Sunday, June 18, 2017

Throttle Body and the Fix-it Gene


 "What was wrong with the car?" I asked the attendant at the dealer service center.

"It was a bad throttle body," she said.

"A what?"

"Throttle body," she repeated. "It's an electronic device that went bad."

"What's that?” I asked, unwilling to let it go.

"It's a sensor that helps control the airflow to the engine. You know, like carburetors used to do. Do you remember carburetors? New cars are controlled by electronics now. Carburetors are no longer used. The throttle body in your car went bad and we replaced it. It's fine now," she explained, thinking my line of inquiry was related to whether or not the car would work right.

Did I remember carburetors? Hell, yes, I remember carburetors. I nearly started—but caught myself—to tell her about my father tearing apart more than one of those from our old cars. He'd spread newspapers over the kitchen table, promising my mother he'd be done by dinner. He'd bring parts in from the garage that had been soaking in a solvent—probably gasoline; it was the 60s, a time when we didn't know better than to casually handle dangerous substances—into the kitchen, gingerly wipe them clean, then proceed to meticulously rebuild the faulty equipment until it purred like the cat we were never allowed to have. All of us kids knew it was a carburetor and that dad was fixing it.

"Dad's rebuilding a carburetor, stay out of the kitchen," mom would say.

It was a given: at our house, when things broke, dad FIXED them—the washer, the dryer, the light switch, the door latch, an old radio, the carburetors. When we lived in the inner city, he installed deadbolts half way up on our windowsills that allowed the windows to be opened during the night, just enough to let in some air since we didn't have air conditioning, but not opened enough that an intruder could come in through the windows. We all slept soundly.

One wintry night in our cold garage, he and my brother, worked to fix the timing chain—which is not easy—on an old Chevy I had purchased with money from my first real job. I remember it well because it was my task that night to angle the hanging light, as directed, throughout the whole process. It worked like new when they were done. Most impressively, they figured out what the problem was without the use of the ever-present dashboard message or computer analysis.

A minister who read "Popular Mechanics" for inspiration and the Bible for work, dad was the best shirtsleeve mechanic, engineer, and all-round handyman one could have ever wanted living under your roof. He had many shortcomings—fodder for another time perhaps, but his ability to figure out how things worked, and then to fix them if they broke, wasn't one of them. At that, he was a pro.

Over the years, I have come to recognize some of that same fix-it spirit—possibly, a fix-it gene—in myself. It has served me well in my own home and even on the job; and, though I've never rebuilt a carburetor, I'm the one in our house who keeps the computers, internet, and printers running. I recently fixed the lamp in the front room that kept falling apart. It needed a longer double threaded coupler. I took the old part to Lowe's and found the replacement hardware I needed. My husband's suggestion had been to throw it out and get a new lamp. I've hung all the pictures in our house. I've cut, finished, and installed chair rail and baseboard. I didn't know how to get rid of the gap in places where the baseboard didn't flesh up to the wall perfectly. I asked a friend—another trick I learned from dad, ask an expert—who was a painter, and he said, caulk it. I went caulk crazy, creating the perfect fit of molding to the walls. All articles of clothing in the family that need buttons, new zippers, patches, or whatever, come to me. I'm the fixer. Thanks, dad!

Throttle body? What a beautiful term. I did an online search and looked at pictures of throttle bodies. It's a small, simple-looking device. I looked closely at a diagram of where it's usually located in the engine and according to Wikipedia,

"Cars with fuel injection don't need a mechanical device to meter the fuel flow...However, they do still need a throttle to control the airflow into the engine. The simplest way to do this is to remove the carburetor, and bolt on a unit containing a throttle body and fuel injectors instead."

It seems to me this is saying you could convert a carburetor set-up to a fuel injection system. I don't know that for sure, and well, I couldn't do it in any regard, and frankly, why would I? Also, I think they need electronics to regulate them. I'm pretty sure, my dad could've done it had he ever have felt the need to, or even if he'd have just wanted to. I'm certain, he would have been good with computers, too. 

I grew up thinking dad could fix anything, something that feels rare and difficult to do in today’s complicated electronic, gadget-ted world. But, more than once throughout my life, I've been thankful for the fix-it gift. I have no doubt I got it largely from my father, although, my mom was no slacker when it came to fixing things either.

It seems to me that we, as children, whether early in life or later, make decisions, sometimes conscious, sometimes non-conscious, as to which in the catalog of our parent’s traits we will adopt and which we will spend our lives turning from, often only with the help of a therapist. That might be how children from the same family turn out so differently, or why some children from horrific upbringings go on to live happy successful lives; I don’t know. My father could be grumpy, tense, and explosive and I have always known those were traits I did not want to nurture. I had a friend who told me how his father once smashed a guitar on his head because his dad thought he was spending too much time “fooling around with the damned thing.” My friend said he made a decision that he would not be that kind of dad. It’s easy to think about how we want to be different than our parents, not so easy to think about what we want to emulate.

One of the good traits my father possessed was his creative approach to mending the broken things in our home and in our lives—he was fearless, determined, and not afraid to fail. If he did fail, he just kept at it until he succeeded. I doubt I made a conscious decision to adopt that attitude, but I recognize it in myself and would never want to be different. Maybe my father transferred that can-do attitude to me, and for that I am grateful. It feels like a pretty amazing and useful gift to have received. I'm not ready to change a throttle body in my car, but if it ever goes bad again, I'll know what's wrong, and in a passing moment, I’ll wonder if that’s something I could fix myself.

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