Rural reminiscence: Memories of shadetree mechanics

By P.D. Dickinson
Summertime brings back lots of memories, not only those of working on the farm but also of the things teenagers used to do to pass the time.
Like teens of today with smartphones, texting and social media, we made do with what we had. To most teenage boys in the 60s, that meant mechanics. Skills learned from working on farm machinery coupled with innate talent made many of them veritable geniuses in mechanics.
In no time at all, they went from building bicycles and homemade motorcycles to building some of the most souped-up-sounding engines you ever heard turn over. Every penny they earned was saved and put into building their car or truck. They’d take on jobs with other farmers to earn extra money to finish their vehicles.
They started out with an old, junk car body and chassis, and then found a motor to drop in and work on until it would run. After that, it was all about building up a motor, transmission and rear end that would leave behind anyone who dared to challenge. Only after they got all the mechanical aspects like they wanted, did they worry about slick paint jobs and rolled and pleated seats. None of them had nice garages and  the term “shadetree mechanic” was quite literal.
Anytime you wanted to find a friend, brother or cousin and they weren’t working in the crops, they’d have their car or truck parked under a big, cool shade tree with their tool box sitting close by. You’d see the guy laying on the grass under the vehicle with only his boots sticking out, or bent over the fender leaving in sight only his belt and denim jean legs to his feet.
Unless you happened to catch them when they’d just gotten bathed, it seemed like they all perpetually smelled like oil, gasoline and transmission fluid. It wasn’t a bad smell; it was a smell of good, honest work. When they finished tuning up or adding something new to their rides — particularly on weekends — they’d bathe, shave, put on their best cologne and clean clothes. We all knew where they were headed.
After picking up girlfriends and “cruising” the fast food joints to show off their vehicles, they’d eat, go to a movie and head back to the country. Some of the guys would take their girlfriends home first, but others would bring them along to the neighborhood school’s parking lot. All the guys would line up their cars, raise the hoods and check out each other’s work.
After much bragging and appreciation, one guy would challenge another to a drag race. It was usually a friendly affair to see who had done the best job building their machine, or if a certain brand of parts seemed to work better than another. Then, farther down the road to “the quarter mile” they’d drive.
The quarter-mile was a stretch of straight road that had been meticulously measured and marked off years before. Everyone knew where it was and called it “the quarter mile,” even the adults. By this time of night or early morning, there was no traffic, but spotters sat at each end to watch for oncoming cars.
When the challengers lined up and received the “go sign” both jarred down on the gas, popped the clutches and squealed out on smoking tires to fly down the road as fast as they could.
Sometimes, in their enthusiasm to win, the guys would tear out a clutch or rear-end. On rare occasions, they might even blow up a motor. The other guys were usually good about giving each other a ride home or hooking a chain to the disabled vehicle. Many times within the next few days, when they weren’t working, they’d get together and help each other fix what needed repairs.
This humble beginning of working in mechanics continued with many of the boys into manhood. Mechanics still continues for many of them today through their livelihood and careers.

Leave a comment