[I wrote the following piece for a performance at the Chicago storytelling show “Serving the Sentence” and performed it on March 12, 2017.]
“Do you know what you’re doing?!” the man bellowed from his pickup truck, down to my friends and I. I paused on screwing in the last of the lug nuts, while kneeling on the asphalt in my Saturday party clothes. I rubbed my hands together swiftly, minding not to wipe them on my dress, and said, “Actually, I’m just finishing up.”
I could hear him snort and grumble something to himself before he drove off into the night. My friends erupted into sayings of “sexist pig,” “serves you right, jerk.” Somehow, I had done something just short of revolutionary for a woman. I had changed a tire.
As laughable as that seems, it was true. I grew up in San Antonio, Texas. The kind of place whose motto is “a big city with a small town attitude.” It is not a place normally known for raising independent, intelligent, and capable daughters who know how to fix things. Even as we live in the 21st century, fixing things is still largely in the arena of men.
I was lucky. I was born to two parents who believed in the power of a beautiful mind and of “do-it-yourself” practical skills.
My parents were both professional educators to boot. My paternal grandfather was one of the original do-it-yourselfers. He had survived the Great Depression, when the motto of living was “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.” He taught all eight of my aunts and uncles the value of monetary savings by repairing all household appliances, including your car. Perhaps more than his brothers and sisters, my father took these lessons to heart and action.
My mother, in contrast, grew up in the type of traditional Tejano community that didn’t expect children to go to college.
The girls especially were not expected to know how to manage their own finances or learn how to drive a car, let alone fix it. It was up to your husband and his family to decide the fate of your adult life. Instead, my mother not only finished high school but went on to earn her bachelor’s degree. She is a clever fixer in her own right, who learned how to drive even before my dad did. She attributes her accomplishments to being encouraged by some key male relatives and being “terca,” which means stubborn and obstinate.
Cars rule the land in Texas and more so do pick-up trucks and hotrods. As a young girl, I remember practicing “driving” in the permanently parked, rusting, sparkly green Ford Maverick that sat in front of our dilapidated garage. I loved the feel of the gears clicking into place as I moved the shifter through its sequences; imagining how they looked in the engine. I could hear revving and see a checkered flag in the distance.
I also grew up watching my father fix things. To hear my mom tell it, I barely left his side at all times. In my dad’s opinion, if you were going to lurk, you were going to help out and learn a thing or two.
When it was time for me to get my learner’s permit at 15 years old, my parents enrolled me in a driving school in the neighborhood. But, this was not enough. I also needed to be enrolled in the Car Maintenance and Driving School of Dad.
My dad’s driving school consisted of many lessons and a few tests. I learned how to drive a manual stick-shift, use jumper cables, change the oil of a car from start to finish, change air filters, fan belts, and of course, tires.
The added bonus was that I had to perform all of these lessons on his Dodge Ram pickup truck with an extended bed and camper on the back. My mom called it his “mahunkah” truck, which means to say that it’s a large vehicle and a powerful one, meant to do heavy lifting. It has an intimidation factor, towering high above the ground. It is the kind of truck you see driving over boulders like it’s the most natural thing to do in the world. You have to hoist yourself up in order to get into the cab or jump down when you wanted to get out, which is a form of exercise in and of itself. Sitting in the driver’s seat, I got a small glimpse of what it would be like to helm a big rig.
The lessons were numerous but they weren’t easy. In order to change the oil of the truck, I had to learn how prop up either end of the car on two metal ramps that my dad had inherited from my grandfather. You had to drive up the ramps and be able to balance the car on the top without driving over the back of them. Then, I had to crawl under this massive truck, exposed to the dirt and soot of the undercarriage. Oil filters are sometimes notorious to find and to wrap an oil wrench around and then you need some upper body strength to twist it loose.
I sometimes ended up with my arms covered in oil, black tar under my fingernails, blisters on my hand from yanking on a stubborn part. Air filters and fan belts are a piece of cake, comparatively. But I loved it all.
Learning to drive stick shift was the hardest. It took patience, finesse, and intuition; all things I had in short supply as a teenager. During these lessons, I realized what a saint my father is. He was calm through my frustration even when I got so upset that I threw the car keys toward his face. It wasn’t always pretty but he never gave up on me.
There were two final tests. The first included driving the truck about 10 miles from our house to the largest hill in San Antonio (there aren’t many of them). I had to drive just to the top of the hill, where there was a stoplight. Without panicking too much about rolling down into the cars behind me, I had to get this behemoth truck into gear and over the top of the hill without killing the engine. Thanks to all of the painstaking lessons, I succeeded on my first try.
The final test was to change all four tires on the truck by using a car jack to lift it up one at a time all on four sides. I learned where the spare tire was kept, how to lower it to the ground from the undercarriage, how to unhook it and roll it to the nearest corner of the truck. I had to work on the strength of my hands and arms and shoulders to be able to get each lug nut off and back on tightly. I learned how to apply pressure in a star-shaped pattern to space out the leverage of the tire on the axle. I learned the importance of placing the car jack on the strongest part of the frame of any car and to loosen the lug nuts before placing the car on the jack.
The women I was with that memorable Saturday night were all classmates from my all-girls Catholic preparatory high school. We were taught that we all had the ability to change the world from the sheer force of will, privilege, and intellect. As much as we saw ourselves as strong feminists, this chauvinist’s assumptions about our inabilities was partially correct. When it came to cars, I was the only member in that group of highly intelligent and soon-to-be-successful career women who actually knew how to change the tire of a car.
I’m proud that I learned these lessons at an early age, even though I have never owned a car and prefer to bike everywhere these days. I carry those lessons with me still and apply that “can do” attitude to everything from fixing a broken toilet to putting up a shelf to fixing my bike. But if you are ever curious to learn these for yourself, I want to tell you that it’s never too late to learn.