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ESSAY: The Crankshaft

Updated: May 25, 2023

(Editor's Note — Writer Gerry Dempsey was born and raised in Buffalo, NY and now lives in North Carolina. Gerry also has far more siblings than most people you know.)

“You,” my dad pointed at me, causing me to recoil. “Come with me.”

I was relaxing on the couch watching television with my brother and didn’t want to move.

“But I want to see what the final Jeopardy answer is,” I protested.

“What’s the question?” my father asked.

“Which president is the only president who won a Pulitzer Prize? I bet you don’t know,” I said with a snark.

“JFK,” my father flatly replied. “Now let’s go.”

My dad was on a mission, and I was not going to derail him. My younger brother put out his hands as I tossed him the warm blanket and pillow that had been swaddling me for the last half hour.

“Thanks,” he said with a grin.

The garage was freezing. It also smelled bad. The kind of smell you’d expect to find in a machine shop or a steel mill. It was a mix of cigarette smoke, oil and garbage. A hint of gasoline, too. It smelled the way a mechanic’s garage should smell. Only my dad wasn’t a mechanic. At least not by trade. He was a welder — and a man accustomed to working with his hands.

“We gotta air this place out a little. Your mother says it stinks out here,” he chuckled.

He lifted the garage door open. A strong wind blew into the garage, making the already frigid conditions even more unbearable. “What are we doing?” I asked through chattering teeth, assessing the pain I was about to endure.

“We gotta get the crankshaft out and I need an extra pair of hands, so we don’t scratch it. Any scoring on it will wreak havoc on the bearings.”

He stopped talking the moment he noticed my eyes glaze over. I never knew what he was talking about and until that exact moment, I never heard the term “crankshaft.” But I did know I was about to remove one from our new car which my dad bought for fifty dollars from his friend. He was going to sell it to the junkyard, but my father talked him out of it. Dad never understood why people were so wasteful.

“Just tell me what you want me to do,” I said, unaware that he really had no idea what he was doing. He never ripped apart an engine of a car before, let alone rebuilt one. He looked at me for a minute, “Just pay attention and listen to me when I tell you to do something, OK?”

Fair enough I thought.

We took out the crankshaft and were extra careful setting it on the floor of the garage. My dad put a towel around it to keep it safe. I was cold and thought about my little brother wrapped in my blanket nice and comfortable on the couch inside. My father had a bunch of coffee tins filled with bolts, screws, washers, and other parts that I can only imagine were vital to the beast we were tearing apart. It all made me think of some kind of insane jigsaw puzzle contrived by a madman who made Gordius look like a fool. But I can assure you that no sword swung with any amount of force would solve this problem.

It only took an hour or so to get the crankshaft out. My hands were numb from holding cold metal. My father didn’t seem to mind. I thought about how he was used to working in harsh conditions and the time he told me about working on the skeleton of a skyscraper 35 stories above the ground in a wind chill of 10-degrees below zero.

“Let’s take a break,” he finally said.

We went back inside the house. My dad made some coffee, lit a smoke, and opened his Chilton’s Auto Repair Manual. The book was The Bible to all men who dared to work on their own cars. I had watched my dad on many occasions sit in silence as he pored over the pages of this DIY Holy Book, and eaves dropped on late night phone calls he made to his friends who I imagined were doing the same as he was: reading about fixing their cars and taking considerable pride in deciphering the riddle of why their rides refused to start. As he flipped around the pages, he would glance up and ask me questions. “How is school? You staying outta of trouble?”

I just shook my head.

“You should get into computers!” he spouted out of nowhere. “Don’t be a dummy like me, working so hard. Your brain lasts longer than your body, boy. Remember that.”

I told him about the computers we had at school. They were interesting but the only thing my friends and I liked to do was play video games on them. We had to write a basic program for class, and my good friend wrote a one that made the screen flash “SUCK ME, BEAUTIFUL!” He slipped the diskette into a random computer in the back of the room so the program would run when the next class turned the computer on. He told me how he loved getting away with stuff like that. They caught him anyway.

“Let’s see if we can get the harmonic balancer off,” he said with excitement. I was warm now and did not want to go back out into the garage. My mother protested on my behalf but got nowhere.

“Oh, c’mon, hon. It’s not that late and the job won’t take very long.” She shook her head in disapproval, but it made no difference.

I soon found myself lying on the ice-cold floor of the garage, underneath the engine. My dad was loosening the bolts and dropped one that hit me on the goggles my mom made me wear. Being under the car scared me. My dad had jacked the car up very high and slid 4-foot sections of railroad ties under the frame to hold the car still. I trusted his work, certain the car wouldn’t fall and crush me.

“Almost there, boy” he said with a calm voice. “Like piss on a platter!”

He was turning the ratchet and the bolts were coming off without any issue. In my mind, I could feel the warmth of being back inside the house. It made me happy to know the end to the evening’s torture was in sight. Turning the last bolt off, my dad lost his grip on the puller, sending it, the balancer, and some rust chips crashing down on my face.

“You OK?” he asked, almost sounding concerned. I crawled out from beneath the car to reveal that one of my front teeth had been broken in half.

“You’re probably going to need a root canal,” he said. I didn’t know what that meant, and wondered if he was lying. Teeth having roots like trees sounded like bullshit to me. But, my father had dentures, so I figured he must know something about teeth.

“Am I gonna need dentures like you?” The very idea made me sick, especially since my dad was always taking his teeth out at the dinner table which made me gag. He did it at a restaurant once and my mom screamed. He also looked creepy when he wasn’t wearing them. He would open his mouth and pretend to roar, exposing his gums. He looked like a freak from a horror movie.

“No, no,” he said with reassurance. “The dentist will be able to fix your tooth as good as new and you’ll have the same wonderful smile as you did before. You’re lucky, you have nice teeth.”

I believe that was the first time my dad ever paid me a compliment. He wasn’t as careful with my face as he was the crankshaft. But his compliment somehow was enough. A broken tooth and pending root canal notwithstanding, I felt better.

Like piss on a platter.


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