Tom Stafford

Stafford: Helping a friend and looking into the future

If Clark State Community College awarded honorary degrees in mechanical ineptitude, I would have asked my wife to hang mine over the fireplace for me by now.

You’ve heard of Mr. Handy?

I’m so unhandy my nickname should be “Wrists.”

So a couple of weeks ago when my friend Denny recruited me to help bleed the air from his brake lines, I assumed he was planning on bleeding them to death.

Not so.

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No dummy, he had not asked me to lend him a hand; only my feet were required.

Following his instructions, I used my right foot to pump the brake pedal three times, held it down hard on the third, then waited for a couple of moments until the pressure suddenly eased and the pedal inched back toward the floorboard.

This happened about four times, while he made adjustments under the hood.

The only difficulty I had was trying to figure out whether to tuck my head in front or in back of the Carmen Ghia’s roll bar, since my frame was too large to comfortably to fit inside.

Half an hour later, after we’d pushed the car from the garage into the driveway, I was using my reporter’s habit of asking questions to fake my way through an automotive conversation when the movie “Dances With Wolves” come to mind.

Why?

The movie was about the beginning of the end of the Plains horse culture. We, I think, may be at the beginning of the end of the American horsepower culture, at least as it has existed in my lifetime.

No, horsepower isn’t going away, any more than horses disappeared with the settlement of the West. But the movie came to mind because the days of the shade tree mechanic – the days in which people actually have been involved in working on their own cars — are numbered.

A couple of days before pumping the brake pedal, I’d heard an NPR report about the coming of all electric and driverless cars.

It was connected to Volvo’s announcement that it was going to all electric cars.

And for those peering out from under a rock to dismiss the actions of a company they see as being located in a nearly socialist country whose greatest export has been ABBA, a company called Ford is parked not far from Volvo.

Although I remain a bit skeptical about the timeline of the changes so far as it comes to areas like ours, having waited in a mile-long line to get on to I-75 from the Cincinnati outerbelt made me think that dysfunction of the nation’s too-crowded highways in our largest cities – and the torture inflicted on commuters – can’t go on.

This expected tsunami of change many are predicting may surprise to a few guys standing around cars or crawling under them these days, but no one is more aware of it than the guys I was standing with next to the Carmen Ghia.

Most of them work only on cars made earlier than 1980, which is 37 years ago. And although the longer, more complete story involves revolutionary engineering changes, cars are now so much dominated by sensors and onboard computers that, a couple of decades from now, the steady and progressive use of digital devices in running cars may make some people wonder how it is that people will have driven cars for as long as we have.

It’s a change of a different magnitude than a switch from standard to metric tools.

There’s uncertainty in times of change, of course, and loss, too.

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I don’t know how many people have found enjoyment and satisfaction in working on cars and learned things along the way. For sure, it’s more than the people who made a respectable living working on the ingenious linotype machines once used to make hot lead letters for the printing of newspapers.

Many of my mechanically inclined friends will regret the changes, of course, even those who think the changes are inevitable. Others, though, are excited about what the world might look like 50 years from now, wondering about what cool things people will be making and doing in a new world.

I tend to think like them.

It’s not that there’s no reason to fear. I trust things will go wrong, as they always have. But those who are too fearful, I think, forget that historically as we’ve found new ways to do things, we’ve been able to find meaningful things to do in a changed setting.

Those who put shoes on horses learned how to work with brake shoes and came to think the car’s exhaust was less bothersome than the horse’s. (That, too, is in doubt now.)

What concerns me most is the rate of change – how change’s cutting edge seems to be a sharper and faster cutting edge than in the past, and how quickly it’s amputating the current world away.

That brought to my mind the opening moments of each episode of the original Star Trek television series.

After pronouncing that space is “the final frontier,” it announced: “These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

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Obviously, the use of the “man” is a vestige of an earlier culture. Perhaps not as obvious: The whole series’ premise is based on a technological change, the development of interstellar travel.

If we assume for a moment that each bit of change coming our way is, if not the final frontier, at least the next one, the opening lines of Star Trek may serve as a guide for us.

We all will be involved in exploring worlds that are new and strange to us. Those worlds will be the successive worlds we live in.

We also will be seeking out new lives – and adapting our own lives – as civilization changes around us.

Finally, boldly or not, we will going to places people have not gone before.

To lessen the likelihood that the changes will warp me along the way, I’m not going to look too far into the future. Like the crew of the Starship Enterprise, my mission will be to take it five years at a time.

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