Special to the News
Editor’s Note: This column is an excerpt from Paul Lucas’ new book, A Guitar Player on the Yukon Border. Lucas has lived in Atlin since 1979 and his book focuses on the work, the people, and the adventures of the North. This is chapter five in a 10-part series to run in the Yukon News every Wednesday this summer.
I fling open the door to my trusty Honda Civic. Trusty because it has remained stationary for the last several years, and it has managed to perform that task with exceeding reliability.
It’s last trip was ceremonial – a quick jaunt down my roller coaster driveway, a run around the neighbourhood (a collection of local cabins and houses connected by largely unmaintained washboard roads), and a triumphant return up the hill to its final resting place, all accompanied by the familiar sound of that dragging rear brake shoe and that tuneless whistling I can only presume is a leak in the carburation system. It now performs as a storage unit for bulk food, and it’s very good at it.
As I open the door, that old car smell hits me. It’s a good smell – a little oil mixed with a hint of antifreeze, gasoline, dust, rubber and the tang of old metal. It’s comfortable, and speaks of a history of partners – man and machine. My old 1972 Chev pickup had the same smell, along with every single one of my cars over the years.
With the exception of the pickup, which for one reason or another was called the Red Dink, most of my vehicles have had the same name – Nellie. I have talked to Nellie consistently throughout her many incarnations, mostly to encourage her to continue her sterling performance, to tell her how good she looks on a given morning, and to compliment her on her purring engine … you know … the important stuff that cements a good relationship.
“Yes, Nellie, an oil change next week, I promise.”
None of this works with a new vehicle. It just doesn’t seem appropriate. A new vehicle has the soul of a teenager. Compliments are coals hauled to Newcastle. Performance is simply expected, and produced without effort, and looks come at no cost. New vehicles sniff at you when you climb in. At least they sniff at me.
I hump in the huge bag of oats, hoping as I do, that there are no mice in the old gal. As I slam the door, I find myself thinking back to the first time I smelled that old car smell; or at least the first time it registered with any clarity.
I was a teenager, and mother nature, with the full support of thousands of generations of natural selection, was fueling endless waves of hormones that were coursing through my system day and night. I don’t remember being consulted on the matter, they just showed up of their own accord.
In any event, my friend Jamie and I decided to do something about it. But two young guys with questionable complexions and even poorer social skills needed a leg up. We needed a car.
Combing through the ads in the North Shore News, we found one that fitted the bill. It met all of our requirements, meaning it cost less than $100 and it had a back seat.
We ponied up the cash, climbed in and drove away – no plates, no registration, no driver’s licences, just a pair of hormone-fueled hearts pounding in our chests. We didn’t care that the square tires, having sat for months in a garage, pounded the tarmac; we didn’t care that the engine missed every few beats and a plume of blue smoke followed us wherever we went; and we didn’t care about the mushroom growing in the back seat; we were on our way!
We got it home, climbed out, stepped back, and took a good long look at our new passport to paradise. There it sat. A 1950 Austin A30. Black in colour. Mostly. Seedy, but all in all, a vehicle that could be seen on the road without too many questions asked.
Still, we had to do a little work to get it up to snuff. First of all, we needed to pump up those bald tires so the ladies wouldn’t get their hairstyles knocked askew by the pounding, and we had to find out why the engine was misfiring so badly.
We had minimal mechanical skills, but weren’t entirely ignorant. We knew it had to be plugs, points or wires. (Hopefully it wasn’t the coil or distributor cap, because we were entirely out of money). So we got to work, starting with the plugs.
Off came the spark plug wires, and out they came. With oily residue and carbon removed, we gapped them and popped those suckers back in, paying particular attention not to cross thread them in the process. Then we re-attached the wires and started her up.
Having removed the air cleaner to peer down the carburator throat earlier, there was no impediment to the ensuing spectacle. All of a sudden, a column of fire shot up through the carburator, driven by a misfiring engine that sounded like heavy machine gun fire.
“Shut it down, shut it down!” Jamie yelled.
I twisted the key, and the ear shattering roar ceased.
“Oh boy,” I groaned, “We must have mixed up the wires. I guess we should have taken out the plugs one by one. We have no idea which wire goes to which plug now. Let’s see; four times four is sixteen. There are sixteen possibilities. Do you think the neighbourhood can stand that racket fifteen more times?”
So began my dating life. As it turns out, the car didn’t help one whit. The ladies seemed unwilling to accompany us in our love chariot despite our pleading.
We thought it might be our lack of sartorial style, our unsophisticated approach.
Or maybe it was just the mushroom in the back seat.