"Saturdays in the Garage"

By Jeff Owenby

I recall those special autumn Saturdays when rain soaked streets and chilly breezes drove us kids indoors. Amid autumn's spread of multi-colored leaves, frigid cold crept down my shirt collar like bony skeleton fingers. In the air, distant wood smoke from neighboring fireplaces scented the day with an autumn musk. Those chillier months when we played indoor games and spent blissful moments parked in front of the old black and white TV are portraits of better times.

One of my favorite memories was that of sitting around the kitchen table on a frosty morning with my dad and some friends who came over to help him with the car. This isn't a particular event, but rather a sketch from a larger painting of an era gone by. It was always something automobile-wise; Most of the time they'd be out there tuning up the chev, dropping the tranny on the ford, or putting a new drive line in the Merc. Guys with grease stained hands from their previous day's work sat at the table slurping coffee and smoking cigarettes. Mom made toast and eggs and more coffee, while the men talked about everything under the sun. These men were amazing to me; they knew so much. And as I watched them cut eggs with the fork and smear toast in the broken yolk, I felt like I was in the presence of some sort of greatness that would eventually rub off on me.

I scrutinized their every move with reverence and wonder as they spoke volumes of importance. Their topics of cars, tools, country music and politics were far off my young radar, but nonetheless fascinating. They'd flick their Zippo lighters then snap them shut again while drawing smoke from their Raleighs or Marlboros. At the table there was laughing and jokes about the inferiority of automobiles that were not their own.

As Mom made more breakfast for them, I'd hear the old metal toaster clicking away as the elements got hotter and hotter. The smells of toasted bread and fresh coffee from the percolator embodied the very essence of that small daylight kitchen. Often I imagined myself a grown-up part of this special unit of men that seemed so important and adventuresome. If it could've been so, I too would have been at liberty to share in the dialogues and possess the splendid gift of actually knowing what I was talking about.

My brother Kenny was usually involved when it came to working on cars. He was the oldest, and by this time had married and moved out. His stories were so epic and utterly inconceivable that his words became a story teller's yarn spinning out vast patterns of fabrication. Still, we all wanted to believe them even though so much adventure never usually fell upon the shoulders of one person so many times. Still, I was fascinated, clinging to every word. With my chin cupped in my hands, my eyes never fell from these heroes that sat at our kitchen table. After the story telling wound down, they made the sacred pilgrimage to the garage where cold tools and dusty shop lamps awaited.

I see them now with such clarity; heavy work booted feet perched one leg on top of the other; guys sitting back in the kitchen chairs expelling all they had to share before going to work. The same clothes they wore to work they wore on the weekend; these garments were more of a uniform than anything else. Outside the window, a cheerful morning sun glistened off wet grass trapped in a silvery web of November frost. Sun beams from the kitchen window threw rectangular stripes across the yellow Formica table.

Once the door closed I could still hear them talking. There was the occasional cussing when a wrench slipped, or jokes that I was not supposed to hear. My dad, who had a rather robust voice and laugh, was heard over the top of his friends on many occasions. I remember fondly heading out to the garage to check out whatever action there was. It's amazing, recalling how important and altogether intriguing their dialogues were. Often my only view of them was of various sets of legs sticking out from under a car parked on wheel ramps.

There were times when I'd be asked to hold the light for them, or to hand them a wrench or two. I'd grown up taking for granted that automobiles were always fixed, or tuned up by dads, brothers and friends. The idea of taking a car into the shop was not even an option in our household. Sometimes I can still hear the loud clanging echo of a jack handle hitting concrete, or that "darh-harh-harh-harh..Vrooom-Vrooom!" of a successful automobile tune up. I always felt a joyous resound as the men were laughing over their victory.

The smells of burnt gas and oil permeated the misty cold of the garage. The chill always remained but was tamed by the fellowship and laughter of friends who pitched in to get the job done. Armed with ratchets and wrenches, these men met yet another automotive challenge. The oil stains on concrete may still remain, but they are now the most precious of memories of those beautiful days gone by.