TCS Daily

Garagum Sanctorum

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - December 20, 2004 12:00 AM

LIGONIER, PA. -- All kinds of "male bastions" have fallen in the past few decades, but one place remains peculiarly male -- that province of power tools and temple of the automobile -- the American garage.

One of the many joys of moving back to my little hometown after many years in the big city is the return to relaxing rhythms and rituals of small town life. One of those, definitely a guy ritual, is to get in your car or pickup truck and cruise about on some spring or summer evening, keeping your eye peeled for the welcome sight of light blossoming from an open garage door.

You slow down, peer inside, and maybe stop for a little visit. Bud Brownfield's still fitting the pieces of a Chinese puzzle -- boxes, buckets, tools, scrap lumber -- into various spaces around, over and between his Corvette and his Cadillac. Bill Stablein might be wiping down his dark green Chevy Tahoe after a wash, or tinkering with his John Deere lawn tractor. Rich Flickinger may be fiddling with the carburetor of his 1927 Buick.

Down at Paul Frye's four-bay garage on the alley behind his Main Street house, there's a television on and three or four guys sitting around (a Chevy Suburban rear seat makes a great couch) shooting the bull. Paul even has an icemaker in his garage, and a urinal in the corner. Jack McDowell's two-bay garage, across the alley, has its own comfortable "conversation pit" with a TV in one corner and a well-stocked refrigerator.

But there's one garage by which all other garages in this town are gauged. That's Bob Welty's, down on Vincent Street. I don't think there's a man in Ligonier who has not driven past Bob Welty's garage, peered through its always-open doors and sighed a profound sigh of respect and envy.

It's a Norman Rockwell painting of a garage. It stands 20 or 30 feet across the well-groomed yard from his red brick circa 1920s house. Built of matching brick, it has a high-pitched roof, a dormer at the rear (big storage area upstairs) and old-fashioned hinged white wood doors.

This is not one of those modern money garages, all gleamingly got up in the latest catalogue gadgetry. It's the real thing, the honest product of years of care and work by a man who happens to be a natural mechanic and craftsman. The luster of the brick red painted floor reflects his white Oldsmobile Cutlass sedan and the pair of shiny motorcycles parked nearby.

The place is immaculate without being fussy. The carefully arranged tools on the walls and storage shelves are neat and clean, but bear the unmistakable signs of regular use. Much of the cabinetry and shelving was built by Bob himself to his own exacting specifications. A huge, beautifully built model biplane powered by a chainsaw motor hangs from the ceiling. There is an authenticity to the whole place that no decorator or set designer could pull off.

At the back of the garage a set of accordion doors opens to Bob's den. The sign above the doors says "Insane Asylum." The room has wood paneling, loaded bookshelves, a sofa, a refrigerator, a card table, and a sturdy pine combination coffee table and footrest. On one wall is a Japanese rifle and a kamikaze pilot's personal flag, one of the trophies Bob brought back from the Pacific. He fought on Okinawa with the 6th Marine Division in World War II and spent the year after the war with American occupation forces in Japan.

When a lawnmower won't work, or a vacuum sweeper, a motorcycle engine or a grandfather clock, townspeople show up at Bob Welty's garage for help. They tell him their problem and he gets a far away look in his eyes as he analyzes the symptoms. He has a natural gift of seeing things schematically. His brain routes its way methodically through wires and pipes and gears and switches, asking wordless questions and pinning down answers as he sits at his brilliantly lighted workbench.

Bob has that peculiar learned patience of the skilled. He is meticulous without being tiresome. And when you walk away from his garage, leaving him with whatever you've messed up or just can't figure out, you always have confidence he will get to the bottom of the thing.

Bob Welty's garage is a reflection of his skills and temperament. It is a clean, well-kept, comfortable place with an atmosphere apart -- a combination clubroom, study, machine shop and laboratory. "Even when I was a kid I wanted a place of my own to get away to and work on things," he says. His first hideaway was a little place he built under the front porch of his parents' house with scrap lumber and tools he bought at the five and ten. Later it was a room built into the basement.

For almost 40 years now, Bob Welty has tended to, presided over, perfected and enjoyed this ultimate extension of what he must have half-dreamed in that little workshop/clubhouse under the front porch. It is a true sanctum sanctorum.

The Carriage House

The first garages were carriage houses, barns or sheds. Once the buggy had been sold or burned, they provided room for that brash up-ender of the horse's world -- the family car.

I remember a garage along my paper route when I was a kid. I'd often see the owner inside it, polishing his Dodge sedan or leaning intently under the hood. On the wall at the back of the garage was a horse collar, its brown leather surface covered with dust. It didn't occur to me then that the building that housed this man's car had once housed a horse and a wagon. Only in later years did I realize the irony of that horse collar looking down on the shiny steel interloper that had put it out of business.

Our "garage" was actually a small barn out back on our property in Rector, a little crossroads five miles from here. It had a hard-packed dirt floor and a crude wooden staircase that ran down from the storage loft and separated the spaces for two cars.

A workbench of two-inch thick boards ran along the length of the back wall. The surface of that bench was the shade of black coffee. Motor oil and grease, iron filings, sawdust, turpentine, varnish and who knows what all had been worn into it over the years, giving it a satiny finish.

There was a vice on one end of the bench and a grinding wheel on the other. Two green tin "coolie hat" shades hung down from the ceiling over it, providing light from naked 100-watt bulbs. The bench was always strewn with tools and bits and parts of cars -- odd carburetors, a starter motor, heater hoses, thermostats, voltage regulators, nuts, bolts, various fasteners and pieces of electrical wire.

The front seats from an old Chevy sat in the dirt along one wall, their upholstery the color and texture of a mouse's fur. There was a two-wheel Gravely tractor parked in one corner, and along one side were barrels -- some wood, some steel -- filled with nails, pipe and pipe fittings (my mother's uncle had been a plumber), pieces of scrap lumber, rolls of wire and dozens of Mason jars. There were numerous oilcans, funnels, sets of tire chains, and several wooden boxes filled with ignition coils, radiator caps and spark plugs of various sizes.

You could see light between the vertical boards of the walls. Fixed on them with nails, staples and thumbtacks were old license plates from the 1920s, a framed photograph of Teddy Roosevelt grinning from behind a cracked glass, a funeral home calendar from the 1930s, a sepia-toned postcard photo of Charles Lindbergh, and a roadmap of Pennsylvania. From various hooks and pegs hung hubcaps, funnels, spare wheels, patched inner tubes, an old black wool overcoat, pipe wrenches and an assortment of garden tools.

In the winter my Uncle George would pull his blue 1946 Chrysler into the garage after the long drive from work. If it was really cold I would help as we placed an extension cord with a 100-watt light bulb down by the engine block and covered the hood and grill with a couple of old army blankets and a tattered quilt in hopes of preserving some of the engine heat to keep the oil warm for an easier start the next morning.

On summer evenings I can remember playing in and around the garage as the twilight receded and the stars began to appear. Light would spill out from the front and across the cinder driveway. I'd hear the whine of the grinding wheel in the background as my uncle sharpened a tool. Sometimes I'd hike up on a crate, lean across the bulbous fender of the Chrysler Windsor and watch as he changed the spark plugs on the six-cylinder engine, or adjusted the points on the ignition.

When he died suddenly my senior year in high school and I was overcome with grief, I remember going alone out to that garage and standing inside it with tears pouring down my cheeks. It was there more than any other place that I felt near to the man who had been like a father to me. All around me were the tools he had used and the mechanical things he loved. I would go there many times in the days after his death.

The place where that garage stood is now a township park. Many of the same trees that clustered around it along Linn Run Creek are still there. Sometimes I walk among those trees and remember the interior of that cluttered garage and long to be inside it once again.

My Retirement Garage

I have a four-car garage now, attached to our house. It has a smooth cement floor and fluorescent lights. It's the first serious garage I've ever owned and I delight in it. The garages in our previous houses were one-car deals with kids' bikes and lawn tools and typical suburban impediments crammed into them. They didn't even have electric garage door openers.

But this one -- my retirement garage -- has just about everything I could dream of. There's a workbench running most of the length of the back wall. It's made of two-by-fours, but it has a smooth, beveled countertop -- the kind you can buy in various lengths from Home Depot or Lowes. Along its broad expanse are gathered a lifetime of tools, parts to antique cars I have owned, automotive literature, and the myriad chemicals, oils, waxes and other products we buy to nurture and medicate and beautify our automobiles.

There are times when I want to get away from my word processor, my newspapers, my books. I want to relax, to just hang out in a world where I feel I have some control, a world where I feel absolutely relaxed and comfortable. That's when I walk out to my garage.

If someone wants to know anything about me when I'm gone, they will find here, as they would in many men's garages, a museum of my hobbies, my dreams. It may not be quite at the Bob Welty level, but it's home.

Ralph Kinney Bennett is a frequent contributor. He recently wrote for TCS about The Passing of a Landmark.


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