It was an unseasonably warm day in late fall when Fred heard the heap clatter its way up his driveway.
Fred considered himself a moderately competent shade-tree mechanic. He could tell by the sounds that the vehicle was an old-school, rear-wheel-drive V-8. He didn't know exactly how he could tell, but he could.
Prying himself out of his recliner, he looked out the window that had been opened to let a little bit of breeze through the house. Damned if it wasn't a '78 Chevy pickup.
"Its just like yours, Granpop!" Owen exclaimed. Owen was Fred's sixteen-year-old grandson.
Well, really, it wasn't. But Fred was not going to rain on his parade.
"Let's see whatchya got" Fred said as he slowly walked around the heap.
Owen knew Granpop wasn't much of a talker so he stepped out of Fred's way and kept his lip zipped.
Fred walked around the heap twice, noting chalky paint and sun-crazed tires. At least it hadn't been hot-rodded by a kid...at least not recently. Still, an engine that had been sitting had its own issues.
"Pop the hood and start it up" Fred commanded.
Owen hastily complied.
The engine radiated a cacophony of complaints.
Fred grunted and frowned. Then he stepped a bit closer.
Fred had firm opinions about trucks. He believed that anybody who owned a truck had an obligation to maintain it to a certain, minimum level. In his mind, that minimum level was that the owner should be able to hook up to a 4000 pound trailer at a moment's notice and drag it from San Diego-to-Caribou and only have to add gas.
Leaning over the engine, Fred saw that mice had been in the compartment and that every rubber part needed replacing.
"Get the stick" Fred commanded.
Owen dashed into the garage and brought back the hockey stick, i.e. the Canuck Stethoscope. With the precision of a thoracic surgeon, Fred held the paddle against his left ear (his good one) and the tip of the handle against various parts of the engine.
It was excruciating for Owen to watch.
Looking over, Fred noticed that Owen's face mirrored his own. Owen frowned when Fred frowned. Looked surprised when Fred looked surprised and so on. The germ of an idea sprouted in Fred's head.
Then Fred beckoned Owen to step up to the fender of the truck. Fred handed Owen the paddle end and then Fred touched the engine in more than a dozen places.
Finishing, Fred told Owen "Shut it down."
"What did you hear?" Fred asked. Fred was a big believer in the Socratic method. Knowledge is not what you put into your head but what you can pull out of it.
"I dunno" Owen said. He was clearly less happy than when he first pulled in.
"Sort of a rattling in the front cover. I guess that is the timing chain cover" Owen said.
"Lots of ticking from the valve covers, especially in the back, and grinding sounds from the A/C compressor" Owen concluded.
"Start it back up" Fred commanded.
"What else do you hear?" Fred asked.
Owen shot him a sideways glance. Owen looked confused.
"Forget about the stick for a minute. What do you hear right now that doesn't sound right?" Fred asked.
Owen listened for a minute. "Whistling?" he ventured.
Fred reached out and put a thumb beneath a hose to a cruise-control actuator and the whistling stopped. "Leak in the vacuum hose" Fred informed him.
What would make the timing chain cover rattle?" Fred asked.
"A stretched timing chain" Owen said. He was on firm footing here.
"How about the ticking from the valve covers" Fred asked.
"Collapsed lifters or worn tappets" Owen said.
Fred nodded his approval.
"You know, once you get this pile of junk running half-way decent you can take girls out on dates" Fred said.
The grin that split Owen's face suggested that the thought had already occurred to him.
"Something you gotta know" Fred said "is that girls and boys are different, and I don't just mean the plumbing."
Owen looked confused by the switch from talking about engines to talking about girls.
"Ever notice how Granma talks a heap more than I do?" Fred asked.
"Yeah" Owen said.
"There is a reason for that. Just like I kept listening in a bunch of different places on that engine, 'talking' is how wimmin figure out what makes people, men, tick. Just like when we were probing and poking at that engine for twenty minutes. "
"You are gonna find it frustrating until you learn all you gotta do is watch their face and smile when they smile and frown when they frown...just like you were when I was checking out that engine." Fred said.
"That all?" Owen asked.
"Nope. You gotta know when you are in trouble and when you actually gotta tune into what they are saying. Most of the time they aren't asking for your help or 'splaining. They just want you to sorta listen." Fred said.
"They talk because that is how they feel 'bonded'."
"The other thing is that just because you have a problem doesn't mean you gotta get rid of them. Like those lifters that are ticking. First thing we are gonna do is change the oil and replace it with high-detergent oil. Then we are going to run it until it is hot. Then change it again. Two, maybe three changes of oil is cheaper than gaskets and a lot safer than cracking open an engine if we don't have to."
"Same deal with your girl. Whatever hurt her feelings might be simple to fix and you might as well try that first."