Dirty Hands and Cool Old Dudes

We had to have our boiler serviced yesterday and today. One of the pumps that pushes the hot water through our radiators had failed and was blowing a fuse and shutting down the burner. We were without heat Monday night but it was thankfully a mild evening and we fired up our wood stove and kept cozy. A new pump and five hundred plus dollars later and we are all fixed up, hopefully until next year’s annual service call.

Larry, our service guy is an old-timer, sixty-eight years old with white hair and beard and a thin, wiry build. I honestly can’t say whether he has a full head of hair, for as long as I can remember, he has always worn a baseball hat, khaki with little structure or style and decorated with some unmemorable logo. His worn and wrinkled hands are permanently stained with black and the pungent smell of oil on his clothes wafts through the air when he moves. He has driven the same white van, trimmed in rust and unadorned with any advertising, for the twenty years he has been working with us and probably longer. On cold days he wears a khaki barn-style jacket, old and dirty and frayed around the seams and pockets. He doesn’t own a cell phone and still uses his land line phone to contact his accounts.

But he is a skilled serviceman from an era when more men knew how to fix shit. An era when more men knew how to work with their hands and understood machinery and weren’t afraid to bust up their knuckles cranking a fused nut off a rusty old bolt. As a guy who has become only moderately skilled at these kinds of tasks, primarily because I’m too cheap to hire most repairs out, I envy the talents of guys who can fix shit.

Larry told me at the most recent annual service call a few months back, that he had semi-retired but was keeping a small number of accounts that he enjoyed working and that he would continue to service our boiler as long as he could. He moves slower than he used to and his handwritten invoices, sloppy and difficult to read twenty years ago, have become even more and more illegible. My guess is, his decision to continue servicing our house has more to do with the fact that most heating and cooling equipment these days probably requires a Ph.D. in Computer Science, and that ours is still a piece of machinery he understands.

Someday Larry will have to retire completely but until then, he is honest and trustworthy and reliable and friendly and quite frankly just a cool old dude. I’ll call on someone like that any day of the week.

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A close friend of ours passed away somewhat suddenly last week. Another shining light in this world that for whatever reason, had to burn out too soon.

Mike was not someone we saw regularly, just several times a year and certainly not enough, but we’ve known he and his wife for close to eighteen years, ever since our two daughters had ended up at the same day care center back when we were all brand new parents struggling along without an instruction manual. He was an honorable man, genuine and friendly and loving and very funny and the most wonderful husband and father a family could ask for.

He could tell a story and make people laugh like nobody’s business.

And he could fix shit.

Mike had made his living as a highly skilled Ford auto mechanic until debilitating back pain, likely from years of lifting and bending over car engines, took its toll and he had to stop working full time. In the years after, he continued repairing cars and other small engine machines in his home-garage, as the pain permitted and he often did work for us on our cars when repairs were necessary. His invoices were handwritten on grease coated scraps of note paper with more detail than any modern day auto shop would ever provide.

As our kids grew into teenagers, for both of our families, schedules became more and more hectic and those repair visits became some of the few times each year that we would see each other. Yet, as close friends are able to do, when we would get together even after a long span of time, conversations happened, jokes were told, stories were shared, time was spent, as if it had only been days since our last visit. Those are memories that my wife Kim and I will hang onto and cherish.

************************

As I spoke to Larry today, I thought about how similar he and Mike were, old-school guys, educated not at some prissy, rich-kid liberal-arts college like myself, but at the school of hard-knocks, where the admission requirements were a commitment to learn your craft, work hard and live a productive, honest and meaningful life. Where baseball hats and flannel shirts, worn leather work boots and black-stained hands took the place of preppy sweaters and letter jackets and polo shirts. That’s a school that’s just as hard to get accepted into and an education as equally relevant as any.

If there’s a silver lining to any of this, it’s that Mike is no longer dealing with the devastating pain that plagued his life for the last several years and with that, his close friends and family, including Kim and I, are able to find some solace. But as when anyone close to you passes away, its hard not to dwell on what the future would have held for him; to be able to watch an incredibly bright and talented daughter going off to college, perhaps some grandchildren, peaceful days in rocking chairs with his wife on their front porch… and that quite frankly he would have been just a cool old dude.

As the clichés say, “the world works in mysterious ways” and “only the good die young.” As difficult as these days are for so many, life will keep moving forward, though just a little less brightly than it was several days ago. Like an old Ford driving down a dark highway with one headlamp burned out.

But as Mike would want it, with the dawn of a bright, sunny new day just over the horizon.

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24 Comments

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24 responses to “Dirty Hands and Cool Old Dudes

  1. I wish I could fix things. This has always felt like a glaring omission from my manliness resume but I didn’t know anybody who could teach me to fix stuff either.

  2. I’m sorry you lost your friend, Steve. He sounds like an amazing man. Such an eloquent and beautiful post and tribute. Honestly, I believe that people who work with their hands are some of the most content people. I often wish I could do stuff like that, fix things. Whenever I do yard work or help build something (like our deck), I feel productive but also calm and happy. I am having quite a bad week with death too. My close friend’s son died suddenly at the age of 21 and honestly, it’s shaken me up to my core. Death sucks.

  3. Al

    Very nice post about a segment of society that gets less than due credit. I am pretty much a neophyte when it comes to working with my hands, but given plenty of time I can usually make the fix. Problem is, there’s rarely plenty of time. So I rely heavily on fixit guys (and gals). Now, of course, at my age with back problems it’s most of the time.

    These folks are always ready to do the dirtiest and toughest of jobs. One case in point. Our pest control technician noticed during an inspection that our crawl space was pretty cluttered up with weathered paper wrapped around the pilings, inviting insects. He said he could come on a Saturday (of a holiday weekend) and clean it out for us. He asked $25.00. I told him to go for it. After over an hour of mucking through our no standing room crawl space he pulled out not only reams of paper, but also an old broken boat engine that a previous owner had put under there for some reason that escaped us both. He was covered with dirt and dust. I gave him $100.00. He’s now in my fixit hall of fame.

    Sorry to hear about the loss of your friend.

    • I’ve sort of found a balance with the time thing. Yes, ultimately I can end up figuring out a lot of things but it might take me 10 times longer than a professional. When we were renovating I did a ton of the work and it probably took countless more hours than had I hired it out. But now I can look at the old recycled wood floors, the tile in the bathrooms, the wainscoting on some of the walls and say, “hey, I did that!!” Good for you for paying that guy what he really earned!! We’ve done that before too and its always appreciated.

  4. A very nice tribute to good men.

  5. Larry sounds like my husband, great at fixing things, except that because of my husband’s job, he is sent to school to learn about all of the computerization that has now been integrated into the machinery he runs and does maintenance on. Poor fellow had to go to a 6 day class the other week, and I think a lot of what was taught fried his brain. Thankfully, on the job, if something goes wrong in that arena, they have techs who are brought in. But as Chief Engineer, Hubby is supposed to at least be familiar enough with the electronic side of things to be able to open a book and do some troubleshooting. If he had a job working for himself, I have no doubt he’d be much like Larry. And I’m so very sorry for the loss of your friend. May he rest in peace.

  6. Dying sucks. We are all racing against the clock unless completely oblivious to it. I used to be like that. With all the death we went through last year, I am so over it. I’m sending positive vibes to you and your family!

  7. Nice tribute to the ‘hands on’ working man! We need more people like this – which is why I am a big fan of Mike Rowe’s Works Foundation: http://profoundlydisconnected.com/

  8. Nicely written and a great shout out to those guys who are old school, no matter their age. *smile*

  9. What a great way to memorialize your friend. I certainly hope you had his wife (family) read your sentiments.

    I love “cool, old dudes.” I always had a man in my life that could fix shit. My stepdad was mechanical and always had grease up to the elbows. Always “mickey-mousing” the VW bug. Engines apart, the boat, the mini-motorhome. My best friend’s dad owned his own auto-repair shop. Between those two guys in my young life, I always had a reliable car without a price tag to go with it.

    Flash forward, my hubby doesn’t necessarily work on cars (newer cars aren’t the same- more electronics), but can get stuff done when needed. He just prefers not to, but he’s mr. fix it at the house. He won’t pay someone, I’ll read online and figure it out. (has saved us lots in home in repairs) and it looks better than if we paid someone who didn’t care to do a good job.

    You have to admire those men. Each generation there seems to be less, just like there are less women sewing, and cooking, etc. You want me to make a costume? What? I’ll pop a frozen pizza in, and we’ll run to the Costume store.

    • Your husband is a smart man because you can find instructions for literally ANYTHING on youtube these days. I won’t touch cars either, too much going on and too much on the line, but I like house repairs and renovations. I’ve done stuff that twenty years ago I’d never believed I could tackle. Most of it isn’t that difficult, you just have to be brave enough to get started!

      • And be willing to be stumped, redo, etc. See, I love that he’s upgrading our condo to be sold. Now, he’s had practice on bathroom tiles, laminate flooring, tiled flooring, some counter top, custom shelving, drywall, painting, wood work, etc. He’s learning so when we buy our next place, he’s honed his skills. 🙂

        Of course, he might be so sick of it all … we’ll just keep it as is, until the next time we sell?

  10. I remember a line from an old episode of Roseanne, when Dan asks her what she needs him for, and she answers, “Because you love me and you can fix stuff!”. There’s definitely something to be said for a man who is handy.

    I have a boiler too, and cross my fingers every year when it’s time to crank it up that I will hear the whoosh of the burner!

    • It’s funny, I went back and forth whether I should use the proper name “boiler” or call it an oil burner so people would sort of know what I was talking about! Ours runs all year since we heat our hot water for showers, etc. with it too, so we know pretty quickly if there’s a problem! Thanks for stopping by!

  11. “life will keep moving forward, though just a little less brightly than it was several days ago. Like an old Ford driving down a dark highway with one headlamp burned out.” This is a wonderful image and comparison.
    I’m envious that you have someone like Larry around. Skilled and not afraid to skin up a knuckle. He’s a rare one.

  12. Very nice post. Thumbs up to all Great Men

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