I feel sometimes feel like I’m a "patchwork quilt" of all the things I’ve received from other people. I don't remember anymore what's from whom. It just all blends together. The following is a story I’d like to share, as I reminisce one of my memorable experiences.
Although I was born in New Jersey, after college I lived in a lot of places because of job projects. Without doubt my 3 years living in New Mexico had the greatest impact upon my life. I was on a job assignment in Hobbs, a small town in the middle of the oilfield. The weather there can only be described as dramatic: when cold fronts came in, they could bring extreme experiences. It was impossible to miss the drama and beauty of nature in that place. Sometimes the temperature would drop from 70 to 30 in an hour, and it could snow 12 inches overnight. And then melt the next day. When tornados would blow in, the sky would turn purple and gray and black, and then finally green. I loved to stand out on my porch and watch.
In addition to my stay in New Mexico, I spent a lot of time on jobs in West Texas oilfield towns, sometimes for several weeks at a time. In the Winter I always brought my skis on those trips and often I'd drive the 350 miles up into New Mexico to the ski area I knew best, Sierra Blanca. The Mescalaro Apache Indians owned and ran the entire ski area . No frills, no guard rails on the road going up the mountain and back down into the parking lot. They never seemed to plow the road that well. Amazing how many new 4WD's you'd see way down off the road caught in trees. Many people don't know how to drive in the mountains. But the locals knew how to, and that's where I learned. I had a old 4WD Blazer. That's another story.
The skiing was great - the summit was past 11, 000 feet and new powder blew in almost every night, sometimes 8 or 12 inches worth, and it always seemed like most of the people skiing in this out-of-the-way area were really laid back and friendly. Nothing uptight as Vail or Aspen. The area, Sierra Blanca, was pretty unknown back then. It was a great place to ski and exceptionally beautiful country.
Now you have to remember being on a job assignment I'd be traveling alone. The owner of the company I was working with would often toss me the key to his chalet as I was leaving the office in Odessa, Texas on Friday night, and once I drove the 7 hours to Ruidoso, NM, I'd have his place to myself. Of course it would have been a romantic place if I hadn't been alone. I usually ended up fixing water pipes that had broken from the cold anyway, so I was returning the favor.
On one trip, while skiing during the day I hooked up with a group of 5 people from Dallas, I think it was. They were staying in this little town, at the base of the mountain, in a rented cabin. I caught up with them afterwards and hung out for awhile, even helped them build a fire in the fireplace of the cabin they had rented for the weekend. It was well worn, like everything else in the town. Their car had broken down the night before, and had been towed to a repair shop in town while they were skiing.
So here it is Saturday night in this tiny, rustic mountain town: half Apache Indians, the other half skiers. It's already near zero, the temperature is still dropping, it's snowing like crazy, and I'm with this group of Texans who had never been up in a place like this before. One of the girls had found the only repair shop that would answer the phone that morning, and the car had been towed there. Needless to say, they now had no idea where the car was.
So that night, everyone piled into my truck and we drove the 8 blocks to find this place (the whole town is only 12 blocks long). The address was just a garage door between two old connected row buildings. So in we go together, getting out of the blowing snow. It’s semi dark inside. And the place is incredibly old looking. But sure enough, there is their car. The hood is open, and there's this guy sitting up on top of the engine. The scene is surreal. Where do I start?<\r\nIt's dark except for some low light around in the shop, and a drop light hanging off the hood shining down onto the car's engine. There's a neon sign in the window advertising some kind of tires, but only half of it works, and the other half keeps blinking on and off, reflecting red light off the walls. There are a row of old tool boxes along the wall . . . you know, with seemingly hundreds of drawers, and every other drawer is part open with tools hanging out of many of them. And there's all sorts of parts and dismembered cars and snowmobiles and stuff all over the place.
And all kinds of more “stuff” is hanging on the walls, stuff that's probable been there for ever. You can see the cover of thick dust, even in the dark. And the place is old, really old, and has that bitter smell of grease and gasolene that's soaked into the floor for uncounted years. And the snow keeps blowing in between cracks in the windows and siding. And the only heat is coming from a pot bellied wood stove in the office with no door adjacent to the garage.
And this guy, the mechanic, well it was hard to tell how old he was. He looked older than he really was. But his hair was black and bedraggled, he hadn't shaved in a couple of days, and he was wearing an old dirty jump suit. But his eyes . . . he had a look in his eyes that he could see more, somehow . . . not spooky eyes, but well, his eyes somehow looked so much different than everything else about him. The moment I saw his eyes I knew there was something different about this guy.
Sitting inside the engine compartment, cross-legged, with the air cleaner off, he's poking down into the carburetor with a long screwdriver. There's a really strong smell of gasolene, because the engines’ been flooding gas within the carburetor, and this guy is sitting there with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth, and he has two cans of beer next to him on top of the engine. One is open, and he's taking swigs out of it every now and again. And the Doors are playing on a tape deck somewhere in the back of the shop. LA Woman.
When we walk in, he looks up, and without showing any notice at all of these 6 people walking into the shop, looks back down again. He's looking in an old dog-eared shop repair manual, and probing with his screwdriver into the gas soaked carburetor on top of the engine. These people are standing there frozen in a total daze, taking in this unbelievable scene, not knowing what to do next. Probably 30 seconds went by, although it seemed like 30 minutes, without anyone saying a word. Just then the guy lights up another cigarette, and says one word - "carburetor", and goes back to probing with his screwdriver again.
While all of this is going on - I couldn't help myself - I'm walking around in this (to me) fantastic shop checking out all of the “stuff”. The first thing I did was look at the tools hanging out of the drawers of his boxes, and some of the other stuff in the shadows on the walls. Mechanics do that when they go into another mechanic's shop - (I worked my way through college in a variety of ways . . . ) Nobody noticed I was off exploring around. But what I found amazed me - because many of the tools he had weren't automotive tools, but were specialized aircraft tools. This guy was an aircraft mechanic too!. . .Wow, I couldn't believe it! How did I know? - well I suppose I know my way around a lot of obscure stuff in life that unfortunately has no practical application.
Turns out these people had driven 1000 miles from Dallas several days before, and had broken down twice already on the way. Both times the mechanics had told them the fuel pump was bad, and it had been replaced both times. The second mechanic told them the first pump that had been changed had apparently been defective. Each time the repair bill was well over 100 dollars. Each time the car worked fine for awhile. But again when they arrived in town, the exact same symptoms started, and the car died again.
The guy that owned the car was becoming increasing annoying . . You know, the high strung, outspoken, know everything type . . he kept telling this mechanic it was the fuel pump again. The mechanic was totally ignoring him, and you could feel the tension building and that the car owner was about to explode. His voice was getting more and more shrill and high pitched. And I knew he was looking at the gas in the carburetor, and the guy smoking, and the two cans of beer, and this mechanic. And the thought that if he dropped his cigarette, the whole place could go up just added to the anxiety. What a totally surreal scene!
Finally the mechanic looked up a second time, seemingly in slow motion, and said again "carburetor". Well, that did it! the car owner totally lost it and yelled "I told you it's the fuel pump - can you fix it or not!?". The mechanic slowly looked up, with a look of both humor and disbelief on his face. But there was something else. . . in his eyes, it almost looked, to me at least, like a look of hurt. He said nothing. But that look!
I still don't know why, but I just blurted out "do whatever he says - if this guy can fix airplane engines, he can sure figure out what's wrong with your car!". Well, you could have heard a pin drop. Of course nobody else knew what I was talking about. But the mechanic suddenly turned to me, smiled, and reached down and tossed me the unopened can of beer sitting on the engine next to him.
He then proceeded to rebuild the entire carburetor right there on the engine. Apparently he had never worked on this particular model car before, but he found something similar in one of the grease and dirt covered shop manuals he had, and improvised, and jury rigged, and figured it out. And the car ran perfectly when he was done. All he said at the end was . . . "never was the fuel pump". And he looked at me and winked. He charged the Texans 50 bucks and off they went.
As I was about to leave, he looked at me and said "you saw the tools huh?". Then he said "stick around". I remember sitting in his office for an hour or so, on a couple of old broken office chairs, watching the blowing snow, drinking a couple beers and just talking. The Door's had faded into Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, of all things, still blasting away out in his shop.
He didn't say a whole lot, but what he did say was sure amazing. He had been a fighter mechanic in Viet Nam and now worked on corporate jets (apparently he was on call and sometimes went all over the country for special aircraft problems), but ran this repair shop on the weekends up in the mountains when he wanted to. And moreover because he wanted to. Apparently he'd fly his plane in from Texas on Fridays to the small Ruidoso, NM airport, regardless of the weather. We didn't talk much, just hung out and mused a bit about life.
This guy was brilliant and laid back - the kind who could do most anything. He could have been anything he wanted to be I was certain, a doctor, and inventor, a banker. But he was totally at peace. He was originally from a wealthy family in Connecticut someplace. But here he was in this worn out mechanic shop of another time, in this end of the world ski town, bypassed by most who didn’t know. With only a few dog-eared shop manuals, and his drawers of tools, this guy could figure out anything. He knew it. He was totally independent, he was confident, he was at peace. He knew himself. He had nothing to prove to anyone.
He was one of those special people, you know? I'll always remember that night. Life goes on, and it was quite a few years until I returned to that little town. Several times. And each time I stopped by that shop door in between the two old row buildings. But he was never there again. I always felt bad I never got to tell him he had touched my life. That he had helped me look at things, and myself, a little differently. Maybe someday I'll get back again.