Master Mechanic

Published in the August 2011 Issue August 2011

I've never been much of a mechanic. Too often I've ended up with holes that were missing bolts, or bolts that were missing holes. I've lost screws that were not sufficiently tightened, and twisted the head off many a good bolt in order to be certain it would stay put. Over the years I've learned most of my lessons about mechanics the hard way, it seems, and I've never learned how to make it seem like fun. But we all do what we have to do, and I've usually managed to get the job done. In my experience, being able to cuss in several languages is a valuable skills subset for any mechanical task.

When I was a boy, my father taught me the importance of proper tool handling and maintenance when he caught me using his torque wrench to pound rusty nails into my latest essential project. "Always use the right tool for the job," my father counseled wisely. I hoped his intention was to teach, not to punish. "And don't ever touch my torque wrench again." I had no idea what a torque wrench was, but my dad helped me understand that it was not a suitable choice for driving nails.

When Roxanne and I bought our older-model houseboat, I knew there would be some mechanical tinkering required. With a newly rebuilt engine I was not anticipating any serious issues. I could change fluids and filters, adjust points, replace starters and alternators, and do basic maintenance. The boat ran great except for one little problem-the temperature ran so close to the red line on the gauge that some mechanical perfectionists might even call it "hot." I wasn't particularly concerned because I knew just what to do-I'd simply change the thermostat. Phffft! Nothing to it.

Installing a new thermostat didn't help after all, even though I bought two in order to have a spare. In a flash of inspiration I realized what the problem must be. With a borrowed swim mask and a flashlight cleverly waterproofed in a zip lock bag, I swam under the boat to remove the debris I was sure to find clogging the intake. My absolute certainty fizzled, for the screen was perfectly clean.

I returned to the surface blowing water from my nose and snorted. "Hmpfff!" That's French for "My, how discouraging."

So I did what I was self-trained in my own backyard to do-I removed the thermostat altogether. Again, no luck. The spiteful needle stayed glued to the mark at about 210 degrees. Good for brisket. Bad for engines.

Before anyone asks-yes, of course I flicked the gauge with my finger; after all, I'm not a complete idiot. The needle didn't budge as a result of my finger-flicking, even with harsh vocal reinforcement, so I got the right tool for the job just as my father taught me. With the handle of a screwdriver I whacked the instrument a good one. To my utter surprise that didn't cool the engine down one bit. It did crack the glass on the gauge, however. I felt like a complete idiot.

There was only one possibility remaining. I wasn't looking forward to scrunching down in the engine compartment and twisting wrenches blindly in the tiny space between the engine and the bulkhead to remove the water pump, but someone had to do it, and Roxanne flatly refused.

I won't go into all the hardship of that endeavor. It fought me. It fought me hard. I am not without mechanical skills, and in less than a week the water pump was reinstalled. Alas, the hateful needle climbed right back to its familiar perch near the boiling point. I whacked the gauge again, this time purely for punishment and spite.

I finally found the problem, but space is short, and I won't make you wait for the book. Whoever installed the new engine used the old water hoses. One was clogged with chunks of crumbled impeller and decayed hose material. The day I started her up and watched that needle settle permanently into its cool new comfort zone was nothing less than joyful.

I think my dad would have been proud.

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