Remembering the Shade Tree Mechanic

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Technology is slowly erasing a familiar and valuable occupation from society – the shade tree mechanic. This person, whether a formal business or friendly neighbor, worked on automobiles to keep them running when the dealership was either too far or too expensive. We all realize this as our cars become more computerized, and repair means replacing a chip instead of nuts and bolts.

Our family’s first introduction to auto-repair technology was an old Sun machine in my father’s shop. This was a diagnostic tool to speed up finding the “funny noise” in the engine without the typical trial-and-error checking that had been the norm since Henry Ford’s first car rolled off the assembly line. Many shade tree mechanics over the years used a Sun machine.

Fast-forward to today. Being on a farm, our shade tree mechanics are my husband and, more often, our son. We have three tractors, two trucks (that run), a bulldozer and two cars. My husband’s grandfather’s old Massey-Ferguson tractor has been to the shade tree mechanic innumerable times. The Kubota tractor has also spent numerous hours with our mechanics, but it also has some fancier technology that has required trips to the dealership. And let’s not even discuss the new New Holland with those infamous computer chips which scorns visits to the shade tree mechanics’ digs.

But the real reason for this memorial is our 2008 Ford F350 pickup truck, purchased because we needed four-wheel drive and pulling power. And it has done that job well, until recently. You may have experienced similar problems with your computer: Yesterday it was working fine, but today it refuses to turn on; you take it to the computer repair store; they turn it on and it works fine. Back home, it refuses to work again. You begin checking for local interference. Finding none, you hit the machine in frustration – and it comes on. Go figure.

Our truck’s symptoms followed a similar pattern. Our son was driving it, and suddenly all the lights on the dash went off. He pulled over to see what was wrong – and they came back on. Lovely. Another day he parked the truck and turned the engine off; got back in and the truck wouldn’t start. He got a ride home, returned with the trailer, tried the truck just in case – and, of course, it started. This one will never be called Old Reliable.

The dealership in Paris says they need to see it when it is happening – you can’t run the test program on the computer unless it is actively not working (something is wrong with that phrase). Time passes, no problems. Then one day, it won’t start. Aha! It is now actively not working. Back to the dealership where, of course, it works. Hello, square one.

More failures but we are not fooled into taking it back to the dealership. I said why not just try a swift kick? Sure enough, that worked a time or two, but then the truck got wise and quit responding to being shaken.

At another dealership on another matter, our son mentioned our truck with the quirky computer. The repairman wasn’t surprised. They had a truck on the lot for three months, started it every day till finally it didn’t start. They ran the test program, found the module and replaced it – success!

Awesome, we’ll bring our truck – oops – not so fast. To justify replacing the part they have to test it – when it isn’t working. So, our shade tree mechanic asks can we just buy the part and replace it? Nope, doesn’t work like that. It requires a special machine for programming computer parts – and, unlike the old Sun machine, is only available to certified Ford repairmen. Repair estimate? At least $1,000. For a computer chip. You see where this is going. Shade tree mechanic: Can we just buy the part at a salvage yard? Nope, the used one has to be reprogrammed to work on our truck because it came off of another truck. Apparently it has something to do with truck genetics.

So if your vehicle is one that can drive itself or if it just has some basic computer parts, be warned: your shade tree mechanic won’t be doing much with it. They may change the oil, but they’ll have to tell the computer it has been changed, or you’ll forever have a b(l)eeping reminder to change it. And hopefully your shade tree mechanic has another career to fall back on.

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