Steering into the skid

"Get me a quarter-inch open end and a three-eighths open end," came my father's voice from under the car in the driveway where he lay on a creeper as he worked on the hydraulic lines that led from the transmission.

Earlier he'd taught me about basic mechanical hand tools; what the difference was between a box-end and an open-end wrench, how a Philips-head screwdriver differed from a blade screwdriver.

After all - what good was a gopher if he didn't "go-fer" the right tools?

My father had discovered a few drips of oil on the driveway earlier, and because they were red, he knew it was ATF, or automatic transmission fluid. He pulled the jack out of the garage, lifted the front end of the car and then slid two jack stands under the front suspension. With the car safely supported, he got out the creeper and slid underneath it.

After a close examination of the car's underside, he'd decided where the slight leak that was oozing oil was, and hoped that, with just a tightening of that line, the leak would be taken care of.

When I had returned from the garage, after getting the requested wrenches from out of the red drawers of his gray Craftsman toolbox, I was always surprised that he could just look at a nut or bolt and tell what size it was. He never missed. Just one look and he knew a seven-sixteenths from a half-inch.

Years later, after he'd passed on his old toolbox to me when he'd greatly expanded his collection of tools, I'd still have to grab a handful of wrenches that were about the right size when I was working on my own cars. After a few tries, I'd find the right wrench to use.

Years before I was ever even thinking of working on my own car, I'd watch some of the neighbor kids as they'd toss a ball around with their fathers. We didn't. I don't think he was ever really that interested in baseball or football anyway, and consequently, I never developed much interest in those sports either.

When I was only a kindergartner, I can just barely remember the braces that he used to wear that were attached to his shoes. Like so many things, my father had eventually willed and worked himself beyond needing the help of the braces.

My father had been extensively burned in England during an aircraft refueling accident in the midst of WWII. There were long weeks that he spent near death over there, and then even longer months in a very frail condition once he was transported to the burn wards at Walter Reed Hospital in Bethesda, Md.

The recovery from his burns and then the physical therapy he'd endured had been long and painful. He had many skin grafts. You cannot imagine a worse injury than a burn.

The loss of large amounts of skin is not only painful - it also opens the body to infection. My father was, quite literally, one of the very first of only a handful of patients to re-ceive manufactured penicillin before D-Day.

The time my father spent in the Washington, D.C.-area military hospital did have one bright side. He met my mother. She was also a burn victim, having been in a fire at Cherry Point, N.C., where she was a woman Marine. In a few years, they had me and Ron, my younger brother.

My grandfather had previously owned a garage in Cincinnati, which he had unfortunately lost during the Depression. My father had been around automobiles and mechanics most of his life. In 1954, he traveled to Detroit to accept a job Chrysler was offering in their service division.

We soon learned that working for a large corporation, and expecting to move upward within it, was a lot like being part of the military. We got to see the country because transfers kept the family moving. From Cincinnati, Chrysler then sent us to Chicago for 364 days - one day short of a year. The next move was on to Los Angeles.

One day in 1956, when Ron and I had returned from a trip to nearby Disneyland with our nextdoor neighbor playmate, we found our father working on something that was still in pieces. Parts were spread all over the garage floor.

"Wha'cha workin' on, Dad?" I questioned.

"Remember that Popular Mechanics I showed you back in Chicago?" he asked. "The one with the little race cars on the cover, and how I'd told you maybe we'd get one when you wanted me to buy that neighbor kid's Soap Box coaster? Well, you kids'll have got a racer when I get this thing put together."

We joined the community's Quarter Midget Racing Association (remember, this was southern California), and whenever my father was home for the weekend, one of us would get to drive in that Saturday night's races.

Ron won the first race he was in; I managed to spin out on the little dirt track quite frequently. Neither one of us was all that successful.

My father would often take me along on Saturdays as he would drive to visit various Chrysler dealers around his territory. As I watched him drive, I learned quite a lot.

One day, we were sitting in his Chrysler 300D at an intersection waiting for a break in the traffic so he could pull onto the main road from the side street. A break appeared, and as he pulled out, he crossed a stream of water running down the gutter. The rear of the car started to step out in a skid, but my father nonchalantly steered into it, caught the car, and we accelerated into the opening in the traffic.

So that's how you do that, I thought. That lesson became extremely valuable after we moved to Detroit and I was faced with driving on slippery ice and snow.

He is also a very smooth driver. Pay attention to what's happening a block or two ahead of you, he taught me, so you don't have to make any sudden moves. He's got two or three big trophies from the old Mobil Gas Economy Run to prove that's not only the safe but thrifty way to drive, too.

Also, being involved in the automobile business, and then the racing end of it, he's introduced me to many personalities who are now referred to as "legends." My first ride, in 1961, in a Plymouth Valiant was down a twisty canyon road with Ak Miller behind the wheel. Miller won the oldest race in the country, the Pikes Peak Hillclimb, eight times and held many speed records at Bonneville. Richard Petty, AJ Foyt, the Unser brothers, Cotton Owens and a host of others were regulars in the world I lived in when I was still in high school.

The bond between my father and me grew even stronger after I had my accident. When he'd visit me in Harborview, it was his experience that told me it was all right to break down at times. Something we now share are the memories of what it's like to spend months in a hospital.

So Happy Father's Day, Pop. Thanks for being such a good teacher and showing me how to live.

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