This is a difficult chapter to write. How do you describe the complex emotions that arise between wanting to help your son and being oppressed by his obsession? Namely, cars.
The third time I went to Virginia Tech I ran into the wettest rain I believe I have every encountered in my life. It was Parents' Day Weekend, and Mary & I had gone down to visit Steve, who had started his freshman year in engineering there the previous September.
The first trip to Tech was when Steve & I checked out the campus while he was trying to make up his mind where to go to school -- basically he had narrowed it down to Virginia Tech or UVA. The second time I made the 267-mile journey -- one way, that is (& thought longingly of UVA as we saw the signs for Charlottesville when we were about halfway to Blacksburg) -- was when the whole family took him down and moved him into his dorm, met his roommate Scott & took another look at the campus.
As I mentioned, the third trip to Blackburg was a very wet one. Steve, in his infrequent letters, had used the term "Bleaksburg," but this was over-doing it! The rain came down in buckets. Then it would let up to a mere heavy drizzle & then come down hard again.
But it was a good visit, moisture notwithstanding. We met Steve's roommate again & visited with several of his other friends up & down the hall of his dorm. And I noticed that most of the guys called Steve "Coach." So I asked him, "Is 'Coach' your nickname?" He allowed as how it was, but when I pressed him on why, he mumbled a bit and sort of evaded the issue.
So I asked Scott, "How come you call Steve 'Coach?' What's the story?"
"Well," he replied, "it's simple. He orders everyone around; and he calls everybody by their last name."
Hmmm. Yeah, I guess that's Steve. After all, how many guys call their Dad by his first name. I don't know when it first started, but mostly around home it's "Larry, hand me that wrench" or "Larry, when are you going to get out on the carport and help me?" or "Larry, you said you were coming right out to help fifteen minutes ago!"
And I guess he does try to order me around. "Larry, come on . . . get out here & help me with the car." A very familiar-sounding phrase.
"Larry, when are you going to get out here and help me?" Yes, we've heard that one, too.
"Larry, drill this washer to enlarge it to a three-eighths-inch hole please." (At least I've taught him to say please. Though it was difficult.)
"O.K. son, as soon as I've finished setting the table," I'd reply. And his response: "But can't you do it now?" or "But, Dad, I need it now! If I don't press you, you'll never get out here on the carport with me!!"
And, "Dad, you were supposed to be out here fifteen minutes ago. What are you doing?" O.K., so I was watching the ball game & it was cold outside & I really didn't want to hold the dadratted wrench . . .
As you may have gathered, Steve is into cars. Since age sixteen -- actually it was well before his 16th birthday because getting Dad to give him driving instructions was priority one (for some reason, he didn't want to practice with his Mom -- I think it was the patience factor -- or lack therof). Anyhow, I'd take him down to Rolling Valley Mall & we'd go in & out & around & down & around the different lanes in the carpool parking lot adjacent to the Mall on Sunday mornings after he'd come back from church.
Sometime that summer or fall of his sixteenth year Steve bought his first car -- a '76 Chevy Monza with a 305 V-8 engine. Bronze color. Hot. Lotsa poop. Loud mufflers. His own money.
And I remember one day a year or so later -- I think it was during the winter of his seventeenth year -- Mary I were in the basement and Steve & his buddy Mike McCarron, the frenetic one, came down & they presented this impassioned argument (I called it convoluted reasoning) on why Steve really needed two cars. ("I mean, what would happen if my car broke down? How would I get to work?") I laughed -- ha, ha, ha (that's the echo of a hollow laugh, for several months later -- sometime in the spring before he turned eighteen -- he showed up with this dark green '68 Mustang fastback). Bought with his own money, so I guess I couldn't -- or didn't -- say anything.
Then shortly thereafter, he began the operation to turn this servicible, if old, car into what I have come to call "The Beast." He took the perfectly good 302 V-8 engine out, put it on an engine stand he had bought -- & left it there on our carport for five years! (Mary was not happy -- & so indicated from time to time in unmistakeble terms, like "How long is that thing going to be on our carport?!?") It occurred to me on more than one occasion that the motor had been there longer than the Russian space station had been aloft -- it went into orbit about the time the 'Stang took up residence on the carport -- but then it came back down; & the car & the engine stand stayed put.
Now getting the motor out was easy. Getting its replacement in was not. Steve had purchased a 427 from a fellow about 60 miles away in Maryland who rebuilds engines.
For those among you not conversant with engine sizes -- as was the case with me at that time -- let me just say that a 427 is a humongous engine. (A fellow at work, Batch -- Charles Batchlor was his name -- put it in perspective for me once. "Larry," he said, "how big is the engine in your Maxima?" "Well, Batch," I replied, "it's a three-liter engine." "Well," he responded, "that 427 refers to four-hundred-twenty-seven cubic inches." And then he did something with his calculator. "And when you convert that to metric, it comes out to a little over seven liters!")
Putting a huge engine into an ordinary-sized engine compartment can present a lot of difficulties. Steve found them all.
I remember the header problem. Well, not exactly, but I remember that there was a problem -- a big one -- that basically involved formulating a complicated twisting motion to fit a curved object into or through a curved space, neither one of which were meant for each other. But one day, voila! It went in. Then a week later had to come out because some adjustment had to be made, so that whole process had to be repeated.
Which was the story of the car. Like he found the right front strut was twisted -- evidently the car had been in an accident -- when he was trying to put in the front sway bar. So he bought a new strut & some other pieces that went with it & once he got that in, he found that the sway bar he had previously installed now interfered with the oil filter. (I never knew what a sway bar was, but I guess it makes the car go around a corner better & I will admit the 'Stang corners pretty well.) So, o.k., to solve the sway bar we'll move the oil filter; put on a remote oil filter. And, as long as you're doing that, why not put on a dual remote oil filter? I mean it's a big engine, so it will enhance the performance. Yeah, sure . . .
Once I said to Steve, "Why don't you just get the standard piece?"
"Dad," you don't understand," he replied; "on this car there's no such thing as standard!"
There were crowds of young men out on our carport every night. Some came to work & help, others just to gaze at the engine & make car small talk as teenage boys are wont to do. Carport light on till all hours of the night, radio going with rock music, roar of engine racing --once he got it in & going; it's a wonder the neighbors didn't call the cops (thank goodness the Kelly's were tolerant folks).
Anyhow, there the gang of them were -- hyperkinetic, cocky Mike with his strong hands, needed for wrenching off nuts; "Easy Ed" Hodapp, whose calm demeanor & knowledge -- he was a year older & basically knew what he was doing -- kept things on track. And Steve "tool wrecker" Mark, the impatient, smart one.
And then there was the day he finally got it cranked up. The big monster turned over. Only to find that there was a water-and-oil problem. That is to say, there was water in the oil and oil in the water. Not a good situation. Many experiments, frustrations & phone calls to the engine builder. Finally, the problem was identified as the wrong kind of gasket -- either too stiff or too flexible -- and that had caused the leakage. Solution: Tear the engine down, insert the new gaskets, put everything together again & -- aha!! -- no leak! It runs, it runs!!! A full-bodied beast ready to roll up the road!
I often thought, once we finally got it going, that I was fortunate that it took so long, because Steve matured from a youthful seventeen & eighteen-year-old when he started to a twenty-one-year-old when he finally got it running. And, with all that power, he probably would have killed himself at if he'd gotten it running sooner when he was younger.
But well before this, sometime in August 1986, just a month before he would be leaving for school, I looked out at the boys working on the car & suddenly thought to myself, "They're not going to get this together before he goes off to Tech."
Which meant that it would just be sitting there on the carport.
And I guess it was at this point that I began to help out -- mostly grunt work, but some innovative things, too, like the clamps that held the radiator in place. Which, as I recall, failed somewhere out on Shirley Highway one day & the fan chewed the hell out of the radiator & my high school friend Dick Mann, who was living in the area at the time, came over & helped Steve with the soldering needed to repair the damage.
Steve amazed me sometimes. He would drop the crankshaft like at the drop of a hat. For me to undertake such a project would entail possibly weeks of study & preparation -- I mean, I'd want to see how I'd finish before I began. Not Steve. Ah the confidence of youth -- or whatever.
In describing how it is to drive the 'Stang, I tell people, "Hey, you have to be real, real careful how you press down on the footfeed; if you don't, you're liable to get whiplash!!"
Somehow, the throaty rumble of that engine as it idles churns up deep memories of a primeval teenage past & the thrill of the throttle of a high-powered car that lurks below the surface in just about any man.
And even though I'm not what you'd call "old" (well, I'm not what I'd call old), it does make me feel a little younger to cruise down the road, windows down, stereo blaring to some rock stations, about 50 miles an hour, & then gently press down on the throttle & feel that baby step up to 65 like you'd floorboarded some other car. Uhhmmh, uhhmmh. Oh yeah, baby.
But I just say, "Well, I just took the pony out for a little exercise." Yeah.
In Southern California (I learned that "Southern" is capitalized in "Southern California" when I was there for the exotic Newcastle outbreak in 1972) when the surf is rolling & things are moving, they holler, "Surf's up!!" Well, things are different here in northern Virginia around the Mark household (- - hey, let's make that Northern! Virginia). And there's another term to denote "action." So when I come home from work when Steve is home & the carpool drives me down Landor Lane, I watch & as soon as I can see what's happening, I'm usually able to yell, "Hood's up!!"
Which basically means my son's home & is busy working on the car again.
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