Let’s try a multiple choice quiz: You are at work and the phone rings. The Mrs. reports that the car broke down. She will need a ride and the car will need a tow. So, what do you do? (A) Pick her up and call a tow truck. (B) Pick her up and call a friend or relative to figure out how to get your car home, or (C) Pick her up and tow the car home yourself. The first part, picking up the Mrs. is, of course, never negotiable. The rest, however, makes me think of where we are heading as a society.
I faced this very situation recently. The wife was driving my car for the day. I knew that there was an issue with it that would need attention at some point, but believed that I would have more time before it became a problem. Wrongly, I now know. Honda Fit owners, get those rusting axle shafts replaced sooner rather than later. Fortunately, the car transitioned to an auto-nonmobile about 200 yards from my office, so I was on the scene quickly. It was at this point that our ways of thinking diverged.
The Mrs. suggested that I drive her home and then go back and wait for the tow truck that we would surely need. Being 200 yards down a low-traffic street from my work parking lot, a tow truck never entered my mind for even a nanosecond. Because I own a tow strap.
The yellow braided tow strap was a gift from my mother after I bought my first car in 1977. I am not sure why she bought it, but it must have seemed like a good gift for someone who was always working on his car as a teen. I broke it in a few months later when I was out with my friend Dan in his family’s five year old Dodge van. As we drove somewhere on the eastern edge of Allen County, the recently replaced water pump failed (fairly spectacularly, with lots of noise, violent vibrations and finally a massive steam cloud.)
“OK” I said to Dan, “I guess we had better call your Dad and see how he wants to get the van back home.”
“The Hell” was Dan’s reply. “I am not going to listen to him asking me why I couldn’t take care of this myself.” So we called my sister who drove my car out to where we were. We hooked my yellow tow strap from my 10 year old Ford Galaxie convertible to the disabled yellow van. I put the top down for the best view behind and sis sat in back to be my spotter. The experience was like pulling a water skiier with my father’s boat, only the skiier weighed a lot more. It took about 90 minutes to go from one end of the county to the other, but we got the van back to Dan’s house without incident. Easy peasy, and the kind of adventure that every teenager lives for.
Coming back to today, would I expect any of my own children to “just handle it” as Dan’s father so clearly expected? Even though each of my kids is intelligent and resourceful, I would not expect this for a minute. I would expect a call from them and we would then bring the car home together. And I suspect that this is a lot more of this kind of experience than most other millennials would get. But is the difference a generational one, or is this more peculiar to my specific background and upbringing?
My mother grew up on a farm, so fixing things for yourself was ingrained into me from a young age. It was my Grandma who taught me to how replace an electrical plug. Mom tells a story about when she was backing the family car out of a narrow garage and did not wait for her sister to close the car door. The door was bent up to the fender and the car was wedged solidly in place. She walked to the house to tell her father that she got the car stuck in the garage. His only response was “well then get it out.” And she did.
My father was no different, though he could not have come from a more different background. He was a city boy whose father could barely change a light bulb. I learned how to solder a sweat joint in copper plumbing and patch drywall by watching my father. Or more accurately, learning along with him as he put a new skill to use for the first time. He knew that he was no less intelligent than the average plumber or drywall finisher and saw no reason why he could not get a workmanlike result with a little trial and error.
Neither of my parents was inclined to work on cars, so I sought out other adults who were not afraid to change spark plugs, replace universal joints in a driveshaft or solder a leaky radiator, and who were generous with their time, advice and tools when I first tried some of these things on my own.
I do not mean to imply that I never “call the man”. Although I sincerely believe that I could replace a broken axle shaft in my car, it is January and I have too many things to do at work to devote a day or two on my cold, hard garage floor busting knuckles and learning new words. As an old law partner of mine once said to a tradesman, “you fix the broken thing and I will go and be a lawyer and try to stay ahead of you.” As I have accumulated age and miles, I have tried to draw a line between “hobby repairs” (that can be put off until a warm day when it can be a fun diversion) and “emergency repairs” (which must be done NOW, no matter what the weather or circumstances.)
But even some “emergency jobs” are so elemental that I just cannot bring myself to subcontract a pro. Like when I can squint and see the place where the disabled car can be put until I can get it in for repair. And because I own a tow strap.
The Mrs. (who is not without her resources) was quickly recruited to drive the tow vehicle while I managed the dead one. In just a few minutes the job was complete and we went about the rest of our day. My eldest son and I repeated the operation the next evening when we got the car to the mechanic about a half mile away.
I read something recently about how members of the Millennial generation are quite lacking in many elemental skills necessary for real life. I don’t know if this is true, and suspect that perhaps most of them did not have the benefit that I had in learning by watching someone older. Or maybe they are less interested in such “old school” skills, preferring to become more proficient at other things.
In either case, I like to think that most of them will reach the point where they are ready to get a little dirty if for no other reason than to save money better spent on too-expensive lattes or artisinal something-or-other. Life is still all about tradeoffs, just like it was in 1977. And if getting a little dirty happens to involve something like moving a disabled car from one place to another in my general viscinity, I might be persuaded to help out. After all, I own a tow strap.
I am reluctant to assign millennials any judgment for lack of life skill just yet. Because after all, it was the late Boomers and Gen Xers like me who raised them not to have those skills!
My dad wasn’t very good about teaching me to do things he knew how to do. He wasn’t a patient man when I was small, so the few things he did try to teach me were most unenjoyable to learn from him, and the rest he didn’t teach me because he knew it would be most unenjoyable for him too. And yet I figured most stuff out as I needed it as an adult.
Except sweating pipes. No thanks. I’ll call a plumber for that one.
You raise a great point about parent-child dynamics and how they affect the ways knowledge is passed on. Either a highly interested kid or a parent with exceptional patience and teaching skills can overcome the deficits of the other. But where both hew closer to average, many skills don’t get passed from parent to child.
I’d pretty much have done it the way you did. Last time we had a breakdown (blown brake line on the Focus) I came down for the rescue and was all set to drive carefully home on the handbrake until I saw the cop car waiting up the street. Nope, this time it’s a tow truck.
An additional obstacle to learning self sufficiency is having a parent who is good at it. I ask my 16 year old son if he wants to help fix the car and he says no, but I remind him that later when it’s his car and he is paying someone $100 an hour for something he can learn he might change his answer. I am having more success getting assistance from my 13 year old daughter, she has a curious personality.
I for one like sweating pipes, once I’d messed it up a few times and learned how to do it plumbing is kind of fun and relaxing. Although like most self sufficiency activities I am very careful, methodical, and slow. If the mistake is coming slowly maybe I can see it before it gets here.
All true. My eldest was never all that interested in fixing cars until it was time to fix his own.
As Mrs. Jason alluded to in the FB comments, we take care of ourselves pretty much all the time. When I killed the computer on her Buick (never let O2 sensor wires touch spark plug wires, just saying) and it started running like crap, she called.
Now, many wonder why everyone in the Midwest (it seems) has a pickup. Here’s why: I show up, assess the situation, call the rental place, and fifteen minutes later I’m pulling the coughing Buick onto a car dolly. A ten mile trip back to the house and – voila – problem solved. The car dolly cost like $20 for a few hours versus how much for a tow truck? Plus I could pull the Buick at 55 mph.
I also install my own whole house humidifiers, change timing belts, replace intake manifolds, and work on electrical stuff. Sweating pipes is a hit-and-miss proposition. It all boils down to not wanting to feel defeated and being a cheapskate.
Plus, don’t we get a charge out of tangible accomplishment? I get so little of that at work, it feels really good.
As an American kid growing up abroad, I was often told about the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” self-sufficiency of the average American. Although your other commenters are obviously a skilled and handy lot, I do find myself wondering what happened to that mythical Jack-of-all-trades. Did prosperity make us lazy — or make it more economical to outsource our chores? Did our homes and machines become more complex? I don’t know the answer, but you have me wondering whether I should take a community-ed class in car repair. Great post.
I think all of the things that you mention contributed to the downfall of the fixit mindset. Today, those who do these things for themselves seem to be two groups: those who can’t (or won’t) pay for a pro and those whose day jobs provide little in the way of tangible accomplishment on a day-to-day basis. I usually fall into the second group, but occasionally find myself in the first.
Me, I still want to learn to weld.
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I want to learn to weld, too! I don’t think there’s a welder on this planet who would take my klutzy self as an apprentice, tho.
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Read “Shop Class as Soulcraft” by Matthew Crawford, then take something apart just for the heck of it..
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What a wonderful recommendation, Doug — I’ve just ordered a copy, and have identified a candidate for dissection. I’ll send you the spare parts that will inevitably be left over when I reassemble it, if you like …
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Great, just send the parts with Jim. I’ve got lots of extra parts, they come in handy sometimes.
I am tooled up for both gas and electric arc welding, it’s fun. I could hold a class for you and JPC but they probably wouldn’t let me over the border with the equipment.
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