have to rely on the kindness of strangers to help push the heavy heap of junk to the side of the road, while my dad called the Automobile Club.
Dad also took a lot of car advice from the guys he worked with. I don’t doubt they knew more about cars than Dad did (that was kind of a given) but their remedies didn’t necessarily work all the time. Dad was out of his element, knew it and it frustrated him.