Life Lessons: Four Letters at a Time
Recently, while working, I got to thinking lately about just how much things in society have changed over the years.
If you’re like me, you grew up in a shop… Cars weren’t some late-blooming thing. You didn’t just magically find them on cable and say “gosh, Wally… I’m going to become a car guy!” You worked in, around, on and all over cars. They became your LIFE. You didn’t weasel your way in… there was no buy-in at the auction, no sudden wave of car knowledge gleaned from reading a magazine or message board. You lived, learned, got greasy and broke things.
I was born into it, and man… I know my cars, I love my cars, and I enjoy the living snot out of being in the company of REAL CAR PEOPLE. I was educated in so many ways in the shop. From how to prepare a gasket mating surface to dealing with douchebags, saving money, doing good things for other folks, bartering, keeping my chin up when things were darkest, running a department, you name it… I learned things that I teach my kids in the same way today. In that shop were these guys who turned wrenches. And these guys, get this, used to work on mechanical things, diagnosing issues, repairing what could be fixed, and replacing what couldn’t.
At no point was the work, the manual labor, the knuckle-skinning, get sweaty stuff farmed-out, or outsourced to some other off-shore land. It was a pride thing. An American rite of passage: The Hard Day’s Work. It was a beautiful thing to behold.
Between the day-to-day grind, there were bursts of conversation, and occasionally, a joke or two would fly. It made the day go by better… It bred friendship, boosted morale, and above all, taught a young me how to curse…. Wait, I mean forged what was to become an integral part of my personality. These cats taught me to say what was on my mind, have fun, and be stand-up, taking responsibility for my actions, and being ready to back up my words when needed. Stand up for what’s right, do what’s best, and don’t be a douchebag. Take what you’re ready to dish out, and shake hands when you win OR lose. No paperwork, no excuses.
Sure, a lot of this was taught four letters at a time, but that was automotive shop culture. Ponder that for a minute. A culture bred by the guys on the front lines… not some trendy, watered-down version for mere “enthusiasts”… But the real deal, a series of traditions handed-down from generation to generation. Rites of initiation, pranks, off-color jokes, creative cursing… No-holds-barred, good-natured ribbing. You took your share of knocks, and fired off a shot when the opportunity was ripe. You learned to think on your feet, to pay attention, and more importantly, to do your part to keep the team moving ahead. There was a level of pride in everyone, from the guy who swept the floors, clean through the man signing the checks, everybody got it!
Somewhere, it all went haywire.
Perhaps these guys retired, others moved on to other things, whatever. It’s not only sad to see those kind of folks lost to time, but the traditions were slowly shown the door.
Could you have hung this in your parts room twenty years ago? Probably… we did. Could you do it today? Nope. There would be meetings, a reprimand, and sensitivity training, because one guy wouldn’t like the gesture, another is afraid of predatorial birds, another of mice, and someone in management may have read a book in Psychology class, and interprets the imagery in some Freudian way, and lies awake fearing some maternally-inflicted pee-pee mutilation. It was a better time, period. Everyone got the joke, and went on with life. If they didn’t get it or disagreed, they still went on with life… and probably spit in your coffee. I worked with jerks like that. Sad, sad times.
Those years cemented my attitudes, and were tremendously important in forging my art style. There is this underlying pride in doing what I do, and drawing cars for a living has come to define so many parts of who I am… not just what I do. I’ve carried that slightly loose around the edges, raw intensity with me, and it wasn’t something I’ve ever given too much thought to, until a friend asked me a question that took me off guard:
How do you design high-dollar rides all day long, and still make due without a big project of your own, and why are your tastes more drawn to the rougher stuff?
I’ve really never given much thought to it. I just love a car that’s more purpose-built than anything else… Granted, I love tweaking the little details, and hiding a ton of cool stuff in there, but a car that just says “everything is here because it needs to be” is certain to become an object of my affection.
Upon deeper thought, I think it has to do with my upbringing. My Father is the kind of guy who makes things work. He just finds a way, and by golly, it all works out. We didn’t have the fanciest-looking stuff, but holy functionality, Hot Rod Man, it would work day in and day out. Brilliant.
As my pal and I chatted, we discussed cars that left an impact on us, and the all-important “what about it just, you know, did it for you?” questions. His upbringing was in a wrecking yard, and he learned how to make things presentable. A huge focus on the pride of detailing… way cool. His tastes have always been toward the cleanest, most well-preserved of cars, even in his quest for patina perfection in his trucks. That’s cool in so many ways! He shares fond memories of Caddy coupes and more, all detailed and ready to move down the road.
The one that haunts me to this day?
This ’55 haunts my subconscious like nothing else. Far from safe, solid or other such nonsense, it was obnoxiously loud, rode like it was on bricks, and rattled every part off of itself just idling. But man… it was quick. That little 283 and four-speed were magical together. And it had a tape deck. In the late eighties, what else would you need? This car was just neat… A ’63 Impala rear seat, Camaro front buckets, and some carpet-like material inside….
…and ample storage for trim and other non-essentials.
This is the car I’d build… with some notable changes, naturally… but the essence of this car is what inspires me. It has that certain something. It had a killer stance (yes, if you’ve been here often enough, you know I draw ’em low, and love ’em to sit a bit more aggressive and tall), and just had that raw street machine vibe all over itself. It was a no-nonsense machine in the sincerest sense. Between this and the Chevelle, ground clearance was no call for concern:
With the car part of the equation tackled, we moved, conversationally, to memories of working on cars, and here is where the foundation for all of that earlier building was set down. It’s in those memories of working on cars with my parents (yes, both were car nuts of the highest order) that I draw a lot of inspiration for raising my kids.
There exists something magical in working with your hands, tackling a task, and seeing it through to completion. Planning and doing, more planning and doing, occasionally re-doing, stepping backward a few times, having the rug swept out from under your feet, and getting back up to do it again… it all teaches you tenacity. Ever block sand a panel and think “man, it’s straight”… only to hit it with pre-kleeno and have it wave in your face? Awesome. But you kept at it… no matter how long it took.
…and when it took too long, you’d get some ribbing for certain:
And all was good.
In this age of “everybody gets a trophy!” and outsourcing, kids just don’t have anything readily available to them to understand that failure breeds success… and not always in that order. Anyone who’s spent a day trying to repair a bad wiring job, align door gaps, figure out why the brake fluid just disappears (“it’s a magic car!”), or any other number of gremlins can attest to the power of the never say die attitude. What’s the difference between a couple more hours working, or the lost sleep to get that carb dialed-in? Pride… and possibly walking to work the next day. Guys I know would just keep at it. I still do that.
Some of my best memories were of those days when my Mother would jump in on the cars…
What’s great about this pic isn’t so much that she’s spraying primer… it’s the whole outdoors-y setting, and who needed a respirator back then, anyway? Down-draft? Perhaps a light, Easterly breeze. See? Toughness. Can you imagine today’s boutique-bred, Cosmo-reading, small dog-toting women doing this? (my wife would… but she’s kinda cool that way, doesn’t read Cosmo, isn’t a priss, and she hates little dogs… I mean she enjoys feeding them to our dogs… she’s a giver, too) Cars were a family deal. Between the sheer enjoyment of them, and an understanding of the payoff in working on them, I learned more about my parents and life in those hours than anyplace else.
On that subject: I’m amazed to this day that I have actual fingerprints.
I have sanded a LOT of panels in my time, and abrasives may have worked their way into my actual being. I can be a lot like a sheet of 80-grit: Coarse, and ready to strip away whatever layers I need to get to the heart of the situation. It’s better than being like a ridge reamer or valve stem, I’d suppose… ponder those potential metaphors a while. Suffice to say, I learned to remain focused on the end goal, and to constantly plan and alter my plan according to how things were going. Granted, I still complain when it all goes to shit, but still, I adapt. Kind of.
Anyway, my Dad and I would take weekends and work on his ’57 and my Chevelle (when we weren’t doing parts inventories… you want to learn group numbers and parts visually? do a bunch of inventories… your knowledge will astound you), and those weekends were simply killer. They say that with age comes an understanding, and I’d like to think that I finally grasp the heaviness of those days, when comparing what events and memories have pulled me in one direction or another. If you’ve never spent time stripping a hood by hand, or blocking a car with your old man, and you have the opportunity, do it. You learn a lot about a guy when doing body work.
Seriously. Have a few folks come over and wet sand your project. You’ll see more about their inner workings over those few hours than you will have in any leading to it, unless you’ve been to war with them, I’d venture to guess. You’ll see their values system at play… what details matter, and what they’re willing to glaze over to call a job finished. It’s incredible, and I suggest using the Let’s Hook Up and Block My Car Litmus Test when selecting government officials. You’d weed out the weak and the fake, and wind up with some cats who appreciate hard work and the untold payoffs from it.
Looking back, it’s been a wild ride from childhood, through the formative years, and finally arriving at the present. I’m stoked to do something I love and enjoy every day, and I guess that it’s a no-brainer how it all turned out this way. I’m continuing on my path to raise my boys to be upstanding men, and to appreciate what hard work brings. I love seeing families still practicing the art of the project car, and hope that the traditions of shop talk, poking fun and teaching the young ones never goes away. It’s an uncertain future ahead, and we have to guard our history and those little rites of passage with fire. I’d rather my kids hear some shop chatter than spend a week playing some kill ’em all video game or watch whatever reality shows they pollute the air with. Will I simply sit and curse and try to be the shop clown in front of them? Hell no… they have a load of time to be entertained by idiots. Will I do my damndest to make them grow up with some compassion, and an understanding of when to shut that off? Hell yes. I want them to stand on their own, and expect nothing less from those around them. I have one shot to hand them some memories, grant them keys to the history of the whole car thing, and teach them to set a goal and chase it with everything they’re made of. Hopefully the welds hold, and we don’t shake ’em too bad before the footings set (there’s a certain joke that I heard in a shop, around the age of thirteen or so that still sends a shiver up my spine… I’ll save that one for another time). Seeing my eldest walk across the street to repair our neighbor’s sprinkler system the other day after spotting a leak gave me a good idea that I’ve at least planted the seeds correctly.
Overall, it’s been a bumpy ride on occasion, but every one of those bumps, those spots where the pavement was either uneven (or simply disappeared) have left some sort of mark. The trick is learning to appreciate those little nicks and imperfections, and evaluate just what they bring to the table. I’m proud to say “I draw cars”, and nothing beats the extremes in reactions. “How cool!” is naturally a favorite, followed, oh-so entertainingly by “Oh. Why?” Yeah, bewilderment is priceless. There are moments when we all think “I could have done this or that differently… what if I’d been a Dentist or Architect?”, but at the end of the day, much like when you’re in the garage, you make due with things just as they are, and find a way to make it all work, if not for you, then for those in your care… and hopefully, you send them out into the world just a little better each day.
I want to hear about your memories, the car that haunts you, and especially your family projects! Have tales of epic un-PC-ness from the old days at work? Had a manager or co-worker that inspired you? Need my kid to fix your sprinklers? Feel free to drop us a line, leave a comment below, whatever… Thanks, as always for reading along.