As a boy in the pre-internet early sixties, I became obsessed with unveiling the secrets of that inexplicably alluring object of male interest. I had a general notion of what transpired within: the rhythmic in and out motions, the frenzy of moving members, the rapid inhalations, the (hopefully) synchronized explosions, and in their wake, the murmur of exhalations. Yes, the inner mysteries of the internal-combustion engine sang their siren song, and I was powerless to resist.
And so, one fateful summer afternoon in a dark corner of the family garage, well out of sight of adults, I furtively removed my first engine cover. In detaching the final gate-keeper of the mystery, the cylinder head, I met unexpected resistance. My clumsiness and inexperience resulted in unnecessary pain. Blood flowed. The rite of passage had already exacted a price. Other sacrifices lay ahead. But for the moment, I savored the sweetness of success.
Crouching down, I gazed lovingly into the oily, shiny bore of the 3hp Briggs and Stratton lawnmower engine, which had yielded its secrets so reluctantly. Oblivious to my bloodied knuckles, I spun the flywheel endlessly, watching the dance of the now exposed enginealia. The abstractions of the Otto cycle were at last manifestly concrete. I was entranced and smitten.
The air of fitful excitement during the disassembly process eventually gave way to the somber reality of having to reverse my experiment. In my excitement, I’d quite forgotten the details of the teardown. Despite leaving a pile of surplus parts on the floor, I finally managed to get the mower running– minus the linkage from the governor to the carburetor.
I’d improvised an inelegant solution: a piece of twine tied from the spring-loaded throttle plate to the handlebar. Once this “fix” had been achieved, the mower required endless manual rev blipping, not unlike an attention-starved motorcyclist’s mount. My father and older brother conveniently (for them) refused to touch the nervous-tic afflicted machine ever again; I’d created an entirely unwelcome lawn mowing monopoly.
My mechanical shortcomings were at least partially due to a lack of mentoring. My father certainly couldn’t provide any guidance; a can opener taxed his abilities. So I sought out other males as surrogates. I found them in the house across the street, where the two teenaged-or-so resident sons had contracted a bad case of hot rod fever.
Their project was a sickly green 1952 Ford business coupe. It was a fundamentally curious beast; its body style traded off rear seat room for the kind of extended trunk only a Mafia hit-man could fully exploit.I hadn’t chosen well. These boys also suffered from DDF (Disinterested and Distant Father syndrome). For all the hot summer days and long summer nights spent in advanced auto-yoga positions under and within the ailing coupe, their results were no more distinguished then mine.
Occasionally, having brought the old Ford to a semblance of life, we would pile in. Progress was measured by how many blocks could be terrorized by the flatulent flathead until it expired in a cloud of steam or smoke or some other violent and unnatural event.While the boys failed to teach me the rudiments of automotive technology, they certainly stimulated my desire to master idiomatic English.
For example, I was intrigued by their insistence on prefixing every noun with the word fucken. In Tirolean dialect, the word means swine. I was familiar with the practice of combining word to create vulgarity (as in schweinehund). But the boys’ masterful and ubiquitous combinations– frequently aimed at reluctant pieces of metal– left me breathless in admiration.
One day, after they’d pretty much given up on the old Ford, I heard the strangely familiar belabored bleating of an old engine. Running outside, I was stunned to discover a clapped-out Lloyd Alexander sans muffler, stuffed with the sheepishly grinning wanna-be hot rodders.
I’d never forgotten the 600cc 26hp 2cyl Lloyd micro-car my godfather drove back in Austria. Seeing these Iowa beef-fed football players spilling out the windows and sunroof of the baby-blue Lloyd was as much of a car-out-of-cultural-context experience as my first glimpse of the ’59 Caddy back in Innsbruck.
The tortured Lloyd held up to their endless full-throttle joy-riding abuse for most of that summer. In the quiet hot nights, you could hear their un-muffled comings and goings half way across town, like a pesky buzzing fly endlessly exploring the house room by room. But one late summer day eerie quiet resumed, and I knew the fly had expired.
The Lloyd had been ditched somewhere near Burlington, an hour away. Some ten years later, driving down Hwy. 34 outside of Burlington, I encountered the unmistakable and immortal Lloyd again. It had been hoisted on top of a tall sign post for a wrecking yard. For all I know, it’s still there.