For years, I have kept a backlog of stories and anecdotes in the steel reinforced folds of the back of my brain. It is the place where my beliefs and certain truths hang out along with the fog of bad memories that can’t or shouldn’t be forgotten. Many of these sayings were put there by my father. Whenever I come upon and instance that cannot be undone or a tough problem that needs solved, I reach back there and pull one out to explain the situation away or to get me working on the task. Sayings like, “You can’t get all the oil out of an oil can,” and “Make potato salad chunky so that people can pick out what they don’t like.”
One of these certain truths is “It’s the last bolt that always sticks.” It is a saying that is part Murphy’s Law and part Bad Luck that has cursed my family for years. Or at least it did until a few weeks ago.
The summer break before my junior year of college had me living at home, roofing during the weekdays and going out just about every night. On this particular Saturday morning, I woke up from four hours of sleep with a bit of a hangover. Dad was calling for me to get dressed and ready to go. Sitting mostly up in bed, I remembered that Dad’s 1987 Reliant wagon had broken down on the 270 outer belt in Columbus and we needed to go up and fix it. I was needed as monkey boy and to drive the second car back.
As we drove up to Columbus, Dad explained that the alternator had been going out and it finally gave up on his way home from work on Friday afternoon. After he called mom to pick him up, he called the Columbus City Police to tell them he’d be back up the next morning to get the station wagon. They said they would not tow it.
To get to the station wagon, we had to drive past it on the opposite side of the road and loop back around at an exit. We parked and got the tools out. I stood around and half listened as Dad spoke of car engines in Korea and how back in World War 2 “the Japanese were awful bastards” and “they were smaller and would shoot you in the knees.” It was then that the family curse snuck up on us again. There were four bolts that held the alternator in place. And just like the last bolt or last screw or the last nut from times before, the last bolt was stuck. Dad applied force and more force. He Liquid Wrenched and tapped. He bruised the back of his hands and split his knuckles open. He pleaded and cursed. He went so far as to have me try to remove it. The last bolt was stuck. So we stood on the side of the road, taking turns at giving it one more try with dad lamenting, “Why does it always have to be the last bolt?”
And then, with a crack , Dad freed the stubborn last bolt.
And in that split second, the world was good and everything was going to be all right.
We took the part to a dealership and Dad asked how much a replacement would be. He laughed at the lady though the window, “You’ve got to be kidding?” The dealership cost was four times what it cost at the parts store in Lancaster. Dad was outraged! Dad was also not in a place to bargain. He paid for it and we left. In the car he said that he would install the new alternator, go back to Lancaster and buy a cheaper replacement and then return the expensive one back to the dealership. Clever!
As we drove past the broken down car for the second time that day, we couldn’t help but notice that this time the car’s front end was elevated and attached to a City of Columbus tow truck. Dad tried to roll down the window and yell, “No! No! No!” but at 65 mph it was impossible. We zoomed up and over the exit with dad’s incredulous mutterings filling the car with rage. By the time we reached the spot, all of the tow truck and most the station wagon were gone. We had left the nuts, bolts and tools sitting on top of the engine and some escaped through the bottom of the engine with the help of gravity when the tow truck pulled away. The parts lie there on the side of the road like a police outline of a dead body. The others were probably leaving a trail, like bread crumbs, around 270 and to the impound lot.
Dad was so enraged that he could not speak or yell. I didn’t say anything for fear of giving his anger purchase. Without a word he drove to a phone booth and called the police. They said there was nothing they could do, pick your car up from the impound lot and have a nice day.
We drove to the impound lot and paid for the car’s release and several fees. Dad mentioned that we needed to put a part in the car and the lady said that no work was allowed to be done on the lot and that we would have to pay to have the car towed off the lot and to the side of the road. Dad said, “Oh… no thanks. We’ll just drive it off and repair it.” As we walked out, I said that couldn’t drive it without repairing it. Dad flatly smiled, “We’ll see about that.”
Dad marched alone into the lot with a wrench and the new alternator, his pockets clunking with the escaped nuts and bolts.
And somehow, in less than eight minutes, he drove the mostly functional station wagon around to the parking lot. By some means, using the remaining parts and tools that had remained in cracks and crevices of the engine, he got the alternator partially installed, slapped on the belt and tightened it enough to get to the lot.
He spent a few minutes tightening the existing bolts and re-adjusting the belt. “That will be enough to get us home. Follow me.” And then we drove off separately together.
Fast forward (or go back in time) to three weeks ago. In a conversation with my sister concerning the welfare of my father and the deteriorating state of the home we grew up in, I had a revelation. The fourth bolt is NOT the one that always sticks. Sure it’s got a 1 in 4 chance of being the stickiest, but it’s usually not. What happens is that when I come upon something that creates a road block, I save it for last and do the easy things first. It might be subconscious, but in this case, if the first bolt sticks, I’d move on to the second. When I get back around to the first bolt, it is no longer the sticky first, but The Last Bolt.
And the curse was lifted.
There will still be sticky bolts in my future, but I cannot allow myself to think that it’s The Last Bolt or there by fate. When I come upon something difficult, I need to face it head on instead of moving on to the easier tasks.
These writings are not a backlash upon my father or his faults. He has taught us valuable lessons and shared with us endless stories (not all of them involving war and death) that have crafted me into the person I am today. But he has faults and it is time that I started to recognize these. By recognizing them, I can see them in myself and correct them before my children become engrained with them. From this story alone, there are several instances:
If you know a car part is going bad, don’t wait until it breaks before you fix it. The same goes for teeth and internal organs.
Get all the necessary parts together before you start a project. If you don’t know what parts, ask.
Be patient and follow directions. (That can of Liquid Wrench said to wait twenty minutes to allow it to work. Just about the same amount of time we hopelessly worked on the bolt.)
Cockamamie schemes cost time and money (Dad never returned to the dealership to return the high priced alternator.)
So before you leave these writings with a heavy heart, let me remind you that Dad never gave up. As much as it is a fault, he wanted to take care of his problems himself. When he was told he couldn’t work on the car at the impound lot, he bucked the system and fixed it. Proud and stubborn are strengths as much as they are flaws.
I still keep a backlog of sayings. My new one is, “Do your difficult homework first,” which I will impress upon my son and daughter through word and by deed. It sits right in front of “Last Bolt” which has since been un-fogged and reclassified as a good memory.