I DIDN'T learn a thing about cars until I was almost 30. I was one of those "I'm-not-mechanically-minded" females who thought that men were born knowing which way screws turned -- without having to think about the face of the clock. It all happened in in vivo. About the same time that little girl babies received the genetic makeup to allow them to analyze male/female relationships, the DNA in boy babies stamped four-color schematics of the internal combustion engine on their brains. Beside that -- a laminated wall chart distinguishing year and model of every car from 1930 on.
"Look," my brother used to say, excitedly, "There goes a '62 Chevy. And there's a '61 Ford." Amazing. True auto voodoo.
When I was 13, he used the crossbar of a swing set to hoist the transmission from his old red Studebaker stationwagon. Obsessed with everything about cars, he tried to lure me into this addiction. For my 16th birthday, he retrieved and wrapped a grimy old muffler from the interstate highway. I cried.
My first car, a pale turquoise 1960s-I-think VW (those I could tell from Fords and Chevys) with flower decals, appeared to thrive on the same kind of benign neglect I used on jade plants.
But then came the women's movement; it was no longer safe to ask, when a friend bought a car, "What color is it?", "What's the upholstery like?" or "Does it have a light-up makeup mirror?" Now we had to feign interest in its private parts -- its manifold, its internal bushings and its fuel-injection system. In these environs, it was increasingly likely that I would be called upon to explain how a piston fires.
I also discovered that my perceived authorities (men) weren't always there at the right time to tell me with a definitive doctor tone I found attractive, "It's the battery." or "It's definitely the starter." or "No, it's your alternator, but I can fix it."
Then it happened.
My theory that carmanship was a dominant gene passed on from fathers to brothers faltered seriously. I met men who didn't know, or more incredibly, didn't care about cars. When I asked a male psychologist friend for help in getting my 1976 Toyota Corolla started, he said, with no apparent embarrassment, that he didn't know the first thing about engines, but that he would come with me for "moral support." AAA has yet to add that to their list of road services.
So I bought a can of Gunk, a Toyota Corolla fix-it manual and a Craftsman ratchet and socket set. I found the manual swimming in the side part of the trunk near the tire where the car stored rainwater before I punched drain holes in it and the Gunk turned upside down in the trunk and eked its way onto the spare tire. Still, I pledged allegiance to the male domain beneath the hood.
Ipaid -- sometimes dearly -- for my ignorant devotion. I changed the oil and lost the oil-pan plug on the dark sidewalk outside my house, two hours before a Christmas trip to Missouri. Another time, I drove v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-ly to the gas station to recycle my oil, eyeing the waves of thick, brown muck in the pan on the floor of my car before I discovered that most people pour it into a plastic bottle first.
I came to appreciate the delicate nature of radiators, which despite their blackened appearance, don't fare well when screwdrivers are stabbed into them while removing the old hose. I pulled into a gas station spurting a green geyser of antifreeze.
I changed the points (one of the true misnomers in the English language) and learned that gapping had major significance -- just outside of Carbondale, Ill., where a man in a Ford pickup leaned from his window to yell at me along the side of the interstate, "I hear they fix those things in Japan."
I learned the larger ramifications of dropping two tiny screws down the distributor.
My study-at-home mechanics course taught me that I could crawl under the car and at least identify the muffler and the oil pan, that I can wrap a tin can around the exhaust to temporarily silence the muffler and that sometimes you need a pipe for leverage to get the oil-pan plug off.
But I'll never achieve the degree of car fascination men have. It's the difference between a job you can do but dislike and one you really love. In their spare time, men (psychologists excepted) enjoy thinking about oil-pan gaskets and water pumps and radiator belts. They get an old-boy communal feeling when they talk to the mechanic, as together they hover over the workings of this machine.
Auto neglect, in their eyes, is equivalent to child abuse. Which is what I'm guilty of. I've come to recognize that, like raising kids, whatever attempts I make at caring for a car, they are never enough and they are usually aimed at the wrong thing at the wrong time.
I know that when I walk into the garage, the guy is going to look up at me out of the corner of his eye and say, "When was the last time you changed the fuel filter?" and I, trying not to stare at the girly calendar on the wall, think, "Oh, God, all the while I was paying attention to the oil and the windshield-wiper fluid, the sneaky little fuel filter was emptying itself." I cringe with guilt, as if I have neglected one of my six kids while paying attention to the other five. I don't want to say the truth, "I can't remember" or the REAL TRUTH, which is "Never." So I lie and say, "Six months" -- a good answer for almost any part of the car.
I've revamped my theory that this transfer of auto knowledge to (most) men occurs in the womb. It appears to be around the onset of puberty and must be connected with hormones, and thus is subject to monthly fluctuations. They have "times of the months" when they are compelled to change the oil, "times of the month" when they stare at the worn tires, "times of the month" when they hear things under the hood or near the back wheel. "Shh . . . . What's that noise? Did you hear that 'ping'?" they will say to me, who hears nothing.
It's just hormones.
Marta Vogel is a Takoma Park writer.