I do not consider myself mechanically inclined, but I tinker. I'm not a handyman, but I can research and apply like nobody's business.
In short, I know just enough to get myself in trouble.
I was blessed with a father who can do -and has done- nearly anything. I know every son says that about their father, but usually, such pronouncements stop about the time a child reaches legal drinking age.
I passed that exit a long time ago.
My first car was a 1967 Chevy Impala SS (props to those who realize Milo Tucker and I have more in common than I'll usually admit) that cost a whopping $100. The low price tag brought with it a bevy of mechanical opportunities, but thanks to my Jack of all Trades paterfamilias, most of those repairs usually only set us back the price of parts.
I learned a lot watching Dad lean over the fender and rummage around in the engine compartment. It was during these sessions that my father revealed The Words of Power (women reading this may be scratching their heads in confusion, but all the fellas understand). All I'll offer as explanation is this: There's a reason your father/husband/boyfriend curses like a sailor when doing anything that requires a hand tool, or when the car won't start. You may think we're simply losing our temper, but we're actually invoking the universal powers that govern all things mechanical.
Ask your dad if you don't believe me.
Mystical abilities aside, the most important thing I ever learned from my father was the equation A+B=C, and its corollary, A=C - B. This lesson has nothing to do with arithmetic, but its application has saved my ass more times than I can count.
The trick is to find, then correctly identify, the value of A and the value of B.
I watched my father stare at an engine, or a section of drywall, or an appliance, and didn't realize his calm contemplation was the hardest aspect of the job. Sometimes, he'd trace a line, or a wire, or a board, with the tip of a screwdriver; sometimes he'd rock back on his heels and light a cigarette. It took many years for me to understand that what appeared to be indecision was, in fact, the most important part of the process.
He was finding A and B.
As an adult, I utilized this talent for years without fully appreciating its Genesis. At it's most simplistic, it aided me in my early years of computer studies, allowing me to grasp the concept of "If/Then" faster than most of my BASIC programming classmates. If this, then that, and so on, and so on, and so on.
Currently, the equation is easier to solve than it was during my formative years, thanks wholly to the Internet. To me, the glory of the Information Superhighway is contained in the amalgamation of mundane minutiae.
Or, the collective wisdom of all the Dads in the world.
The other night, my wife informed me one of my headlights had burned out. On my '67 Chevy, five bucks and a tussle with a screwdriver would have corrected the problem. I stopped at the Parts Store the following day and bought a new bulb, dropping four times the cash in exchange for one-fourth the hardware.
I asked the clerk if headlamp installation was part of their service paradigm, and after he finished scratching his ass, he told me not if it meant removing the battery to reach the headlight assembly. Now, as an automotive layman, I took his statement as proof that battery removal was necessary for lamp replacement. Popping the hood when I arrived home seemed to confirm the hypothesis; modern engine design has put even the simplest repair beyond the reach of the casual tinkerer.
I mentioned this to Dad, and while he was sympathetic, he seemed unconvinced. He was also concerned that disconnecting the battery might wreak havoc with my car's electrical system. I agreed, but didn't see any other option; there was a big block of molded plastic, lead and acid blocking my access.
Then, I remembered the equation.
I fired up the laptop and put my Google-Fu to work. The first link to appear directed me to a home-made video detailing the steps necessary to changing a headlamp. I clicked it and was rewarded with a three-minute tutorial designed to piss off any certified mechanic looking to score a $90/Hr labor fee.
Two screws, a yank, and a twist. Lather, rinse, repeat. Ten minutes to success, and I didn't even get my hands dirty.
I called Pop with news of my mechanical success, and we spent the next twenty minutes extolling the virtues of online information. It seems he's got a problem with his riding mower, and he's been Googling possible solutions. I realized this was the modern equivalent of tracing wires with the tip of a screwdriver, or rocking back on your heels and lighting a cigarette.
The conversation also served to confirm my father's position as a Jack of all Trades. Here's a man who recently celebrated his seventieth birthday and never went to college, but he's taught himself to Google with the rest of us.
That's the lesson I'll carry with me forever.
That, and always try the cheap fix first.
But Then Again, You'll Have This . . .