Thursday, October 18, 2007

Me, Shade Tree Mechanic

So Monday evening, there was this big puddle of fluid under the rear of my wife's Jeep Cherokee.

The jeep is an older machine, we bought it new a year after we were married - it was our first major purchase together. The red paint is a little faded nowadays, but it's always been a great vehicle. We've put nearly 300,000 miles on it traveling literally to every corner of the continent, from Florida to Maine to Alaska to Maryland and out to Southern California and finally back to Alaska. We've pulled our trailer and carried our canoe on the roof through the Bad Lands of South Dakota, across Maine's Golden Road from Dover/Foxcroft to the Down East Coast, the entire length of Highways US95, US10, US5 and 101, and the Queen's Highway across the length of Canada. It's started reliably in -40F weather north of Fairbanks and plowed through grill high snow crossing Soldier Summit in the remote Yukon. Like a mule, it climbed surefooted 4000ft up up the glare ice covered road out of Haines into the Chilkoot when other vehicles couldn't move, and done the same in 113F heat to the observatory on top of Mount Palomar in Southern California. I've used it to skid logs and pull 1/2-ton 4x4 pickups out of the ditch. There's not much on it I can't fix, and have over the years. It's gotten a little small for us in recent years, with the kid and the dog and etc. Nowadays I drive a GMC crew cab, and my wife mostly only uses the Jeep in the winter, when we've put her Mustang Convertible away. But it's still in decent shape, and I'm certainly not used to finding a puddle under the rear end.

Hmmm, says I to myself, that can't be good. I had just changed the oil last weekend, and my first thought was maybe I hadn't tightened down the new filter or oil pan drain plug properly. But in that case the puddle should have been under the front of the jeep. So what the hell was this?

Brake fluid. Double plus ungood. The left, rear brake cylinder seal had failed. Brake fluid was draining out through the hub and all over the garage floor. Oh yeah, says my lovely wife, the brakes have been acting funny lately. Oh really? How odd.

Now see, I hate working on cars. I can do it, I just don't like it. I love tools and especially woodwork. Working with wood is clean. The smell of cut wood is something I enjoy. Woodwork is my Zen. Cars? Filthy, oily, smelly mess even in the best of times. And no matter what the problem is - it's always in some impossible to reach spot on the vehicle, where even a four armed, humpbacked chimpanzee would have trouble getting it's hands into. And no matter how large my toolbox is, auto repair inevitably require some kind of special gizmo that I don't have. Always.

So I figured to hell with it, I'll just fill the brake reservoir and take it in to the shop. Great idea, until I got a couple of estimates over the phone and couldn't find a place to do the work until next week, late next week. Palmer is a small town, there's not a lot of options, and I sure as hell didn't want to drive it any further than that. Sigh.

So yesterday I pulled it into the shop and pulled the rear brakes. What a mess, the usual road muck and caked brake dust mixed in a slurry of hydraulic fluid. Nice. Front disc brakes I can change out in an hour, but rear drum brakes? Ugh, special tools, springs and cables and weird little doodads put together by some demented automotive engineer. Who designs this stuff? Seriously? Do they get paid more if they design a connector that instead of a simple standard cotter pin uses three springs, a flange, and a unique retaining pin that can only be purchased from NAPA? And requires a special spring compressor tool, 3 hands, and an arcane combination of cursing to remove? And it's positioned in the most inaccessible recess on the brake support assembly where it is impossible to position a worklight so you can see the dammed thing? What the hell is it with these people?

Wright's First Law: Engineers should not be allowed to wander around the universe without a keeper.
Wright's Own Corollary to Wright's First Law: All engineers should have a large burly assistant, with a mallet, who stands behind the engineer and stops him when the design complexity exceeds common sense.

So, anyway, I eventually got the brakes pulled. In the process I bashed the knuckles on both hands and additionally managed to nearly brain myself on the under carriage when a bolt let go suddenly. Ended up with a scraped forehead and a goose-egg, wonderful. I cleaned the various parts up using my grinder's wire wheel polisher. Degreased the mounting assembly. Made a list of the parts I needed, brake shoes, drums, hydraulic cylinders, new brake lines (hey, if I've got to do it, I'm dammed well going to do a complete overhaul) and etc. And headed into to town to NAPA. And the first question the guy behind the counter asks? What size drums, 9 inch or 10 inch?

WTF? Why? Why? Why, would there be two different sized brake drums made for a 1992 Jeep Cherokee Laredo? Why? What possible Goddammed reason could there be? Or course I hadn't measured them. So I had to run back home, measure the drums, and then go back to the auto parts place. Argh!

Wright's Admonishment to large burly Engineering Assistants:
smack the Engineer with your mallet occasionally, for no reason at all.

Eventually, after a third trip to NAPA, I got it mostly done. This morning I've just got to install the new brake lines, fill and bleed the system, and test it.

Test it. As in go drive around the block and test the brakes. So, if you don't hear from me, it's because I screwed something up. But, not to worry, I almost never do that. Almost.


  1. I'm completely with you on the, "can do it but don't like to" category of mechanic stuff.

    I try really hard not to do it at all, for the additional fact that if knowledge of my wrench-turning ability were to leak out -- I'd be fixing every little problem my Mother-in-Law has on her jalopy.

    I don't even claim flat-tire changing abilities, but tend to do my own in the cover of night. Or, you know, just don't tell anyone I did it.

    Also, being in Alaska, I'm sure you can agree, all cars break when there's snow and wind about. I've never had a puddle under my cars in the summer. Ever. Murphy and his friggen laws...

  2. Quit your bitching. The thing's lasted 300K miles, you have to expect to tend to it occasionally.

    It could always be worse, you know. You could be related to Dick.

  3. You could be related to Dick.

    You should meet some of my relatives. Dick might be a step up.

  4. Hey, I am totally respecting that you are repairing the vehicle instead of buying your wife a case of brake fluid and telling her make sure the resevoir stays topped up. (Tania is having flashbacks to John's '66 Volvo)

    "Honey, I don't get paid to work on your car."

    Can you tell I'm married to a mechanic? Too bad I'm not more local, the spouse has all the specialty tools you would need.

  5. I can hear him reminding me - "EX-mechanic" - he's good at working on cars, but hates working on them for all the same reasons you do. However...I need to check my calendar, I think his IM and ASE certifications are coming up. It's always good to have a fallback position!

  6. Good news, I'm alive. Good news for me anyway (although Becky will probably be pissed that she missed out on my insurance payment, again). That's my acid test. I lived through it. That's why I never bitch about my time in Iraq, I figure if I made it home alive, everything else is gravy after that.

    The brakes work perfectly. Woohoo!

    Tania: First issuing orders of any kind to my wife, but especially, car maintenance orders, is a sure way to get a dandy assortment of bruises in interesting places. I don't recommend it. Second, if for some reason she did follow said orders and attempted to fill the brake fluid reservoir, well, let's just say that's a good way to end up with window washing fluid in the radiator. She's a beautiful, brilliant and clever woman, but things under the hood are not her forte. She grew up with two brothers who think the height of fun is working on cars, she never needed to know this stuff. Now she has me, and today, she has my truck. Tomorrow, she gets the Jeep back.

    Janiece said Quit your bitching. The thing has lasted 300k miles.... Janiece, for a Jeep, that's just getting broken in. I fully expect to get another 300k miles out of it. Then, in true Alaskan fashion, I'll probably make a fish smoker or something out of it, something that looks good rusting in the front yard.

    And I'm with Shawn on not advertising my abilities, only for me it doesn't work. I've got a big shop, which is heated and drywalled inside. People just show up, especially in the winter, and ask me to fix things. I've done plumbing for neighbors, fixed the Scout Master's spare tire rack, and done woodwork for half the people in Palmer. Hey, it's nice to be needed though, I kind've like it.

  7. Hmm... it's probably a good thing none of you mechanically inclined people are anywhere near me, otherwise I'd be showing up unannounced to have you look at my Saturn. ;)

    As for me, I think I'm doing pretty good just knowing how to replace all the components in the color laser printer at work.

  8. MWT, one of the systems I used to work on had a DEC cluster based, networked 4-color, thermal wax transfer, Tektronix hi-res "printer." You talk about a nightmare, changing the wax transfer film drum took two guys a couple of hours. And since the printer outputted classified material, the old films were highly classified. So they had to be destroyed, but they couldn't be run through the shredder/disintegrator because the film would melt and destroy the machine. So they had to be burned, in a big metal bucket. But the film didn't actually burn it just melted into a ten pound gooey mass, so it had to be mixed with paper and wood chips and kerosene. I'd really like to meet the engineer that thought adding that piece of shit to our system was a good idea.

    Oh and did I mention that it cost around $30K. Yeah, your tax dollars at work.

  9. I'd really like to meet the engineer that thought adding that piece of shit to our system was a good idea.

    I'd really like to meet the hammer-wielding engineer's assistant that let him add that POS to your system. As the veteran of hundreds of "burn runs," I have come to detest, with a mad passion bordering on uncontrollable rage, the use of cellophane based media for classified material. Grr.

    Pass the hammer!

  10. Hey! Tim the Tool Man Taylor, I’m with Janiece, quit your bithching. Could be worse, I could come up there and fix your brakes, remember mom and dad’s garage? I know you like woodwork; but do you really want to rebuild your garage?

  11. That last comment was from my brother, Mike.

    He is referring to a fairly infamous incident from our teenage years, one that both of us enjoy bringing up whenever possible. He had this old POS truck (Ford F50, wasn't it, Mike?), that the brakes only sort of worked on. He used to coast up the driveway and into the yard between the house and garage, if he got the speed right he'd stop without having to use what was left of the brakes. One day he came barreling into the drive a little too fast, and as he rounded the house realized that our mom had parked her brand new (literally purchased that day) car in Mike's usual spot. Without brakes, he had three choices: 1) use the new car as an emergency stop barricade, 2) go through the house, or 3) go through the garage. Mike has pretty dammed good reflexes and in a split second he chose the garage. But wait, it gets better. At the earth-shattering sound of a truck going through exterior siding and 2x4's, mom, dad, and I all jumped up from the kitchen table and ran outside to see just tail lights sticking out of the wreckage (we knew what happened even before we got outside, that's just the way things were in our family). Just as we arrived on scene, there came the sound of the engine revving as Mike threw her in reverse and backed the hell out of the collapsing garage, dragging what was left of the wall with him. Hysterical, utterly fucking hysterical. Dad didn't think so, he was on the verge of a stroke I seem to remember, but that made it even funnier.

    Next day, Mike patched the garage up good as new. His a dammed fine carpenter. He's also a dammed fine auto mechanic, which would figure since his day job is as a dammed fine Air Force aircraft mechanic. But no matter how many years it's been, not much beats that incident - unless it's the time he got the tractor buried to the seat on the beach, or drove the tractor through the barn door (or maybe that was me), or the father's day with the goat, the cop, and the pouring rain, or the time the two us rolled the Blazer onto it's side in the ditch, or ... uh, nevermind.

  12. Man, some people get all the fun childhoods.

  13. "thermal wax transfer, Tektronix" - Ha! Washing Machine! I used to use those. Old boss back then used to collect those rolls from us when we changed them, and then roll the out to see if any of us were cheating by printing out our own personal color designs.

    Another old boss called me on the cell phone to say she found a puddle of bright green under her hood and what she should do about it. I said she should drive right to the dealer/repair shop (she was two blocks away at the time), watch the temp gague on the way, and have them check the radiator. She didn't believe me. A week later she's doing major overhaul at a very high cost. It was a Jeep as well.

  14. "Puddle of bright green"

    Hmmm, can you say "water pump?"

    Yeah, Jeeps don't run long without one of those.

    Did I mention that the Tektronix was in a mobile system? There are few piece of computer equipment I hated more than that thing. What a piece of shit. It didn't even make that good of images.

  15. I'm with MWT, some people get all the fun childhoods. Your brother seems to be pretty smart in addition to having good reflexes. He chose to damage the one he could fix least expensively. Bravo!
    I have a good friend who has equally colorful childhood stories. He grew up in rural North Dakota with two brothers. Something about boys in the sticks seems to generate the best stories. How else do you beat the boredom?


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