It wasn’t a particularly hot day. And this being Pasadena California the hoists and bays were outside, some under cover – some not, but I was sweating bullets. Frozen in my tracks, faced with a moral dilemma, my mind raced through the options. Do I tell the lead mechanic or cover up my mistake. The cost of rectifying it would be significant. Who was going to pay? Will I get fired? Leaving it as it is would surely cause the owner of the car an unexpected and substantial repair bill down the road. Could my conscience live with that?
My first car was a bug, and before I was allowed to drive my brother insisted that I understand the precise workings of an internal combustion engine. We did our own repairs, tune-ups, brake jobs, that sort of thing, mostly in our driveway. This knowledge came in especially handy when we moved to the farm. So after I was suddenly given 24 hours to leave the country due to a technicality in my immigration status, and escorted onto the plane in Toronto by a Canadian Mountie, I had to find work in LA.
The classified ad read “experienced Volkswagen mechanic wanted,” and I got the job. Having no tools of my own, the owner lent me his until I could get established. Not being used to them I struggled with the hand tools until the mechanic in the next bay would say; “we usually use the CP to get that big nut off” or something to that effect. “Ah, of course,” I would reply. “Where does Karl keep that?” Bottom drawer on the left was the reply. Staring at a pneumatic impact wrench for the first time in my life, I had just a few seconds to figure out how to use it.
So when I was asked to remove the heads from an engine block to prepare them for a valve job, another air wrench made the job quick and easy. Having removed the rocker arms and push-rods I was confident in my efficiency – until it happened. “Rudy, I have a problem.” I stammered out the words, trying to explain, knowing that the cost difference between a simple valve job and splitting the engine block was serious stuff. “You know how the push-rod tubes lead right down into the crank-case? Well when I spun off the head-nuts one of them popped out of the socket and shot down one of the tubes.”
In hindsight Rudy probably made me wait a few seconds before answering, just for effect. No doubt he saw the beads of sweat on my brow. But what he said next, has stayed with me my whole life. It explained why some mechanics would adjust the number three exhaust valve just a little too tight during a regular tuneup, ensuring that the car would return for an unexpected valve job some three or four months later. It also set the stage for the self serving negligence and opportunism that I would repeatedly encounter later in life.
“Oh, that’s no problem Tom.” Rudy finally broke the tension. “We have a whole box of those nuts on the counter back there.” He pointed over his shoulder and went back to work.