Smithology: It’s all part of the plan, and the plan is all of parts

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Wikimedia Commons/Pentti Immonen

“That is a lot of parts.”

I thought for a moment. Then I squinted at the pile of boxes just inside our front door and felt my head tilt toward a shoulder. It later occurred to me that our dog produces the same gesture when outsmarted by squirrels.

“Is it?”

My wife sighed, raising her eyebrows in the resigned sort of manner that indicates the person attached to those eyebrows once had a life that did not involve these kinds of discussions, and gee, wasn’t that a nice time?

For some deeply unknowable reason, I felt the need to continue speaking.

“I mean, I’ve ordered more in one week before. Have you ever restored a car?”

“You know I haven’t.”

“Well, see? This is just service stuff. Necessary items. Fixing what’s broken. Not an extravagance.”

“And it all had to happen at once?”

“No. That was just convenient. These parts are for three separate vehicles.”

I had a brief out-of-body moment, hearing my words as if they had come from someone else. That guy sounds reasonable, I thought.

“You can’t drive three cars at the same time,” she said.

I squinted again, confused.

“But we have three cars, and they … need to be fixed?”

“So why order it all at once?”

“Why not?”

“I do not … understand you.”

“You said that the day we got married.”

She made that face again. Then she shrugged and walked out of the room, and I was alone with the parts.

And I was happy.

Door Hinge Spring Clip Part In Focus
Sam Smith

It began with the ordering, as it always does. Parts can’t show up if you don’t order them. Can’t get scattered across the living-room floor for inventory, can’t get held aloft, one at a time, in the dappled and heavenly glow of the 40-watt lamp on your sofa end table as if you were Indiana Jones and that cardboard box with the Bosch logo was somehow the Holy Grail. In that moment, you know for a fact that you have chosen wisely, as the old knight said, because this is the right voltage regulator or relay or whatever, and it will solve all your problems and fix your misbehaving mechanical object and create something not entirely unlike world peace.

Or maybe just a properly running car or motorcycle.

Possibly a properly running lawnmower. The specifics are irrelevant. I once had the same feeling while inventorying repair bits for a coffee machine. (Coffee machines are fun to fix. Try it. Hugely satisfying.)

Memory says my first parts order occurred in high school. It was 1997, I was 16, and I was helping my father restore a 1957 MGA. The second order came the same year, for my Volvo 240. Or maybe it was a year later, for the 240 that replaced that one. Memory is fuzzy. A lot of stuff happened in high school, and I didn’t pay enough attention, because I was too busy listening to loud music and thinking about girls. Or listening to loud girls and thinking about music. Or just staring out the window during class, wishing I was on the road, driving to somewhere else.

The rest of the time, I was reading parts catalogs.

The ordering process is always entertaining. Driven by need but dusted with want. Paging through the internet or a paper catalog: Fixing it will take this, and this, and this! Possibly that? Should we also order that? More staring out the window. Options are considered. Forums are consulted. Books are read. Sometimes you have to read the book before you order the parts, so you know which parts to order. This often means buying a book online. Which means you have to wait. Days or weeks later, a mailman drops said book on your front porch.

Book is here. Book stands between you and parts. The anticipation is so palpable and desperate it seems to sit on your tongue, cold and metallic.

EMGO Brake Shoe Box Parts
Sam Smith

You stop what you’re doing and tear open the box. A book is held up to the light in a triumphant fashion all its own. Sometimes, but not always, the book is shrink-wrapped in plastic, which must be removed. I was reminded of this a few weeks ago, when the mailman brought me a brand-new Haynes manual for 500cc Triumph motorcycles. Book shrink-wrap is almost certainly the lock on the fire-exit door for the seventh level of hell. This wrap is composed of a thin, clear plastic that seems to stretch forever but rarely breaks, uncuttable by fingernail or teeth or anything short of a sharp knife. Which I never seem to have handy.

Frustration mounts: locked out from knowledge! You can eyeball your goal but not touch! Somewhere in your skull, a train flies off the rails. A mental reservoir of restraint, drawn on during long days of waiting, boils to vapor and shoots out your ears. Your hands stretch and move the plastic without luck and you go pinwheeling around the room, fighting and pawing at the book with two hands, foe held high in the air, destroying furniture in your path and attempting to break the tome from its transparent prison and THIS IS TORTURE I NEED TO ORDER PARTS DO YOU UNDERSTAND HOW LONG I HAVE BEEN WAITING, YOU HORRIBLE EVIL LITTLE LAWN GNOME OF A BOOK?

Or sometimes that plastic simply tears off in an instant. You flip pages easily, quickly and calmly finding information about the part you need. You never know.

Regardless, delayed gratification is the name of the game. The order is eventually placed. A box of parts shows up anywhere from a few days to a few weeks later. You do an inventory, checking the contents of the box against an order sheet. The big orders don’t come every day or even every season, but they’re undoubtedly the best—the largest box, the longest sheet. Hands dig through packing peanuts. Treasures are unearthed. You think about how long this part or that one sat on the shelf—who put it there last? The cellophane tape keeping that throttle cable in its bag looks a million years old. It’s possibly actual cellophane. Is that original factory grease on that new-old-stock piece of factory whatnot? What has that grease seen?

You place your jewels on a bench and admire them. The pile might be as humble as few brake parts for a simple service on your truck. It could be a set of faded and patina-heavy NOS high-level pipes for your dirty old Triumph. It might be an eBay score, some unobtainium widget, old and long ago NLA. Only the feeling is the same.

Garage Parts Pile
Sam Smith

And here we are again. The boxes are here.

I have free time coming up. A weekend without much going on. The parts are in my life. The time, too, is in my life, and when you are a busy person with children and a job, that is a rare intersection indeed.

Then comes the best feeling in the whole blessed process: You get to use the stuff.

(And possibly drink a little less coffee than you did during inventory. Had about four cups before I pored through the boxes that just showed up.)

(Or was it five cups? Who remembers? Got excited. Figured the coffee would help focus.)

(Perhaps it did.)

(Perhaps something around here will break again soon and I will get to order more parts.)

(Just so entirely thoroughly wonderfully stoked, let me tell you, because that’s a big stack of parts.)

(Or so I am told.)

(Nice feeling. Everyone should have it.)

(Like that nice lady who just rolled her eyes a moment ago.)

(She should also have the nice feeling.)

(Maybe I should do something nice for her.)

(Maybe I should.)

(Go online and order her something.)

(I know her well. We’ve been married a long time. Got just the thing.)

(I bet she likes car parts.)

(If she doesn’t, let me tell you right now, I know someone who does.)

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