© 2023 Robert Sickles
In 1961, when I was almost 12, my parents and I toured eastern Canada by car. On the old highway heading along the St. Lawrence west from Montreal, our brand-new Rambler sedan boiled over, and we limped to the side on a very rural stretch. Dad said it looked bad, so Mom and I waited while he got a lift to the nearest phone to call for help. We were far short of our destination of Toronto, and we found ourselves in a tiny village some distance off the highway. For my parents, it was a vacation catastrophe. But you know me... naturally, I thought it was the best place ever!
Mom and Dad were frustrated that we were stuck in “the hicks,” an intersection of country backroads surrounded by miles of flat pastures and small farms. It didn't take long to take in the “downtown” of this little hamlet. It consisted of a few businesses under spreading trees: a modest general store/post office, a gas station with repair shop, the remains of a former brickyard, and a little brick church. A couple of boarded-up buildings hinted of busier times in the past: a barber shop or lunch counter, a bank. This nestle of old homes and businesses had been bypassed by modern times—and that’s one reason I was going to have such a great time there.
A simple, inexpensive radiator thermostat had malfunctioned, the garage mechanic explained, causing the engine to overheat and seize. Perhaps not coincidentally, that mechanic was the only one in the region who was factory-certified by American Motors and could quickly replace the engine and cooling system, better than new. The replacement engine would ship from Wisconsin, but it happened that a labor strike at the plant would cause a delay that forced us to wait a week.
The only place to lodge was a guest room in an old orchard farmhouse run by an elderly couple. Mom's response was, "Oh, God, is this the best we can do, Paul?" Things were a little stilted and stand-offish at first until I learned the hosts were originally from Finland. I knew a few words of Finnish that I learned from a school chum, so right off the bat I delighted them by introducing myself as the amerikkalainen blondi poika, the "American blonde boy." Somehow, this Bobby kid could turn a situation around, generally for the better. Soon my parents and the hosts were smiling over coffee and cobbler. The next day I was invited to pitch in with farm chores, and I had fun helping in the barn and apple orchard. The farmer chatted away in Finnish as though I was one of their own!
But the big attraction was around the corner and down the street. A short walk from the guesthouse was the gas station & repair shop, where our poor car was to be fixed. Over the days, after morning farm chores, I watched the young Dutch mechanic work diligently on our car and on other jobs. He narrated his work in detail, and philosophized about all sorts of things as I watched. I think he was trained at the highest level, and broadly educated. I'm sure I thought I wanted to do that kind of work someday.
He said it was alright for me to nose around, carefully, so I explored the big old shop building of weathered planks, massive beams and structural brick. There were old-time gas pumps and rusty oil and tire company signs out front, Canadian brands I wasn't familiar with. Heavy doors rolled open on an overhead track, revealing the mechanic's workplace within a living display of technology and craftsmanship from bygone days. Haphazard shelves of hoses, belts, cables, clamps, fuses, fluids and gaskets were pushed up close to leaning racks of tires. There was a faded pinup girl poster for Coca Cola in the office next to an oak desk that groaned under the weight of a heap of parcels, papers and catalogs. On the back wall hung a collection of antique woodworking tools for chopping, sawing, shaping and carving, and everything for shoeing, sheering and grooming livestock.
Adjacent to the building, where a split rail fence surrounded a small overgrown yard, I found the remains of a corral and smithy. A cobwebbed blacksmith's shed was now heaped with used radiators, tailpipes and chrome bumpers.
Inside, up a long flight of plank steps, the loft was crowded with barrels and crates of all kinds of antique car parts—steering wheels, hubcaps, hood ornaments, gearshifts. There was a “barricade” of old bicycles, carriage parts and wagon wheels. Inside a small alcove, I found a trove of dusty saddles, collars, horseshoes and tack.
Downstairs, the work benches and floor of darkened oak planks were dented and worn from a century of heavy use, and infused with a rich bouquet. I noted the obvious: axle grease, machine oil, gasoline, brake fluid, paints, glues and thinners. The undertones: sawdust, pipe tobacco, old vinyl and musty car upholstery. The air in the room would sometimes fill with acrid metallic smells of grinding and welding.
Trace scents of saddle soap, linseed oil, pine tar, oat straw and rawhide lingered in a store room that looked like it used to be a stable stall. If you could bottle it, I believe there are some who would wear it like cologne. What if English Leather or Old Spice actually smelled like their names?
The way I felt instantly at home in that old repair shop, and my being open to the idea of previous lifetimes, it makes sense to me that I once had a very good life employed in a machine shop, garage or stables. Or, maybe I loved someone who did that work.
Memories of places and people are strengthened when they’re associated with smells. The sweetness of cottonwoods always takes my wife back to a happy time in her childhood when her Grandma owned a resort on Lake Washington.
When I’m in any kind of workshop, the smells transport me to the spirit of a friendly and wise Dutch mechanic, watching his precision craftsmanship, and feeling the energy of the incredible building where he performed his magic. Open a box of cinnamon and I am reminded of the kind old Finnish lady and her saucepan of fresh applesauce. Lift the hood of a car and catch a whiff of a too-hot engine, and I’m thinking again about that week in a little town on the highway to Toronto!
I realize that this is like a glorification of odors; of course, one man's aroma is another's stench. You may not resonate with my thoughts about the smell of an old repair shop, but I wish for you all a moment now and then when a fleeting scent reminds you of peace and love.
With our car repaired, we were off to see some of Canada for a much shorter trip than was planned—but what did I care? I had just spent a week in Happyville. I don’t know the name of the place, so far away and long ago, but it’d be just fine with me if my next heaven looks like that village, somewhere over the hill and down the road.