This story appears in Gary Lloyd’s book, Valley Road: Uplifting Stories from Down South. Get it here.
I was legitimately terrified.
It was my first summer job, and I was ill-prepared. I knew nothing of carburetors and SAE-30, and I wasn’t strong enough to lift close to a hundred pounds of metal alone. A buddy’s parents owned the place, so I was hired as the summer help.
I knew how to use a broom, so after my first day, it was the cleanest lawnmower repair shop you had ever seen. Those may have been the longest eight hours of my life.
The shop was a fixture on Main Street, and had been there since Prohibition. All sorts of people brought their lawn equipment in to be repaired. There were old men with lime-green Lawn-Boys shoved in the trunks of their Buicks. There were young mothers with crummy Murray mowers placed behind the third row of their SUVs. There were men in huge trucks, with mowers, weed-eaters and backpack blowers riding on fifteen-foot trailers.
I learned every day. I learned from one of the shop’s front-counter salesmen how to drive a zero-turn mower. After five minutes of getting the hang of it, he made me drive it up onto a customer’s trailer, making sure to advise me of how careful I needed to be. I was thrown right into the fire.
I learned calculus from one of the repairmen on lunch breaks, too smart for his own good. I also learned from him, in my first week, that pouring the old oil from a lawnmower down the city street’s drain is frowned upon, and perhaps a bit dangerous.
I learned how to use an electric grinder to sharpen lawnmower blades, sending a flurry of orange sparks into the air. I learned how to pop flat tires off their rims and plug them, using soap and water to find the leaky spot. I learned what one of the technicians dubbed the “Oxymoron Story,” which begins, “One bright morning in the middle of the night, two dead men got up to fight.”
I learned that the old man who once ran the shop would shuffle out to his truck every afternoon at two, reach into a cooler and drink a beer. I also learned that he never believed you tightened the bolts on a new lawnmower quite tight enough.
I learned that physical pain is a large part of some job descriptions, and that gasoline in a cut on your hand hurts like hell. I learned that the wind from some backpack blowers is strong enough to push a car battery across a floor. I also learned that a repairman in his thirties can impersonate Beavis and Butthead better than anyone else on earth.
I learned how to put together new Toro lawnmowers, Echo weed-eaters and Stihl chainsaws without the instructions, because repetition breeds productivity. I learned that carrying a garden tiller down the stairs with its tines out in front of you can earn you a bloody knee. I learned that if you aren’t busting your butt every day, you may be asked to punch out and go home, and that the only other way to leave is if the bleeding won’t stop. I learned that if you shift a riding lawnmower into sixth gear and let off the brake pedal as quickly as possible, you can pop a wheelie. I also learned that, in the repair shop world, someone bringing in a go-cart or motorized scooter to be worked on is considered a holiday.
I learned that using a sledgehammer to smash open a wooden crate containing new equipment is therapeutic, and more effective than a Bowflex. I learned that some longtime customers are loyal to a fault, and that others try to convince you that they already paid their bill. I also learned that a shop’s air hose can shoot the steel balls from inside ball bearings what seemed like a quarter mile.
I learned that when it is a hundred degrees outside in June and July, the large shop fan works better if you fill its water tank with gallon jugs full of frozen water. I learned that if you bring a customer their fixed lawnmower in a timely fashion, that person will tip you enough money to buy your next Mr. Pibb.
More than anything, I learned work ethic. I learned that you arrive early, do your job and leave when all your tasks are completed. I learned that appearing lazy on the job is sinful. I learned that it is OK to have fun while you work, so long as you are not interfering with production.
These days, I see many teenagers at their summer jobs. I see them ringing up customers at the Sam’s Club with one hand, their other tightly wrapped around an iPhone. I see them texting at the Wal-Mart, scrolling Twitter at the Publix, delaying customers’ sweet tea refills at the Ruby Tuesday.
A number of years ago, the shop closed. I am so thankful that I learned there, that I got to spend six summers sweating my hind parts off, building at least some muscle. I am thankful that I learned how to change lawnmower oil, how to clean a dusty air filter, how to properly wash a carburetor. I am thankful that I no longer have to work like that every single day.
The thing I’m most thankful for about the shop? My cell phone had to remain in my lunchbox in the break room, where it belonged.