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A Family Visits the Hood, and Likes to Get Under It Too

What I know about cars is this: I get in, start the engine and drive. I know nothing about overhead cams, differentials or combustion rates. I don’t know where the manifold is, and I don’t care.

When a passenger in my car says, “Sounds like you’re having trouble with your rear end,” I reply that it’s an old problem and I’m being treated for it by a gastroenterologist. If he looks at me like I’m demented, c’est la vie .

Then what, you’re wondering, was I doing the other day wandering around a museum devoted to cars, comparing the thrust ratio of a modified ’41 Chevy to that of a store-bought ’99 Toyota? Good question.

We had out-of-town visitors. They were from a small town in Missouri and had always dreamed of the day they could drive to L.A. in their reconfigured ’87 Bumbum, or whatever, and visit the Petersen Automotive Museum, which is, quite obviously, devoted mostly to cars. All kinds of cars. Big cars, little cars, new cars, old cars, red cars, blue cars and cars once driven by rock stars who have either faded into obscurity or are under treatment for substance abuse on a chicken farm in Malibu.

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I’ll call the visitor Billy Bob. Obscuring his identity has nothing to do with respecting his good name. It’s to protect myself from his wrath if he realizes what I’m writing. But since he doesn’t read anything more profound than the car parts section of the Small Town Gazette, I’m probably safe.

Billy Bob is a friend of a friend of a friend twice removed who reminds me of Randy Quaid in one of those Chevy Chase vacation movies. Big and good-natured and, well, limited. He’s a part-time mechanic married to a part-time fry cook and they have two full-time children. And they all love cars.

So we took ‘em to car heaven.

People who love cars are different from you and me. There is nothing else in their lives. They eat dinner, I mean supper, with their heads under the hood of a car tinkering with various tinkerables. Cylinder rings, maybe, or the power steering pump. They consume grease right along with their pork chops and don’t notice the difference in taste. Sometimes they sleep under a car to be close to the oil pan or the antilock brakes. You can hear them purring in the moonlight, like a well-tuned ’58 Corvette.

Billy Bob, his woman and their two little subcompacts were only happy talking about cars. When I mentioned the trouble in Macedonia, Billy Bob said he had tools in the trunk of his car and he’d take a look at it.

“It’s a country,” I explained, “not a car. You know, like a place on a continent? You’re probably not familiar with continents.”

“Be nice,” my wife whispered.

I don’t know how to be nice to people whose favorite television series was “My Mother the Car.” They thought it was a documentary.

“Do you suppose,” I whispered to Cinelli, “their family time consists of dismantling a transmission? Maybe they picnic in a junkyard.”

We were in the Petersen Museum. They were staring lovingly at a car Elvis Presley had once shot full of holes in a food-induced rage. Theirs was a look of common adoration, a man and wife and their litter, gazing at a car as though it were the Shroud of Turin.

“Maybe,” she said.

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They were here only a few days. Cinelli, ever the optimist, suggested that if I got to know them better I’d probably like them. But how could I ever be close to someone whose idea of entertainment consists of flushing their radiator? God knows, I made the effort to at least be civil, though I am not usually generous with people whose most precious possession is a pair of channel lock pliers.

My last day with them was spent driving Billy Bob to an automotive store where he could touch things and be close to those parts of his life with which he was most familiar. I swear that at one point he picked up a valve gasket and smelled it, as though to identify it by scent.

On the way back to our house Billy Bob suddenly said, “Stop the car!” He got out and said, “Raise the hood.” It wasn’t feeding time, so I had no idea why he wanted the hood raised. “Listen,” he demanded. The motor was still running. I listened. I heard a motor running.

“You don’t hear the ping?” Billy Bob asked, astonished. I did not. He shook his head in a patronizing manner. “I don’t know how you get by in the world,” he said, climbing back into the car.

I don’t either, but from now on I guess it’ll have to be without Billy Bob and Mrs. Billy Bob and the little bobs. They’re back in Smalltown, Mo., playing horseshoes with their valve gaskets.

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Al Martinez’s column appears Mondays and Thursdays. He can be reached at al.martinez@latimes.com.


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