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My father loves cars, probably more than he loves me. Well, maybe not more than he loves me, but let's just say that when he's with buddies and has a choice between discussing his son's columns or comparing torque converters, I suspect Life As A Loser probably loses. I've accepted that and made my peace with it, though it still doesn't change the fact that I can't change a tire.

Whether it's true or not, I like to believe that when my father was young, he was one of the grease monkeys, one of the cool motorcycle guys who smoked in the boys room, wore a leather jacket and had a crewcut. He was also always Mr. Fix-It, the guy in the garage who was constantly taking roadsters apart and putting them back together in random order. I'm not exactly sure how he gained the knowledge of the inner workings of cars, but I suspect he had learned from his father, who had learned from his father, who had a father who could fix carriages. It's kind of a Leitch family tradition. On a cool summer afternoon while other fathers are on the couch watching golf, the Leitchs are lubricating the carburetor, waxing the chassis, rotating the gaskets and stroking the pistons. Obviously, I have no idea what any of these things mean, which, if you've ever opened the hood of a car, you already know.

Well, my inability to even begin to comprehend the inner workings of a car has been a constant source of frustration to my father. It wasn't long after my birth that my dad realized the Leitch tradition of passing automotive knowledge down through the generations was about to end - and violently.

I think his first suspicion was when I was 8. He decided young Will needed to learn how a car's oil was changed. After mild complaints that the Voltron cartoon was on and I couldn't be bothered, I followed Dad to the garage. My job was to get the tools when Dad needed them, absorb what little information I could and, most important, stay the hell out of his way. I failed at all three. Dad must have known I was in trouble when I started whining about getting oil all over my fingers. By the time I kept disappearing to help Mom in the kitchen, it was clear this son was bound to be a disappointment.

But it didn't stop him from trying. Seemingly every weekend, we headed out to the garage for a new lesson. As much as he attempted to teach me about drum brakes, MacPherson struts and pintle valves, pretty much the only thing I absorbed was lefty-loosey, righty-tighty, and even that was a struggle. Eventually our sessions disintegrated into "Hold onto this hammer" and "Quit standing around, and take out the trash." I was useless.

Desperate, my dad tried one last trick. One afternoon, when I was 14, I was at the neighbor's being mercilessly destroyed in a game of pickup basketball. Suddenly, I noticed a strange car pulling into our driveway. Of course I couldn't identify it, but I knew two things: It looked cool, and it wasn't the most practical car for a 39-year-old man.

I sprinted over to my home and found a 1967 Blue Chevy Camaro, one of those cars you just know my dad drooled over as a kid. The stated reason my dad had purchased it was to have something to pick apart in the garage, but my mom and I knew the real story. This was 1) a chance for Dad to recapture his youth and have the things he had no access to at 18 and 2) a test for his pensive, egghead kid who couldn't tell the difference between a ratchet set and ball-peen hammer. If young Will could prove he could respect a car like the Camaro - i.e., willingly learn how the darn thing works rather than just hopping in and driving - maybe, just maybe, it could be his car when he turned 16.

Well, Dad decided he was going to rip this car apart, limb from limb, then put the whole thing back together again. And I would hold the tools. We labored for months, and even though I at last learned how to use a jack, little progress was made. I think the worst of it was probably when I tried to take off the air filter using a butter knife and a corkscrew. But Dad was a trooper, and eventually the Camaro, the dream car, was ready to ride, even if I wasn't.

I was a good two weeks away from getting my license when my father and I finally took the Camaro out for a spin. Since I had my learner's permit, Dad begrudgingly allowed me to drive, though not over 35 miles per hour, a hindrance on the highway, I might add. Cruising through downtown Mattoon, I hit a couple curbs and scared a few pedestrians, but basically all was well, though my dad's fingernail markings are still imbedded in the passenger dashboard.

After about an hour of driving - and my dad screaming in my ear, "Quit riding the clutch!," "Get your damn signal on!" and "Did you check your goddamn mirror?!" - I was ready to wave the white flag. Then, euphorically, I noticed Amy Garrett walking down the sidewalk. Amy was my junior high muse, the girl who every guy wanted but only I deserved. Thankfully for her, she tended to stay away from the scholastic-bowl type, but she was always very friendly, giving me some futile hope.

My dad noticed my wandering eye. "Hey, I bet that girl would like the car. Girls love cars, you know."

For a brief second, I understood my dad's obsession. Wanting to loosen the coil springs and tighten the camshaft to release oil repression made little sense to me, but driving a cool car to impress a girl, well, that certainly computed. Suddenly, it all seemed worth the trouble.

"You should pull up beside her," Dad said, but I was already a step ahead of him. "Hey, Amy, how's it going? Get my license next week. Just, uh, cruising around, you know." Smooth, oh yeah, that's the sugar.

Surprised by the school dork driving an awesome car, Amy smiled, tilted her head in that flirtatious way 15-year-old girls do and said, "Oh, Will, hi! Cool car! Is it yours?"

Oh yeah, baby, sure is, that's right. Wanna cruise? "Listen, Amy, are you going to be in biology tomorrow? Thought maybe you might want to get together and study for that test. Just give me a call tonight and we'll figure out what's up." I had her. "Sure, Will, I think I will." All right, see ya, baby, I'm cruisin' out, meet you on the other side, yeah.

I tossed her my most debonair smile and glanced at my dad, beaming. I then shifted into reverse - hey, it's right next to first gear - and jutted violently backward, sending my father and I careening toward the dashboard and, of course, killing the car. I didn't dare look at Amy or my dad. I just calmly shifted into first, restarted the car and suavely, in Amy's full sight, killed the car again. We eventually proceeded down the street in vicious little bursts before Dad, finally having had enough, made me get out and let him drive home.

Funny, Amy never called.



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