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OUTDOOR REPORT: On the brakes

My attempt to fix my car nearly killed me

If you have a small plumbing chore to do and want it to be a huge job, give me a call. Need some painting done and would also like to replace freshly ruined carpeting? I’m your man. But I’ve rarely offered, nor have I been asked to help with auto repairs. I’m simply not equipped.

Although, I do like to save money. So I’ve occasionally made attempts at home and auto repair. I’ve failed at most. But I keep trying in an effort to save.

I once broke the grill on my wife’s ’96 Dodge trying to change a battery. She wasn’t pleased and I still needed help getting the car running. When I need a new battery now, I get a jump and head for the nearest repair shop.

I also ran the oil out of my ’69 Camaro after attempting my own oil change and not getting the oil plug in correctly. I haven’t tried to change any fluids in a car or truck since.

While the confessional is open I might as well admit that I nearly burned down my parents’ house while trying to fix some eggs. I never gave up on cooking and am proud to say I’ve only ended up in the hospital twice since from kitchen accidents.

The amount of skin I’ve lost in my attempts and the price I’ve paid for tows should have taught me to simply trust a professional. I’m not that smart.

But this is a story about my one success — learning to change brakes.

Brakes, according to what most had told me, are fairly straightforward. So when I needed new brakes on my 1967 Mercury Comet I enlisted help from a friend, Eric Gregory. Eric is also a journalist, but has the gift of making good on attempts to repair cars. He loves a challenge and has rebuilt parts of a car I didn’t know existed.

I was planning to drive my Comet to Virginia and wanted to ensure I could stop in big city traffic. Eric offered to teach me how to change brakes and rotors — an offer that would save me hundreds for a few hours work and thousands over a lifetime if I could learn the task. We agreed to a spring Saturday afternoon lesson. My father graciously bought the parts, guessing it would save him money in the long run.

My father was wrong.

When I showed up for the lesson I wasn’t feeling great. I figured I had the flu, but I planned to power through my nausea for the chance to learn.

As Eric began his lesson, I started feeling worse. I don’t remember a thing about the repair job despite his patience and the deliberate nature of his training. The next thing I knew I was awakened by my friend wagging his finger at me in the middle of a scolding.

“I’m not here to do your brakes. You need to learn to do this,” I remember him demanding. And then I was out again. Irritated with watching me sleep, Eric had enough. He gave me the keys to his father’s Chevy and told me to go sleep it off.

I don’t remember the drive. I only remember waking up in the hospital. My appendix had burst and I was in the ICU.

Eric came to the hospital after finishing the brake job. I showed him my midsection and then he got sick. I was in the hospital for 10 days, almost dying in my attempt to learn to change brakes. Two weeks later, the day after having my stitches removed, I drove my Comet to Virginia. The brakes were smooth and I figured I wouldn’t need a new set for a while so I never asked for a make-up test.

Thirty years later, almost to the day, I was getting estimates on brakes for my 2012 Nissan Frontier. I needed to pull a trailer to Powell and begin my job at the Tribune. Estimates ranged between $800 and $1,000. Yet a quick check of part prices showed I could get everything I needed for the job for less than $200. I was once again tempted to do my own repairs.

Eric didn’t live close enough to help so I enlisted my brother-in-law, Scott Davis, to pick up on the lesson Eric had started 30 years prior. (Yes, my wife’s maiden name is Davis, but this isn’t the wedding supplement so I’ll tell that story at a more appropriate time.)

Scott is a wiz with most tools and I was lucky enough to talk him into spending a spring day teaching me the task. I picked a day I was feeling spry, not wanting to end up in the hospital before starting a new job, again.

Now, to most handy people, a doodad and a thingamajig have real names, like calipers and pads. But that doesn’t seem to matter to the non-handy. I didn’t want a repeat of my first attempt, simply watching while Scott did the brakes, so the night before I decided to watch a YouTube video trying to get my vocabulary straight. The first video was too fast for me to get the process down. So I watched another. And another. Before bed I finally had the confidence to proceed.

The next morning I was just as incompetent as before I watched the videos. Scott proceeded to show me. As a matter of fact, he showed me on the first three wheels before I was ready to try one on my own.

It took me a while to get the tire off, but then the lessons kicked in. I loosened the calipers and removed the caliper carrier. The rotor was stuck so I whacked it with a mallet until it was loose. I installed the new rotor, compressed the caliper using a C-clamp and then installed the pads. Soon I was replacing the wheel and brimming with pride. It may have taken 30 years, but I had learned to change brakes.

Reliving my victory, Scott was encouraging. He has more faith in me than most. That is, until I asked for a reference.

“Stay away from my car,” Scott said. He was joking, I think, but like I said before, Scott is a smart cookie.

When I called Eric he didn’t answer. I left a message that I had a question about brakes. He never returned my call.

The moral to this story? Have good friends or a big bank account. And unless you need new brakes, never call me for assistance unless you have a decent first aid kit and a sense of humor.

There are some lessons I learned that are helpful:

The camera in your phone is a great tool. Eric advised me to photograph each stage of the removal process so I had a document I could refer to on the rebuild.

Use your smart phone to look up repair issues on YouTube. Why anyone would take the time to do a video of a repair is beyond me, but I’m glad they do.

And if all else fails, use your phone to call for help.

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