Confessions Of An Oil Change Initiate

Confessions Of An Oil Change Initiate

Think of something you have never done, actually never dreamed of doing – not some holiday antic, adventurous get-away, frivolous whim kind of thing.  No, think of something daunting, formidable, down-right intimidating.

Got it?

Where to begin?  Well, let’s eliminate asking for help right at the start.  No matter what you’ve chosen not to do for a lifetime, it is probably a fairly regular undertaking for all sorts of people.  Regular folks up and down the street have performed whatever task it is you have at hand, finding it laughably simple and hardly worth mentioning.

When I was younger and willing to put gasoline in my mouth, I had to siphon gas from one car into another.  By “had to”, I mean had better before I was caught having driven far further than I was allowed to drive.  It is possible that I did not yet have my license to drive.  It is pretty certain that I did not have my license to drive. So, immediate action had to be taken.

Not having siphoned before, and in the company of one of my lower companions who made a practice of siphoning at every opportunity, I looked to him for help.  He looked at me with wonder and contempt.

“Just suck until the gas starts to flow, then put the hose in the other tank.”

I could do suction, it turned out, but the transfer turned out to be more awkward than my former friend had indicated.  In any case, experienced thus in the unexpected art of gargling gasoline, it was a far easier job the next time, and the times after that.  No need to go into the circumstances requiring subsequent applications of this practice.

I’m on my own these days, not that I don’t have friends, but having seen the catalog of my incompetence on a pal’s face, I have learned not to broadcast the full range of skills never acquired.  Which is a shame, because the only recourse then is to dig up one of the instructional videos on YouTube, and that’s really the subject of today’s sermon.

Those more familiar with the range of expertise appearing on these how-to lessons are surely more wary than I was, and although no imbibing of gasoline took place, let’s just say that my first attempt to change the oil in my riding mower turned out to be unfortunate.

Before I detail the deceptions these so-called experts practiced upon me and the garage floor, I do want to confess that in my blessedly short career aboard a guided missile destroyer in the service of the US Navy, I was a Machinist’s Mate Third Class. I had gone through Basic Propulsion and Engineering, Advanced Propulsion and Engineering, Thermodynamics, and had begun instruction in the maintenance of nuclear reactors when I flunked a vision test and was assigned to the USS Sellers, DDG 11, waiting for me in Charleston, South Carolina.  Despite hours spent understanding the concepts behind the operation of steam-powered engines, I had not actually seen one.

What to do?  Let me remind you that this vessel carried guided missiles.  I was pretty sure the ship, the Navy, and the civilized world would not be well served by any inadvertent jumbling I did with super-heated steam under pressure, so I volunteered for every vile duty nobody else wanted to take on.  I scraped paint, pumped bilges, stood watch every night, and avoided the engine room throughout my tour.  Gratefully discharged, I vowed never to put myself in a position in which my lack of experience could do damage to unsuspecting things and people.

And then … we moved to southern Oregon, settled into country life, and inevitably found that if I tried to mow our acreage by hand, my life in retirement would be nasty, brutish, and short.  We found a local hardware store that carried all the power tools and vehicles we needed to maintain the place, listened carefully to the instructions given us by the cheerful sales folks, tucked the manuals into folders near the machines, bought the necessary fluids, and began our new lives confident in our ability to keep the place tidy.

The first year passed uneventfully, but in the normal cycle of maintenance, the time came to change the oil in the Husqvarna riding mower, by now my favorite possession and mode of transport.  I stopped back at the hardware store, checked in with the cheerful salesman that  sold me the mower, and, prepared for ritual shaming, asked how the process should be carried out.  Without a single disparaging glance, the guy got right to it, demonstrating on one of the floor models.  Zip, zap, zoom, caps were pulled, plugs were pulled, filters slid, and the job was done.

Again, theoretically.

Back home, I rehearsed the procedure, assembled all the devices I thought necessary, attached the hose leading to the collecting pan,and pulled the first plug.


I love my machine and I love my garage; I wanted no harm to come to either.  I did what any incompetent would do, I went to YouTube.  Thirty or forty videos appeared as possible modes of instruction.  Overwhelming.  Not knowing any better, I picked one with the word “easy” in the title.  And that’s when I discovered what I should have known from every other life experience:

People who know how to do what you need to know how to do assume that any sentient creature understands the basic principles that surely need not be articulated.

I saw my first expert reach below the engine, twist something, pull something, then chortle with pleasure at the ease with which his container was neatly filling with used oil.  The next three experts were equally off-handed in starting the flow of used oil into the container.

These experts, by the way, are all the same guy.  They come from different parts of the country, speak with different accents, but aside from that, they all approach this sort of lesson with the same smarmy self-satisfaction.

“I can do this in my sleep!  What’s your problem?”

My problem was that, no matter how many videos I searched, one key piece of information eluded me.  I understood the whole schmeer, from the cleansing of the various points of intake to the final thoughtful disposal of the oil.  What I did not understand was how to twist, push, and pull the plug at the bottom of the oil tank so that the well-directed flow of used oil landed in my oil pan.

I should have driven back out to the hardware store, admitted my failings, and watched the human perform the trick I could not master.

What I did was to keep at it for about an hour until I twisted the plug just a bit too far.

I had never knelt in a pool of used oil until today.  It’s not an experience I want to repeat, and whatever skills I acquired in the mopping up of the spill I will be happy to forget.  My neatly stacked implements disappeared first, then the manuals lying near at hand.  I watched the tide reach my knees and despaired.

Here’s a digression that came immediately to mind in that moment.  My favorite baseball broadcaster as a kid was Red Barber, who worked the Dodger and then the Yankee games.  He had a sweet southern accent and a gift for colorful metaphor, and, he later revealed in an interview that he never swore, under any circumstance.  His thinking was that he feared that in a moment of excitement, he might let an expletive fly.  Today, announcers might not be so punctilious, but Barber was, and given the Mazerowski home run in 1960, I’m sure we were both glad he was.

I’m not as routinely careful, but I get the idea, and happily did not let loose when the oil hit the garage floor.  The garage and driveway share a fence with the neighbors’riding arena; I never know who is likely to be out there.  Fortunately, no bodily functions or other vulgarisms were spewed at the moment of crisis, and for that small moment of grace, I am grateful.

Ah, but I  am left with the certainty that help is not always at hand, and I’d better get myself caught up as quickly as I can before I have to lubricate the chain on my chainsaw.




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