Monday, May 25, 2015

HST 344 University of Dayton Student "Auto" Biography -- Jacob Browning -- the Church of the Open Throttle

Robert Schuler Preaching at his Drive-In Church

My step father owned a foreign car auto parts store for more than thirty years.  Some people talk about small business as having less than fifty people so we must have been a nano-business.  Mom ran the books and took orders over the phone.  Dad knew all the parts and had thousands of part numbers in his head.  He juggled multiple phone lines like it was the auto parts circus.  I spent a good portion of my childhood there, especially when I was sick or they couldn't afford childcare.  My mom would put some dirty blankets on the floor so that I could waller around in my illness with brake pads and clutch kits.  Later, they expected me to do homework or contribute to the business.  Sometimes we had a delivery driver and after I was sixteen, I got to drive whichever old Toyota or Nissan mini pickup truck we owned at the time to every repair shop within thirty miles.  The building had two store fronts and walk out basement garages where we stored and worked on the toys.  Many shops closed at noon so business trailed off as the clock approached lunchtime.

On Saturdays, we were open 9 to 1 and that is when church met.  Folks would start rolling in about eleven or twelve, mostly men but occasionally a woman would visit.  We met in the basement garages with the tools and the grease and whichever car we were working on at the time.  My brother and I were the ones in coveralls underneath the car, usually with grease covering our hands and forearms up to our elbows where the sleeves would protect us from the gritty “schmutz.”  We recognized the members from their shoes and pant legs.  My dad would preside from a naugahide swivel chair with armrests, McDonald’s coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other.  I feel that he only had one hair style my whole life: blond wispy hair simply pushed back with his hands in the morning.  I used to joke he kept it a bit long since he was a teenager in the 60s and it just stayed that way.  Dad was thin and muscular and my parents were quite tan in the summer because they spent plenty of time on one of those TVA lakes down in Kentucky. 

Cigarettes were our incense and we were a Winston family.  Dad smoked full flavors, Mom smoked mediums when she started again, and my brother and I smoked ultra-lights before we developed a tolerance for the stronger versions.  The congregation smoked other flavors and the minority nonsmokers were blessed with our second hand smoke.  I imagine they walked out of service with a headache. 

There was no sermon, yet truths of life and the automobile bounced around between the men and my dad.  They were sometimes there to pick his brain, but mostly for the holy fellowship of horsepower.  I never heard my father swear until I was almost 30 but one could hear in the exchange plenty of cursing.  It was a garage full of men, after all.  The talk of the newest BMW or the finer points of Porsche mechanicals was always sprinkled with colorful language and it is here that I learned the art of swearing.  My cursing usually was the result of a stuck bolt or my greasy hand slipping from a wrench and meeting sharp metal underneath the vehicle.  As each fellow would enter the garage, they would come over to the vehicle and peer through the compartment to see what we were working on.  I learned about patience from those men and there usually was a nugget of golden wisdom in their advice.  Towards its heyday, the congregation would swell almost to ten men if you counted us boys. 

Women’s service was in the office as my mom always had something to do at her desk and the women would drift into the office after about 5 minutes of interaction in the garage.  The cigarette smoke was substantially less dense in the office.  My mom’s friend Susan rolled up one day in her Porsche Targa to see us standing around worshiping at the workbench and hollered, “Is this the Church of the Open Throttle?”  As we looked to each other with a chuckle, we all knew the name would stick and she would eventually make stickers for our tool boxes so that we could display our membership.  The decal had a round female ass in a thong superimposed over my dad’s Porsche 911 and read, “Church of the Open Throttle, John C. Struve presiding, services Saturday, 9-?? and some Tuesday nights.”

You might think with all this talk of sports cars, motorcycles, and boats that we were wealthy people.  This was not the case.  My parents never purchased any vehicle that was not in a state of disrepair.  Dad would buy two wrecked Porsches and make one good one.  My first car didn’t run.  Their houseboat had been a twenty year old rental.  I grew up with the idea that you make money when you sell a car, usually because you bought it broken.

Dan was the member who made me laugh the most as a young man.  Dad and Dan had worked together at the original parts store before my dad bought and moved it.  He was a parts manager at a foreign garage where I saw my first Ferrari as a boy and I was allowed to sit in it!  After the name stuck, he would do the faux preaching, Holy Roller revival style to amuse us when he came in.  “Ch-ILL-dren, I ahsk, do ya ba-leeve in grease? Do ya ba-LEEVE in drop forged wrenches?  Do ya ba-leeve in black motorcycles?  If ya be-leeve in holy black motorcycles, (pause), say Amen!”  And we would all say amen unless you were in the middle of lighting a smoke.  Once when I was about 13 and not yet a proficient mechanic, Dan saw me throw a tool to the ground in frustration while working on my dirt bike.  He rushed his short legs over to me and the look on his face put the fear of black motorcycles in me.  I received a scolding while my dad looked at me with disapproval.  I thought for a moment that I would be spanked by a non-family member right there in the garage.  Dan explained to me a bit later why it is important not to throw tools and what a tool means and costs.  Of course, my motorcycle today is black.

Alan was the misfit of the bunch.  Not only was he English, but he was also the CFO of a very large multinational corporation.  This made him considerably wealthier than the rest of the congregation and able to afford classic examples of British sports cars such as Jaguar E-types and Lotus Elans.  At 6’4” and near 17 stone, I’m not quite sure how he fit in those cars.  Unlike some chaps who wear a driving cap while motoring in a British convertible, Alan could not as his dark gray curls protruded above the windshield and those little cars seemed to lean a bit to the driver’s side.  He once took me on a spirited ride in an old Jag as ballast, twisting through the roads as suburb turned to country.  He must have smoked the most of the bunch and made the rest of us look like casual smokers.  Many times he was a bit early and we would still be running the shop from the front of the store.  My dad had a stool behind the counter but employees were prohibited from sitting on it as he thought we should be doing something.  Alan would move this stool to in front of the counter, grab one of the ashtrays and sit at the glass display as if it were a bar serving auto parts, smoking and chatting with dad between calls or with the other customers.  We were all sad when he went back to England to run another company from the top.

The Church of the Open Throttle was not always the safest of places and I probably injured myself more than anyone.  We didn’t try to be unsafe, we just didn’t have the proper tools or weren’t using them as intended.  “Adapt and overcome” was an often overheard slogan when you got stuck.  This meant you were to forage around the shop until you found something to use, either in a big bin of rusty nuts and bolts or for a tool to misuse.  I am proud to say that cars never fell on anyone and my stitches were probably the most acute injury.  While trimming some plastic from a license plate frame, I sliced deep into my palm with a razor blade.  Although church was in session, my father said I would have to deliver myself to the emergency room.  A new faded shop rag was located and carefully secured to my left hand with duct tape.  I was also instructed to come back after repair as the vehicle I was working on would need to be finished and moved out of the garage.  Driving a manual transmission was interesting and I was lucky the seating position inside a Volkswagen Golf allowed me to steer with my knees.  Once off the garage floor and into the emergency room, I felt ashamed to be so dirty and had a fear that my “schmutz” would infect another patient or cause the hospital staff to clean up after my departure.  

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