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Have we become too dependent on the service industry?

January 31, 2011
Cochesita - Engine at Night

Image by Sparkwash via Flickr

My snowblower is broken.

It didn’t used to be broken. However, through no fault of anyone, it’s broken.

Last Thursday, my region had about 8 inches of snow dropped on it. Not a big tally, but it started out as sleet so there was a good ice coating on the ground under the heavy wet snow. Fortunately, my snowblower can make quick work of this kind of wintry mix, so no worries.

In addition to my very large driveway, I also clear out the very large driveway of the elderly couple to my left and the middle-aged couple to my right. They don’t ask me to, I just do it because I can – thanks to the snowblower.

That is, when I have a working snowblower. About 15 minutes in to my typical hour-plus snow removal routine, it began to inexplicably lose power. I could keep it going, but only on full choke. I stopped the snowblower and returned it to my garage to do the few things I knew how to do.

I checked the gas, I checked the oil, I even cleaned the spark plug. Didn’t make a difference.

At this point I was tapped out of ideas. Why? Because I have no idea how a simple combustion engine operates.

This meant there was only one thing left to do.

Call Dad.

Once Mom got him in from snowblowing his own sidewalk, he said it sounded like a carburetor problem, “you won’t be able to fix it.” I think he meant I didn’t have the tools and parts to fix it, but truthfully, even if I did, I couldn’t fix it. I didn’t know how.

Fortunately, Dad said I could run it on the choke, which I estimated left me with about 75% power. Just enough to chuck the icy slush under the snow and chew through the snow boulders blocking my driveway that the city snow plows had deposited. Miraculously, the snowblower kept working until I cleared out all three driveways.

On Saturday, my Dad, a true do-it-yourselfer, stopped by to take a look at the engine. After fiddling with it a bit, he noticed that there was gas dripping from the carburetor. Why? Because two screws that held it to the manifold had somehow shaken loose and were now missing. Quite literally my snowblower’s carburetor had separated from the engine. Thankfully, because it was a Craftsman tool purchased at Sears I was able to buy the specific parts needed for the fairly simple repair.

So, why do I tell you this story?

Because until my Dad popped over I had already made plans to have the snowblower repaired at a nearby shop.

And that’s become my typical response to a lot of projects, especially the ones involving fuel – gasoline or natural gas.

I’m a pretty handy guy, I helped build the house I live in now. I rebuilt (with the help of my Dad) most of my first house. Carpentry, lawnwork, electrical… I can take care of most of these projects/repairs.

But engines, as well as most things car related, are just beyond me. And not because today’s cars are more computer than carburetor. I just never learned. I can do most of the maintenance on a car, change the oil, replace a headlamp, install a new muffler, replace the brakes, but when it comes to the engine, I just never learned what to do. It’s not that I can’t, I just got lazy and never learned.

That bothers me.

I don’t think it’s a good sign that so many of us go to the repair shop instead of fixing it ourselves. Not because it’s cheaper to do it yourself or less of a hassle to do it in your own driveway, but because we should know how to do it, in case something happens on the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere or during dark of night. Yeah, we have cell phones and AAA Roadside Assistance, but I think I should at least have a fighting chance to make the repairs myself, at least to take a crack at it.

And I don’t think this should stop at engines.

I should know how to grow plants and vegetables. I should know how to kill, dress and butcher an animal for food. I should know how to defend myself against an intruder. I should know more than rudimentary first aid.

This isn’t about being manly or preparing for Armageddon. It’s knowing about things people 60 years ago knew, before we could go somewhere and have everything fixed/prepared for us.

Just because I learn how to butcher a deer doesn’t mean I’m going to stop buying meat at the grocery store. But, I’d like to know that if I had to I could.

If my kid breaks his arm, we’re going to the ER.  But if for some reason we can’t, I’d like to know how to splint it properly.

And if my snowblower breaks down I’d like a fighting chance to repair it.

I think, once my Master’s degree courses are completed later this year, that will be the next stage of my learning. Classes at the local community college related to basic engine repair, appliance repair and emergency medical techniques. I’ll have to reconnect with some of my hunting buddies to learn about field dressing and butchering animals. Or perhaps just watch the video series below:

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