the true stories
There are two ways to fix your brakes and neither one works. When I was in high school in Lynn Valley, I had the chance to take auto mechanics. It was a fun class and my teacher was a great guy. That was in 1973. We got to wear boiler suits and get our hands greasy. Mr. G was confident enough in our talents by the middle of the year to let us work on teacher's cars. The teacher's liked having the work done for free and we students blossomed in the bestowed trust and voluntary responsibility.
My partner, whose name escapes me now was an amenable fellow and one Friday we were honored with being given the task of doing the brakes on an algebra teacher's sedan. We were careful as could be. The elements of the job which I had forgotten from our prior instruction my partner remembered and my memory equally filled in his blank spots.
We retracted the calipers, changed the front pads and the rear shoes. We adjusted the hand-brake. We bled the lines and replaced the water-logged brake fluid. We shined everything up and moved her off the hoist for the next job. We were both changed young men that afternoon as we dipped our paws in the big bucket of Go-Jo and wiped off the grime on faded red shop rags. We were no longer brake-job virgins. We both knew that there were many men much older than us who couldn't make that claim. We waddled a bit when we walked away into our week-end as if something twixt our bell-bottoms was impeding our forward ambulation.
Monday morning I was greeted at the front walk of the school by a gaggle of chattering students. One guy asked me if I'd heard the word. I said I hadn't.
"Oh man, some grease-monkeys did the brakes on Mr. ****'s car last Friday. They bunned it up and he took out a mailbox on his way home. It was WEAK!”
“Was he hurt?”
“Negative, but his front bumper's had the biscuit and he pissed his Wellies.”
Later that day, Mr. G took me and my partner aside and discreetly told us that we must have forgotten to bleed the air out of the hydraulic lines after replacing the fluid. Just a tiny bubble, he said could take all the magic out of the of manipulation of compressed fluids. His tone was fatherly, stern and dead serious. When he saw the effect of the whole ordeal on us and how shaken we were at the horror that may have occurred, he pointed out with the faintest shadow of a smile, that it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy than Mr. ****.
I never did my own brakes after that, down to this day. A few weeks ago when I had my Suzuki serviced, it was pointed out to me that my rotors were Jurassic, my pads were squeal-worthy and the only discernible tread on my rubber were the wear bars. But, I'd be OK for a while yet.
As it turned out, I was scheduled to move a cargo of near 1500 lbs, comprising of books and shelving, for the most part. There was just going to be enough room left over for myself and my wife. I decided to get the vehicle brought up to a good safe condition prior to the mission. I purchased four good tires with “aggressive” treads for a good price and made a mental note not to eat out for the next few years.
My window of opportunity was shrinking rapidly so next I went to a certain corner in Vancouver where five different garages that all service brakes share a block. My reasoning was that the only variable could possibly be their respective labor rates and those would be tightly grouped due to their physical proximity to each other and the magic of the informed consumer in a free market.
I entered an establishment that I used to be the letter-carrier for, before the current boss took over operations. I introduced myself and my vehicle and was shown my choice of three rotors and two brake pads. I quickly zeroed in on the middle quality rotors and the good pads. I was shown the price and told that all the parts were in stock and the work could be done right away. This suited me as I was due to move the goods in only forty-eight hours time.
I looked the man square in the eye and told him that although I didn't know him, I was going to extend my trust to his shop. I gave him the keys and walked around the back for a smoke. I saw a small man in a white lab coat hoist my car up and begin removing the wheels. Another guy was working on another car on the opposite side of the shop while he chatted in Spanish to a fat woman.
I walked around the area for an hour or so and came back to the office for a cup of bad coffee. I began to read a book I'd brought and within a few pages the little lab coat popped upstairs and told me my Suzi was ready. I paid the bill and wondered how I'd make next month's rent.
I loaded up the vehicle a day early so I could test drive the new brakes and tires. I wanted to get the feel of the ceramic brakes which are noted for not being too grabby when cold and improving as they heat up. Perfect, I thought for the mountainous canyon roads that I would be hauling on.
As luck would have it, a thunder storm brewed up just as I went for the test run. The brakes were great and the tires superb. I was used to the initial slippy ceramic feeling within minutes. It was like cruising a mall in a brand new pair of Birkenstocks. I drove down some steep hills and measured my stopping ability. Soon I was ready and confident that there would be no learning curve on the coming trip.
Next morning my wife and I pulled out of town and headed east. It was a work day so the traffic was coming against us and we made good time. I had snagged a day off work before a long weekend and was feeling mighty fine. We had breakfast a hundred miles down river and turned north. The road was mostly deserted once we got on Highway 12. This stretch of road has a chasm on the port-side and a rock-face to starboard. There are free-range cattle, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, mule deer, black bears, grizzly bears and falling rocks to watch out for along the way.
Not far from Jackass Mountain we heard a mighty thud. I figured that our aggressive treads had picked up a rock and slung it under the floorboards. It sounded like a .38 fired into a bucket of sand. As we whistled around a curve and down a decline, I applied a light touch to the brake pedal.
If you've ever heard a train braking in a switch-yard you could approximate the screech that came from my passenger-side front wheel. It was metal on metal, it was angry and accompanied by a vibration that would churn milk to butter. Worse, there was no braking action on the hurtling ton of literature and shelving.
I tried a few more times, gingerly, like a man testing a sore tooth with the tip of his tongue. If anything, it seemed to be getting worse. I was able to downshift and use the aptly named emergency brake to make the approach to Jackass Mountain. Climbing was OK. It was coming down that was tricky and it was several kilometers before we could find enough shoulder to pull over on.
A visual inspection revealed that the wheel was bolted on just fine but one of two bolts that held the caliper assembly was missing. It was the rearward bolt, so when the brakes were applied, the pads grabbed the disk and the whole shebang pivoted on the remaining bolt and came to rest on the rim creating the hellish sounds and obscene vibrations. The icing on the cake was that each one of these operations served to unscrew the remaining bolt.
There was no traffic, no phone and no way I was abandoning my books nor my wife. I figured I could do the remaining forty-odd kilometers to one of my favourite little towns and if I didn't delay I could possibly find a mechanic before quitting time. I put on the four-way flashers and pulled my hat down tight. I hand-braked like a sled driver and down-shifted like an Italian boy.
We pulled into town about an hour past lunch and found all the mechanics gone for their long weekend, save two. There was a line up and my wife went across the road to the grocery while I waited my turn on the hoist. The mechanic showed me the tortured rim, the bolt-hole and the loose remaining bolt. There was fortunately no damage to the disk or pads.
He said that we were lucky to get there and unlucky that he didn't have the needed bolt, nor did the local parts supplier. While I digested this information, the young man disappeared. I thought he went to the phone. My wife returned from the store and we tried to figure out how we'd get back to town in time for our jobs.
A young woman came up to the remaining mechanic and inquired as to the whereabouts of her husband, the owner of the garage. The answer was that he had gone home for a bit. We all stood under the hoist and a few moments later the mechanic drove up. He was holding a bolt in his right hand. He greeted his wife and told me he had gone home to dig through his personal stash of spare parts to find a fine thread metric bolt. I was coming down off the adrenaline rush, feeling the warmth of the Great Spirit and wondering how anyone could doubt the presence of God.
He installed the bolt, tightened the other one and we both checked the other six. A greasy radio on a wooden bench squawked out Neil Young's Rocking In The Free World. As he worked, I remembered the algebra teacher's car. I remembered that time a doctor sewed up a sponge in my brother-in-laws back by accident. I spoke these thoughts aloud and the mechanic paused.
“Mike, it's happened to me before. In my case, the guy's wheel fell off!”
"I'm not going to bar-b-que the guy in the lab coat,” I said. “I will phone the owner and tell him what has happened and that he better talk to his mechanic and tighten up his shop routine. My way of acknowledging the twin gifts of getting here alive and of finding you three hours before a long weekend.”
When I got back to the big city, I presented the bill from the country and was paid in cash and apologized to twice. As I left I was handed a business card with “Free Oil Change” scrawled on the front above a pair of initials. As if. I walked around back to the shop door and watched the man in the lab coat for a while. I wanted to have a word with him but he was bolting on the front passenger-side wheel of some poor sucker's car at that moment and I certainly didn't want to be a distraction.
Copyright © 2019 by Michael A. Hawes. All Rights Reserved.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.