When I was six years old my Daddy bought me a used 20" boys' bicycle, one with the tanks on the top of the frame. It was red and I thought it the best bicycle in the world. But as bicycles are prone to do it wasn't long before I discovered the bane of bicycle ownership-- a flat rear tire.
I was certain I would need a new tire if not an entire bicycle but Daddy knew otherwise. You see, while Daddy wasn't much of a mechanic and didn't have bicycles as a child he did have bicycles while stationed in Germany, Japan, and Korea during his time in the United States Army and Army Air Corps. Daddy took me to Dockery Lumber Company on Huffine Mill Road and introduced me to Monkey Grip Tire Patches. Soon I was a 6 year old tire patching, bicycle flat fixing expert.
It wasn't long before I understood the mechanics of my bicycle inside and out.
That would be the last bicycle my parents would ever buy for me. By the time I was ready to move up to a larger bicycle I had discovered the Greensboro City Dump not far from our home where in those days people could carry out anything that had not yet been buried. I built my next bicycle from parts gathered from the dump.
I even learned the basics of things such as sanding, priming, and spray painting metals even though it would still be many years before I moved from spray bombs to spray guns and air brushes.
Then came lawnmowers.
I started mowing our yard at age 10 and before I turned 11 I was mowing yards all over the neighborhood to make spending money. As Daddy didn't know how to repair lawnmowers I had to learn through a lot of trial and error. And there was a lot of error.
When I managed to fix the mower I was told I did a good job. When the mower wouldn't run I was simply told that since I tool it apart I would have to be the one to fix it. The only time anything was ever said to me was when I tossed a handful of dirt down the carburetor of Daddy's lawnmower, "Why did you fill it full of dirt?"
"It was on fire," I explained.
"Next time just cover it with your hand or a board," Daddy explained. "Don't use dirt."
Hey, I was maybe 12, what did I know? Most of my 12 year old friends had yet to learn what a carburetor was. I took it apart. I cleaned it out. I got it running again... for the rest of the summer at least. Daddy always said if I had to pay for the lawnmowers I wore out and tore up I'd have given up mowing yards very early on.
During those same years I helped Daddy and the man next door build room additions to our homes. Daddy couldn't understand fractions so Momma and I had to measure for him but Daddy could saw a straight line like nobody's business. It wasn't until I was in my mid twenties that I reached a breakthrough and managed to make Daddy understand fractions but don't think he wasn't smart as he could multiply and divide whole numbers up to 6 digits in his head. He just left school to feed his family before fractions were taught.
Daddy would collect bent nails my younger brothers and I would spend many an hour straightening so that he could save on the cost of construction. We weren't always allowed to do things like using power tools but we were always close enough to observe. And that included when the blood flowed. I learned a lot about workplace safety from watching a man who had never been taught any such thing. Daddy was smart enough never to hurt himself the same way twice and my brothers and I were smart enough to pay attention.
To my Mother's dismay I bought my first car at 14 and with the help of my brothers and several kids in the neighborhood I pushed it home. It didn't run. The 16 year old previous owner had attempted to adjust the valves of the 1962 Fiat 600 and had gotten them so far out of adjustment it would no longer start. He then gave up and sold me the car for $25.oo.
No one believed it would ever run again. At times I began to think the same thing. But finally after weeks of trial, error, and asking every mechanic I could find to describe valve adjustment to me I used the matchbook method to adjust the valves, fire that muther up, and run it into a pine tree in Momma's back yard.
And so I would begin my first unsuccessful attempt at auto body repair. But I was able to get the bumper pulled out and the fender off the tire to ride again. I also began learning my first lessons in how hydraulic systems operate as the brake master cylinder had gone bad.
By the time I was sixteen I was doing minor repairs and upgrades on my parents' cars. Remember the ancient toilet paper in a can oil filter system that came factory on old Chevrolets? Before I did my second oil change on my Mother's 1967 Bel Aire wagon with the 327 V8 I bought the conversion kit and a spin-on filter. She didn't know it wasn't stock and was just happy not to have to pay a garage for oil changes any more.
I was never afraid of attempting ever bigger projects and rarely did anyone stop me unless of course we simply couldn't put together the money. And when that became the case I looked to using salvaged materials or bartering for what I needed. I learned to become patient, to collect materials over long periods of time. Not every project dreamed up would ever come to pass but many would and all the while my skills increased.