Where have all the teenage boys gone? They used to be everywhere, laying rubber on country roads, engine grease under their fingernails, evenings spent at mud-spattering stock car races, oblivious to everything but hammering pistons and how to fix them.
Sure, girls were important then, too. Just not quite as important as the four-on-the-floor of your Chevy or lowriding your Buick.
When Friday night rolled ‘round, a boy had to decide if he’d spend the ten bucks in his jeans pocket on a date or his car. You remember that, don’t you?
Blow it all on a drive-in movie and burgers with a girl tonight and tomorrow night, when you’re broke, you’ll see her out there riding around in a car with another guy.
Hey, better to spend your hard-earned cash on your car. You can count on a car to be there for you. You can’t count on a girl.
Besides, money means car parts. Parts mean tooling around town leaving envy in your exhaust. Or another set of tires for next Friday night at the races.
One Saturday, after I’d refused to waste ten bucks on a girl, hoarding the money for parts, my dad and I hauled the engine out of my Bugeye Sprite. Just four little cylinders. No hopeless strings of computer wiring or horsepower-eating pollution devices.
We unhooked the mechanicals and pulled out the engine with our bare hands. Then we rebuilt it with new parts. Fresh air, perfume of oil, the feel of metal on our fingers. What better way to spend a Saturday morning?
Even in those days ten bucks wouldn’t stretch to cover all the new parts I needed, so I cleaned up some old parts and used them, as well.
Took the Bugeye out for a trial run and got as far as a beautiful shade tree beside the road about ten miles from home. My refurbished parts didn’t do so well. They busted. Engine stopped. I cheered.
I pulled open the front end and got dirty with the engine. It was great. But I needed more parts.
My brother happened by and we hauled the Bugeye home. I spent the rest of the day just me happily hauling out the engine and tearing it apart again.
I borrowed a few bucks for new parts. Applied the old screwdriver test to the crankshaft – you’ve done this work yourself so you know what I mean – and bam! she cranked over sweetly.
Took her for a spin and got way past the old shade tree. My little Bugeye kept going for years and years driving through lots of happy memories.
When I’m down, I think back to that Saturday afternoon stranded under a shade tree with engine grease up to my elbows and I feel better.
Where are the teenage boys under their shade trees by the roadside? I don’t see them there anymore. Don’t see them working in the driveways, either, or out back of a service station borrowing tools.
It’s the cars, of course. Today’s cars are all computerized and internet-wired and so ridiculously complicated no teenage boy with a good set of garage tools can fix them.
He’d have to be a software engineer or a lab technician in a white coat unsmudged with engine oil to do anything under the hood of today’s cars.
And now the kings of the internet are making self-driving cars. First the world steals the joy of engine work from a teenage boy. Then it steals the joy of driving. What’s left to do but play silly videogames hidden under a hoodie instead of half under the hood of a car?
Say, you don’t suppose we could persuade carmakers to build just a few cars in that old way once again? I mean without computers and e-hookups so that teenage boys could be teenage boys, buying their own parts, fixing their own rides and feeling like boys.
Or is it too much to ask of modern technology to produce anything simple and fun?
© 2016 Steven Hardesty