It was unquestionably broken. No doubt about it. Looking away then looking back hadn’t improved the situation, nor had closing my eyes and wishing really hard. The basement floor where I stood was still covered in splotches of a black viscous substance secreted from the depths of a furnace that was still conspicuously missing a very large and very important-looking part. Assorted spanners and wrenches lay strewn on the floor; beached in the tarry secretion, they looked like misshapen fish caught in an oil slick. Two things went through my mind: there was the question of why I had decided to move into a house which relied entirely on a diesel-burning furnace in the basement for heat, but there was something more than that. Why couldn’t I fix it? How I had somehow turned a routine repair job into my own personal Deepwater Horizon?
The furnace had an exhaust that was responsible for funneling fumes out of the basement into the environmentally compromised streets of West Philadelphia. If it fell off, there was apparently no need to panic. I had been assured via email that it happened with sufficient regularity that my desperate early-morning scramble to find the fuel cut-off switch had been unnecessary. According to the email, the exhaust wasn’t secured as well as it should be, but a full-on repair job was too costly and it worked just fine the way it was. Lifting it back into place would be pretty simple. There were a few bolts to tighten here and there and since a tarry goop tended to build up on the inside, emptying that out wouldn’t hurt. Aside from that, I should be able to get everything back into working order and be out the door quicker than you could say ‘carbon monoxide poisoning’. This was to prove hopelessly optimistic.
The exhaust was heavy, ungainly and filthy. Wrestling it back into place was a physical battle, made all the more intense by the thick black dust that exploded into the air each time it made contact with another object. An abortive first attempt had resulted in the exhaust lying in precisely the same place I had found it that morning, along with a fine coating of dust across a three-foot radius and a seriously damaged ego. Not for the first time, I was forced into a grim reflection: I can’t fix things.
It wasn’t just that I had failed to reattach the exhaust – that was a failure of dexterity as much as anything – it was that I didn’t have the first clue how the furnace worked. I couldn’t name any of its component parts or where they fitted, let alone tell you what they did. I’m an over-educated, under-skilled charlatan when it comes to anything to do with machinery or working with my hands. I am horrifically ignorant of how anything fuel-powered works. In contrast to my father who can do a passable job of explaining how cars are propelled, my understanding of internal combustion engines extends no further than knowing that they combust internally and can malfunction in a number of ways. I consider engines something to be approached with extreme caution. Opening up a bonnet is a big deal for me. There’s an odd thrill to it, like sneaking in somewhere that you definitely don’t belong, seeing things that you aren’t supposed to see. Once the hood is up, I’m in uncharted territory and courting disaster. When it comes to DIY or car trouble, I’m a specialist at wielding ignorance in a way that tends to make situations worse.
I can change plugs, of course, and replace bike tires if necessary. I can jump start your car provided that you’re prepared to wait ten minutes for me to make absolutely certain I’ve actually attached the leads to the car’s battery rather than to the screenwash container. I can put the chain back on my bike and at a push I can fix the flush on a toilet. I garner a disproportionate sense of pride from these achievements, proudly returning my ‘tools’ to my ‘toolkit’ as if I have successfully recalibrated the navigation system on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner. These small triumphs allow me to banish the thought that if the world descends into Mad Max territory I will not command the respect of my band of nomads by building souped-up 4×4 vehicles with spikes for door handles from parts salvaged out of the wreckage of civilization. No, I will have to barter for my survival by offering to replace the chain on the chieftain’s son’s bike and trade my jump cables for my life.
I’m certain that I’m not alone in worrying about things like this. I am confident that with one or two possible exceptions, there is no one in my extended social circle in possession of sufficient technical knowledge to dismantle then re-assemble an engine. And why should there be? There’s really no need for me to know how anything I own works, let alone how to fix it. It’s a tired refrain, but it’s true: if it breaks, it’s easier just to replace it or get someone else to mend it. Of course, being relatively handy doesn’t mean you are automatically able to disassemble anything that takes your fancy. Being a mechanic is, after all, a stand-alone profession. There’s no reason why I should be able to fix engines, in the same way that there’s no reason why a mechanic should be able to accurately advise you on the tax liability you would incur by investing in certain financial products.
But unlike accounting, which no one has ever knowingly taken up for fun, becoming a competent mechanic is something that many people choose to do. For those brave souls, engines are something to be comprehended and mastered rather than feared and ignored. It’s my firm belief that society is divided into people who have a deep interest in engines and those who really couldn’t care either way. There is, of course, an element of nature/nurture inherent in this. On several trips through the American Midwest, my tiny rental car has shared many driveways with half-disassembled jet skis and boats and I have shrunk away from many conversations whenever they turned to mechanical dilemmas. It’s safe to say that I have yet to win the respect of America’s petrolheads.
But they have an advantage over me. I have never owned a car and never really needed to. I grew up surrounded by the Scottish Highlands, but those are more commonly tackled on foot; no jet skis, skidoos or quad bikes have ever found their way into our garage. By contrast, most of my American friends (especially those from the Midwest) individually possess more vehicles than most British families and actually have to use them. I have no idea how to fix a broken-down skidoo, but then again if being in possession of a broken-down skidoo meant getting stuck in a snowdrift for three weeks, I could definitely be incentivised to learn.
With no immediately compelling reason to learn how to distinguish a fan belt from a carburettor, my only hope of getting crafty with engines was to be interested in them. Sadly, this has never been the case, as it realistically requires the following: a love of cars; possession of at least one car; and a willingness to watch tremendous amounts of money vanish on importing spare parts from far-flung parts of the world. I never stood a chance.
So with neither nature nor nurture on my side, I am about to enter the fourth decade of my life with approximately the same level of mechanical knowledge as I entered the second and third. It’s too late to start learning anything now. My main hope is that in the next 10 years a paradigmatic shift in vehicle propulsion occurs that will render my ignorance moot. It’s slowly happening with electric cars. Sooner or later I won’t need to know what a carburettor is because it won’t exist anymore and cars will be entirely powered by household recycling. The entire concept of engines will be overhauled and everyone will start from the same baseline of ignorance. Or more likely, existing engines will be replaced by something else that I won’t understand and won’t be able to repair either. Some things will hopefully stay the same: “What’s that? The chain has come off of your hoverbike and you can’t get to sky-school on time? Don’t worry son, let me show you something I learned a long time ago….”