"Clean out the garage!"
"Weed the rose garden!"
"Pick up the dog doo!"
"Mow the lawn!"
These were the orders I usually got, among others, when my mom dished out orders to her little work crew. The crew being me, and any or all of my two brothers and three sisters. There was a lot of work to do around our 3000-square-foot gold-medallion all-electric home, built during the '50s boom. My older brother, who had failed to accommodate himself with my father at an early age, was usually gone, run away to someplace where he slept in alleys and got money by delivering newspapers and stealing what he could. My younger brother, too young to do outside work, was given the options of:
"Clean your room!"
"Wash the dishes!"
"Take the laundry out of the washing machine!"
Meanwhile, my sisters got the other things like:
"Mop the kitchen, the bathroom, the living room!"
"Make the school lunches!"
"Wash the windows!"
I don't mean to paint my mom as a terrible tyrant. She had a huge house, six kids, a dog. There was just too much to do. She HAD to organize us. All of that was a long time ago.
One of the most demanding jobs was cleaning out the garage. Whenever I had this assignment, there was a corner of it that I was not to touch. That was my father's territory. He had a workbench with a vise, lots of carpentry tools, drills, saws, hammers, odds and ends of screws, nuts and bolts, nails, scraps of metal and scraps of boards. Weekends would find my father puttering around there, working on small projects that kept him busy and out of the range of the domestic bliss that bustled around the rest of the 3000 square feet. He powered up his electric drill or jigsaw, drank beer and listened to Vin Scully and Jerry Doggett as they announced the Dodgers games. I was never sure if his projects were self-inspired or if they were an assignment from my mom, such as, "Fix the (fill in the blank)!"
While he worked, he wouldn't talk. He rarely talked. He came from "that" generation. They lived through Prohibition and the depression; they swallowed their fear as they rolled back Fascism. Somehow the fathers of "that" generation came out of it with the notion that they always had to be "stoic", as if they learned their social skills from a cigar-store Indian. "That" generation also conveniently forgot that they built the bomb, put the world into a bi-polar orbit where both sides claimed the benefits of mutually assured destruction. "That" generation went through the '50s following the elusive American dream, which translated as two cars in every garage, keeping up with the Joneses. Meanwhile, they pretty much forgot about communicating with their children.
My father died a couple of months ago, and at his funeral, there were several hundred people that I'd never known had known my father. If he had any friends that he liked to hang out with, I never knew about them. He had a dental practice, and I suppose the people in the church for his memorial service were former patients whom he'd fitted with crowns, dentures, fillings, at one time or another. He'd also filled my cavities and those of my siblings.
I arrived late to the church and had to sit in the back. I noticed that old Monsignor O'Keefe was no longer officiating the Mass. There was a Vietnamese priest, a Father Ng, a refugee from my generation's war. I had trouble hearing his words as he gave the benediction. When I was an altar boy, we rang little brass hand-held bells. Now the bells were electronically synthesized. Purple, yellow and red shafts of light filtered through the same stained-glass windows, reflected off the gold of the candlesticks, the chalice, the monstrance, the priest's vestments. These remained the same, as did the pungent aroma of the incense that moved with the air currents below the high ceiling.
At the reception after the funeral, my mother, always practical, asked if anybody could help her clean out the house. My sisters and brothers were there, but all of them were very busy with their lives. Me too, except I had a vacation coming up, so I volunteered.
* * *
My vacation has started, and I have arrived at my Mom’s house. She has a list of things to do; at the top of the list is the garage. She uses the same words, "Clean out the garage!" although in a kindlier tone than when I was twelve years old.
I enter the garage and start in the far corner, opposite my father’s zone with its tools and shelves of nuts and bolts. I work my way through the old newspapers, I clean up the oil pan under the car, I pile up all the useless junk. I sweep, I take garden tools out to their storage place. Eventually I get to the workbench.
There's a toaster taken apart on his workbench. A few springs and a little grill-like thing are next to an empty stainless steel shell. That must have been his last project, yet I remember the toaster. Did it break down as soon as I left home, or did it hang in there for another ten or fifteen years? I'm trying to date the last efforts of my father to maintain his little niche. It's possible he was working on that toaster the day before he died.
I look up on the shelf above my head. Manny, Moe and Jack. The old "Flying A," a red horse with red wings. Phillips 66. Signal. These are names of now-defunct companies that sold, among other things, automotive additives. I'm looking at the various kinds of additives that could be used to spiff up a car's performance. There are cans of gas additives, oil additives, lubricants to super-speed the workings of an internal combustion engine. There are carburetor fixer-uppers, concocted to zip the fuel from the tank to the little flaps in the carb. Valve lubricants, cam lubricants, all guaranteed by Manny, Moe and Jack to make your car run smoother, faster. Ignition sprays, to make sure it starts up when it's supposed to. Graphite for the key locks.
I'm suddenly reminded that there were not always only chores around our house. We had a little yellow go-cart. I’m remembering when my father brought home the frame, painted it yellow and attached wheels that he’d found at a scrap yard. He fitted it with a McCullough lawnmower engine and ran cables to operate the clutch, the brake, the throttle. It was one of his projects, and somehow, we were all there on the day when he rolled it out and pulled the starter cord in our back yard.
The house is near the Santa Anita Race Track, where Seabiscuit stayed in the off-season. My mom, a big fan of the races, used to talk about that horse. Racing season ran from December to March. In the summer, the huge parking lot was empty. Once in a while, my Dad would pile us up into our Buick station wagon, lift the go-cart into the cargo space in the back, and off we would go to the racetrack parking lot. These would be the days when my older brother would have been in between his run-aways. They were real family events.
We would stand in a big circle, large enough that whoever was driving the go-cart could zip in between us and zip back into the circle, like a skier at a circular slalom race. My Dad would call the shots and make sure everyone got their turn. We all got a chance, even my youngest sister, who would have been six or seven at the time. Those outings defined our summer vacations.
The cart could go maybe ten or fifteen miles an hour, but its low build made it seem much faster. A bicycle chain delivered the power, from a sprocket attached to the drive shaft on the engine, to another sprocket on the right side of the axle. This made the right rear wheel the drive wheel, and the steering had to be accommodated for the imbalance. If we just let the cart steer itself, it would automatically drive itself in a counter-clockwise pattern. My younger sister would sometimes let the cart drive itself this way, her hands and arms free flying as the cart veered in and out of our circle.
We punctuated the summer air with shouts of "Nice turn!", "Go faster!", "I'm next!", "Look out!", "It's out of gas!" My Dad would refill the gas tank, check the oil, pull the starter cord. He never drove the thing himself, but I remember it being one of the few times when he would laugh and smile along with his kids.
One Saturday our joy rides came to an end. An official-looking car came towards us from a distant corner of the parking lot. It moved slowly through the heat waves generated by the sun-scorched asphalt. Without knowing exactly what the it meant, we stood still as the car approached us, sensing doom, something ominous and threatening.
A man in a uniform and a wide-brimmed cap got out of the car and walked over to my father. They talked in low voices. I could overhear a few words.
My father never told us who he was or what he said. He simply shut down the go-cart, loaded it up into the back of the Buick, and said, "We have to go home now." The little yellow go-cart was put in the backyard under the eaves of the garage and it stayed there.
I'm putting the bits and pieces of the toaster into a cardboard box. I'm wrapping the cord for the electric drill around the handle and looking for the plastic storage case. I'm finding various sockets that fit onto a ratchet wrench and putting them into their separate little sections in the tool box. I'm taking down a can of Manny, Moe and Jack engine additive. The label says it should "increase power, make easy starts, your engine runs smoother!"
A few weeks after the uniformed man told us to leave the racetrack parking lot, I rolled the cart out into the middle of the back yard and yanked the starter cord, just so I could listen to the engine. My father stuck his head out of the back door of the garage, glanced briefly at what i was doing, then returned to his project and the baseball game.
I started up the go-cart almost every weekend. Eventually the engine started to sputter, and after a while it got harder to start. I moved the cart closer to the back door, which was always open, where I could see my father working. He never complained that he couldn't hear Vin Scully over the noise of the engine.
Occasionally, my mother made a feeble effort to point me towards some real work. She'd come out to the back yard and ask something like, "Did you trim the gardenias on the side of the house?"
I would answer yes, and she would walk away. I think she knew something was going on there that was beyond her.
At some point, the engine died. I moved the cart closer to the door. I borrowed tools.
"Just put them back when you're finished," my father told me.
He watched me as I lifted the toolbox with the wrenches and screwdrivers from his workbench. He watched as I looked through the toolbox for the right tool. I looked at the McCullough engine.
"What is it?" I said aloud. "Where do I start?" I looked through the door to see my father at work.
"Is it the carburetor?" I said, loud enough for him to hear.
He looked up and nodded. I found the right tools and took the carburetor off the engine. Now I know, but at the time I didn't. The carburetor sucks gas from the fuel line, vaporizes it into a thin mist, which it injects into the cylinder through the intake valve. The distributor fires the spark plug at this precise moment. The gas vapor ignites, forcing the piston down in the cylinder. The crankshaft, connected to the piston, revolves, causing the piston to return to the top of the cylinder to repeat the cycle hundreds of times a minute.
The internal combustion engine, a technological marvel, the foundation of modern civilization.
I didn't know what to do with the carburetor once I took it off the motor. I fiddled around with the little flaps and springs, the washers and lock nuts, the little screws that need adjusting from time to time. I managed to replace it, with a few parts left over. After that, I used additives.
I started with the oil. Maybe the oil just needed a little "viscosity", which the "Flying A" label told me it would provide. I moved on to the chassis. "Penetrating oil" from Manny, Moe and Jack. Then the gas. "Increases the firepower of the fuel,” said the label. I thought, against hope that the additives would somehow give the little engine the kickstart it needed. The engine never did start. The go-cart went back to its place next to the garage. Eventually it went away; it just disappeared. My interests turned to basketball and girls. I forgot about the go-cart.
What was it with the additives? It gave me an excuse to invade my father's territory. It gave me a reason to ask for his help. It was my effort to crack the grimness on the face that was part of my father's generation. Actually, I didn't much care if the engine started up or not. I wanted his attention, his help with something neutral, in the middle between my raw emotional needs and the too-cool dentist.
I'm not forgetting that I had brothers and sisters, who probably had the same needs. I just thought, if I was thinking anything, that I could use the go-cart as a go-between.
I try to forget about the go-cart and the additives as I move away from the workbench and take a look at a pile of stuff in a little storage area off to the side. All I can see is old newspapers and magazines with a beer can sticking out here and there. A few discarded parts from one project or another, some played-out tools. I bring over the big trashcans, one for garbage, one for recycling paper, another for recycling aluminum. There are very many beer cans. Blatz. Hamm's. Lucky. Olympia. Pabst. Schlitz. I'm ruthless. I toss one thing after another into one or another of the trash bins. Suddenly I'm gripping cold steel, something yellow.
There it is. So that's what happened to the little yellow go-cart. It had been strategically placed by my father so that a layer of rubbish would obscure it, along with its memories.
My fingers grasp the tubular rail that runs from the engine to the gas pedal. It's surprisingly light; I remember it as being all I could handle just to pick up the front end. Now I'm lifting it out of its bed of trash and placing it on the ground. I get a broom and sweep off the dust. I get a rag, soak it with Flying A solvent, and wipe off the grease. So much for forgetting about it.
There's a box stuck between the seat and the engine. I wriggle it out. It's addressed to my father, from a McCullough parts warehouse in Indiana. I open the box. It's a carburetor. I compare it to the one on the go-cart. It's the same.
I'm stunned to learn that my father was paying attention after all. There's his name on the label, right above the address to his office.
I wheel out the go-cart through the door from which my father either did or didn't watch me try to fix the carburetor. I go back into the garage and get the old toolbox once again. I start with the gas tank. I disconnect the tank, take it out to a far corner of the yard and drain it. Out with the additives. The engine oil is more difficult. I have to push the cart back to where our dog used to take a crap. I tilt the cart, unplug the crankcase and let the oil drain onto the dirt. Forget about recycling. I refill the crankcase with clean oil, the gas tank with clean gas. Then I unscrew the spark plug, clean off the carbon buildup, set the gap.
I dig up the same tools I once used to take off the carburetor, and I take off the carburetor. I briefly look at the instructions in the box, and proceed to connect the new carburetor. I pull the starter cord. The motor sputters and a great cloud of black smoke explodes from the exhaust pipe. I pull the cord a second time. The engine sputters once, kicks over and suddenly it roars into life.
I slide into the driver’s seat. My knees are jabbing into my chin. Mom is looking out the kitchen window. I wave at her, open the throttle and drive through the open door into the garage, past the recycling bins and out the front door. I’m thinking I’ll take this baby for a spin around the block.