The more things change…

On any given Saturday in the 1970s, my father would be fixing something on the car. He wasn’t necessarily a gearhead - he didn’t work on the car for kicks, only for repair jobs. Typically he would find out during Thursday’s supper what needed fixed that week.

“The car’s making that clanging sound again,” Mom would say.

My father would pick at his potatoes. “What kind of clanging?”

“Like clickclickclickclick when I turn the wheel.”

“Clicking or clanging? You said clanging.”

“What? oh- sort of a click-clangy thing,” Mom would say, before addressing me. “Give your father your leftover potatoes.”

So that Saturday, by the time I came up after morning cartoons, Dad would already be underneath the car. I never really knew what he was doing under there. From my nine-year-old vantage point, he was just a pair of legs, knees to feet. Every fifteen minutes or so a curse word would float up from underneath the car, after he banged his thumb or stripped a bolt or got rust in his eye. Occasionally he would work for hours and come up for air, grabbing at a tall glass of iced tea that was always stained with greasy fingerprints.

Sometimes I’d get to help. He’d invite me to lay down on the grimy mechanic’s blanket, scooch under the car, and threaten my life with dire warnings about even touching the carefully-placed jack. Like most nine-year-old boys, though, ‘helping’ usually meant being the tool caddy. “Hand me that 5/8ths. No, that’s a 7/8ths. The 5/8ths!” he would say. “There! Right by your hand!”

‘Helping’ also meant that I often got to accompany him to the parts store. We’d enter the freezing cold store, stride up to the counter, where Dad would start fingering through the catalog until the rep came over to him. “What can I do for ya?” Gotta replace my rocker arm. “What type?” Ford. “Model?” Brougham, Ltd., 1971. “No problem. Got ‘em in the back.” Then dad would pay, and take the change and buy us both a Pepsi - if I had been good.

Times are different now. Cars are made to last forever. When they do break, it’s often something that’s too complicated for a weekend mechanic to fix. Even my father, who spent a lifetime of weekends on his back, staring up at the grimy rust of one car or another, now prefers to take it into the shop. The mechanics hook the car up to a computer and instantly diagnose the problem. No trial and error, no unnecessary trips to the parts store, no guess-timation. A computer doesn’t tell you that the car is “click-clanging,” and give you a list of possible problems. Just drive in, hook it up, and there’s your problem, Mac; that’ll be $150.

Computers and advanced technology have made so many things easier. Kids nowadays don’t have the same experiences I did. I often wonder if they’re missing something that people of my generation shared.

I was thinking about this just last Saturday, while I was installing a new router on my home network. My wife had been complaining about some sporadic problems with the old setup, so on my day off, I crawled underneath the desk, through the spaghetti strings of computer cabling, to access the back of my primary PC to see if I could figure out the problem. My six-year-old crawled beside me, and I threatened her life with all the dire warnings of what could happen if she even touched the surge protector. “Pass me that ethernet cable. No, that’s the USB. The ethernet!” I instructed. “There! Right by your hand!”

After some fruitless tinkering, I gave up and decided that it was probably time to go ahead and make the upgrade to wi-fi. So I threw my six-year-old in the car, and headed to CompUSA.

“What can I do for you?” Gotta replace my router. “What type?” PC. “Model?” Wi-fi, 802.11b, g. I paid up - and yes - I took the change & bought a Diet Coke for us to share on the way home.

It’s amazing what can change in thirty years.

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