Brian’s Column: To Change a Tire

1: Ode to a onetime necessity and dimming rite of passage
Brian R. Wright

Note: These columns are a series, I will make into a volume of my memoirs. You may follow the links at top and bottom of page to go to preceding or succeeding episodes. {If the [Link to Episode <next>] at the  bottom of the column does not show an active hyperlink, then the <next> column has yet to be written.}

Let’s see if I can tweak the famous Jack London’s opening paragraph from his short story, “To Build a Fire,” to describe my experience this morning:

My fast is broken at Kerby’s Coney, ordinary fare, exceedingly ordinary, and I turn north on the Haggerty Trail, climbing the bank approaching Nine Mile, a rise where in the right lane- less-traveled sits obscured an Oakland-County spring pothole the size of a moon crater. Wrong pair of glasses, yet were it not for a brief self-excused glance at the watch, I’d have seen the damned thing and missed it by an inch to the left. Right tire hits the far edge, far up, at 40 mph, like a balloon on the blade of a dull butter knife. No worries, I have a jack, a spare, and instructions.

Okay, enough inspiration from Mr. Jack. Survival is not at stake, just a routine flat. The thing is, here in AD 2017 already, that I don’t even think to call road service. I’m a man, for chrissakes, tho of 67 well-tread years, and in this family of one we take care of our own problems, by golly! Just a routine change of a tire it is. Except for the extra effort, heavy breathing, and kneeling on pavement—I drive on the flat for half a mile into a CVS drugstore parking lot to do the work—in half an hour I’ve gone through the ‘to change a tire’ motions like a pro. [Yes, to answer some readers, I AM successful in this enterprise. “I may be dumb but I’m slow.”]

Note: the clipart image above is entitled “young good-looking man changes a tire,” I kid you not. And undoubtedly that’s the automated image I had of myself before getting down to it. Clearly, for self-preservation purposes, I need to to realize that those days are gone, and I need at least to pace myself.

My ride is a 2009 Mercury Milan, purchased last summer, used, and I have been totally thrilled with everything about it. Bad break this one. I know that I’m looking at at least a replacement for the tire, because I can see the two- inch slit in the sidewall. Turns out when the sidewall is damaged, at all, it’s illegal to repair and reinstall on the vehicle. But my thoughts immediately are more germane to the tire-changing experience:

When I cell to my lady friend about the interruption, she finds it remarkable that I chose to do the job myself, rather than call road service. Duh! Frankly, the idea of calling someone else to do such a “routine” task never occurred to me. Why?

For one thing, as a boy growing up in the 1950s, having your old man teach you how to change a tire was a rite of passage into teen-manhood. [I’m now recalling the fateful scene in the movie The Christmas Story, where poor Ralphie goes out to assist his dad after a blowout.]

I’m about 14, with my learner’s permit, when my dad draws me aside to practice on our 1963 white Chevy station wagon. Dad was totally Joe Cool in such matters, and Zen master of all the subtleties—e.g. when loosening or tightening the wheel nuts, you first get one started then move 180 degrees across to get another started, until all the nuts are loose (or tight), thus always keeping the nut-torque load as balanced as possible… or not jacking the tire fully off the ground until you can finger-loosen the nuts… having the spare close by to minimize time raised on the jack….

So I got pretty decent and even had to use the skill on my own from time to time in my prime years. You have to remember that from the 30s even into the 60s, a tire going bad was a common occurrence. Tire design has improved radically since the 1970s. Road damage remained a problem (from nails, debris, and pot holes), however, so you still needed to know how to take care of a flat on your own.

Keep in mind, that calling Triple A in those days wasn’t much of an option, even if you were in the city: you first had to find a public telephone to make the call! How soon we forget! People really didn’t start using personal cell phones until the late 1990s. For an illustration of how it was, go back and rent some of the old Rockford Files TV shows. Rockford was always having to climb out of his cherry-hot Firebird coupe to find a GD public phone, so the plot could carry on and, usually, dig him deeper into trouble.

That was then and this is now.

What I discovered is that I’m in good enough shape to actually do the job. [At the same time, it became clear that many of the guys in my somewhat former work-drink-and/or-smoke milieu, many a decade or two younger, some closing in on, well, the 300# threshold—all solid adipose tissue, too!—would very likely not make the grade. The pavement is rough, lifting the tires and wheels is tough, even loosening the wheel nuts—which by design are highly torqued—isn’t easy.] I was telling a coworker at my part time job that it seemed to me that changing a tire is rather a benchmark of whether you’re in shape… at least for a guy. To be candid, I’m aiming to be able to change a tire until I’m 90 years old; think of it as a personal fitness goal.

So on the eternal question of whether to call road service or do it yourself, I’m definitely Old School. At the same time, I believe I’ll call my local insurance company rep down the block to get that Roadside Help number. Just in case, the next time, I don’t need to impress anyone… or me either.

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1 thought on “Brian’s Column: To Change a Tire

  1. Rose is wRight: It’s a delightful read….. and …. I wanted to read more! I wonder how many other men in your age group have changed a tire in the last year, or even remember how. Thanks, Bri.

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