When I was about 23 years old, round about 1992, I bought a 1985 Audi 5000 Turbo Diesel from B. Don Massey, my good friend and major professor at UGA. At $2,000, it was, by far, the finest automobile I had ever owned. Although in those days, passenger diesel cars were not as common as they are now and as a result, diesel fuel was a little harder to come by and I often found myself fueling up my little Krautmobile next to a long-haul Peterbilt. Good memories, nonetheless. One thing that a poor college student does not need, however, is a cantankerous German automobile with a parts scarcity not yet alleviated by free global trade. When my brake master cylinder went bad, I was faced with a dire predicament: (1) I needed to be able to stop the Audi and could not do so without the assistance of the hydraulic braking power supplied by said part; and (2) having decided that said repair was necessary, locating the funds to make it possible.
A brand-new master cylinder priced at no less than $500. And that was just the part, no help included. Pricing the job from the local stoner Audi mechanic specialist (every town has one) was close to a thousand bucks. After a thorough search of the yellow pages and a not-yet-fully-developed execution of personal resourcefulness, I found a rebuild kit for $187. It was still a huge kick in the teeth. $200 was no joke to a college student. And I still had to figure out how to get a rebuild kit into the part that it was designed to rebuild.
Thoroughly flummoxed, I talked to B. Don, who can fix damn near anything. Honestly, I (selfishly) assumed (hoped?) that he would feel badly about my situation and offer to do it for me; because, frankly, the prospect of rebuilding a master cylinder sounded like something a mechanic did…certainly not a schlep with a drama degree who was working on a Spanish degree because he was too afraid to leave college. I couldn’t fathom how it could be done without years of training. But B. Don was having none of it. He told me that I should just do it myself. He’d lend me the tools I needed and I would just do it.
After an endless barrage of frantic questioning, he finally became sufficiently frustrated and said to me – in a tone that only those who know B. Don will fully understand – “Now, Doug, goddamit, you just take all the old shit out and put the new one back where it was.”
How f*In right he was.
Just take out what was bad and put in what’s not in its place.
A simple and substantial poetry that I failed to grasp at the time. However, left with no other options, I meticulously, yet clumsily, disassembled the faulty master cylinder and started piecing it back together with the kit, using only the rough illustration contained therein. Making notes along the way, I finally got it all to fit back the way it was (theoretically) intended and slapped the reconstructed part back on the brake booster.
After several failed attempts at bleeding the brake system, I brought the Audi to a shadetree mechanic who easily performed the task for about $40. And damn! Wouldn’t you know it - my brakes worked! My rebuilt part held. I can’t tell you how immensely proud of myself I was. I started listening to country music to celebrate my backwoods artistry. I told anyone who would listen, and many more that would not, about my newly-found skills. One would think it would be difficult to weave the rebuilding of a brake master cylinder into a coffee-shop conversation about Dostoevsky (and under normal circumstances, it would be), but forcing it proved to be quite easy.
What a lesson I learned from B. Don in those simple words. Just take it apart and put it back the way you found it.
I can’t quite express why this success with a menial mechanical task was so meaningful to me. Perhaps it’s because I’d been raised in theater, certain that my talents lay only in the realm of ethereal artistry. Perhaps it was a first step in asserting my independence as an adult. As a capable man, ready to accept the challenges of the world. Perhaps it was just a man thing, like masturbating for the first time. I just don’t know.
Years later, in 2001, after my wife and I were engaged and moved in together, we had a weekend visit from my best friend Steven Uhles and his wife Jo. Sometime that night, a distinct electrical burning odor came from the guest bathroom. With apartment maintenance iffy at best, and a clear electrical danger at hand, I decided to try and trace the source of the issue. Eventually, Steven and I realized the odor was coming from the bathroom’s wall outlet. After a short trip to Home Depot, a closing of the proper circuit on the breaker, and some clumsy splicing and cutting, a new wall outlet, sans odor, was operational.
Wow, now I was really proud of myself. I felt the need to strip to loin cloth and beat my chest. Maybe it was a man thing after all.
But wait! This was me: helpless, hopeless, sheltered, scared, timid Doug Elser – taking command of a situation and thinking my way thought it, even though it wasn’t at all familiar. Braving the unknown with a sense of adventure, curiosity, and confidence. Wow, sounds like maturity to me. Getting shit done.
And although a common – and familiar – malady followed (ManWhoThinksHeCanFixAnything-Itis), the decision to follow and trust instincts had begun to take hold in my life.
I’ll skip all the painful starts and stumbles in developing that skill from 2001 to 2010. I will say, however, that B. Don’s grand and (perhaps) unintentional metaphor guides me now at age 40 as a husband, father, and friend.
Take a good look at what’s broken. Make note of it. Think of how it should look. Use a manual if necessary. But then, without fear (rather, with a sense of wonder!), set out to putting that shit back together so it ain’t broke anymore.