Though I am an Apple user—phone and laptop—and happy with both, the tepid response to the latest Apple dog and pony show left me feeling a bit of schadenfreude. The digital revolution is pushing other technologies into the grave, and like a lot of people, I mourn that—in the way, probably, that an ardent lover of the old clipper ships resented the arrival of coal and steam. Something was being lost. Something beyond the mere ships.
From a recent Washington Post article, one learns that
Americans drive fewer miles per year—down about 9 percent over the past two decades. The percentage of 19-year-olds with driver’s licenses has dropped from 87 percent two decades ago to 70 percent last year. Most teens now do not get licensed within a year of becoming eligible.
As a police officer and driving instructor, interviewed for the story, says, “I don’t see kids who know what’s under the hood anymore. A lot of them don’t even know how to open the hood.”
The Post article attempts to explain why this should be so, and the explanation comes down, as it so often does these days, to Facebook:
“The automobile just isn’t that important to people’s lives anymore,” says Mike Berger, a historian who studies the social effect of the car. “The automobile provided the means for teenagers to live their own lives. Social media blows any limits out of the water. You don’t need the car to go find friends.”
An old friend of mine, now dead, spent nearly six years in North Vietnamese prison camps after his A-4 was hit by a missile over Haiphong. He was tortured and locked in solitary, and when I got to know him, it was still painful for him to talk about that part of his ordeal. But in the late stages of his captivity, the brutality slacked off and he had cellmates. He didn’t mind so much telling me about that part of the experience. In some ways, in fact, he relished it.
The big challenge, he told me, was coping with the boredom, and one way of doing that was for a man who had some sort of expertise to share it. There were “classes” in all sorts of things. Men taught each other foreign languages, history, even such exotics as opera, cooking, and wine tasting.
The class my friend remembered and wanted to tell me about was in auto-mechanics.
One of his cellmates was a gearhead before he became a fighter jock, and he knew everything you needed to know about cars and pickups and how to fix them and get them running right when something went wrong. There was nothing about an internal combustion engine that intimidated him.
So my friend asked if he could study and learn under him and have the mysteries revealed. He dreamed, he said, of how when he was, at last, back in the United States, he would buy an old step-sider pickup and take it completely apart, rebuild it, and then keep it running like a sewing machine, using hand tools and his own know-how.
The man who knew cars drew diagrams and schematics—as close as he could get, anyway—on the floor of the cell and set out to identify the components of the sort of engine that is now extinct. The kind, that is, that had a carburetor and distributor. He identified each part and explained its function and how to fix it when it was broken. My friend made mental notes and invented rhyme schemes to help him remember what he needed to know. There was a lot to remember, but then they had plenty of time.
Eventually, the Paris Peace Accords were signed and the POWs came home and my friend went out and found the step-sider he had been dreaming of. He bought it and had it delivered to a garage he had rented. And there, he went to work.
“I took it all the way down to the bare block,” he told me. “One slow step at a time. And when I had all the parts laid out on canvas, on the garage floor, I inspected them to see which ones I’d need to replace. And when I got them, I started cleaning everything up and then putting the engine back together.”
When he got stuck, he would call his former cellmate, who would talk him through the steps.
“It was easier than I thought it would be,” he said. “I suppose I didn’t realize how much I’d actually learned in the Hanoi Hilton.”
After a few months he had his rebuilt truck ready for the road.
“Best drive of my life,” he said.
The rebuilding of that truck had, I suppose, been therapeutic for him, though I doubt he would have used the word. The way he explained it, he had been reaching back to a time when he was young, in high school, and while boys he knew were learning about cars, he had been playing sports.