We’ve all been there. The sudden slip of the wrench. The moving of the thing you didn’t expect to move. The nasty gash that clearly needs stitches. The knowledge that the next four hours of your life are going to suck, as you’ll be sitting in an emergency room, waiting your turn behind more urgent cases, precisely because while this is an emergency, it’s not a life-threatening one.
Head wounds are special.
First, the amount of blood can be truly spectacular, as the heart works hard to pump it up to the ol’ Brain-O-Matic upstairs. Second, just in case you don’t know this, seeing that blood streaming down your face has a particularly panicking effect on family members. Third, once you put in your time in waiting-room prison, get seen, get stitched, and wait for things to heal up, there’s that scar. Both physically and metaphorically, scars do fade with time, but if you did actually get whacked in the fleshy part of face, that badge of your bad luck and/or stupidity is going to be right there forever for all the world to see.
Up until last Tuesday, I carried four scars on my face. The first I got in childhood when I went through the glass window on a storm door; the latch on the door handle rarely caught, so my sister and I got in the bad habit of pushing on the glass, not on the handle, to open it. One day I came bounding through the house, and my outstretched arm pushed against the storm glass. This time the latch had closed, the door didn’t open, the glass shattered and badly cut my arm, and a piece hit just wide of my left eye.
The family lore, which my mother enjoyed recounting, was that I blamed her, yelling “Why didn’t you put in the screens?”
The second laceration occurred in a hotel room in the late 1980s when, pre-television-remote-control, I got up to turn off the TV, which extinguished the only illumination in the room. In the two steps between the TV and the bed, I tripped over my suitcase and slammed my face into the edge of the nightstand.
But the third and fourth head wounds were directly automotive-related. Number Three was really dumb: I’ve had six Suburbans, but only one had a rear hatch instead of barn doors. I was pulling something out of the back. There was another car parked very close behind, so while there was room to open and close the hatch, there wasn’t room for me to stand directly behind the ‘Burb while doing so. So I stood off to one side, closed the hatch, misjudged the angle, and wham! The corner of the hatch caught me right on the scalp. Stunned from both the impact and the gash, I grabbed a mass of paper towels and staggered toward the house, planting myself on the front steps. Just then, my wife, Maire Anne, came home with one of the kids and saw the bloody scene. “Father down!” I joked. “Father needs assistance!”
The scar is right at the edge of my hairline. I don’t see it, but I’m constantly reminded it’s there, because every time I wash my hair and scrub that spot, there’s the odd sensation that the nerve endings are firing three-eighths of an inch to the right of where my fingernails actually are.
The fourth incident was fairly recent, and was both directly BMW-related and incredibly careless of me.
I was fixing the air-conditioning on a friend’s car. At the end of the repair session, he mentioned that the shifter was loose. The car was still up on the lift, so I had a look at it. I found that the Allen-head bolt holding the left-side shift bushing to the back of the transmission had loosened up. Usually you can reach these with an Allen socket on a long extension, but because the car’s five-speed had some odd installation details, I couldn’t; I needed to pull the giubo out of the way first. No time like the present, right? I unbolted the driveshaft center-support bearing and the giubo, then tried to lower the driveshaft enough to access the Allen bolt. I thought I could do this without disconnecting and dropping the exhaust resonator—I wasn’t actually trying to drop the whole front of the driveshaft the way you’d need to to replace the giubo—but I was wrong.
No problem, though: It’s just three thirteen-millimeter bolts, and they and the exhaust weren’t rusty, so out they came, and—CLONK! The front of the already-disconnected driveshaft swung down and smacked me right in the face.
It wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been at the end of a long day, when I was rushing and short-cutting. I had Maire Anne triage me and verify that yes, it did need stitches, but it could be easily bandaged. I finished the repair, then went to one of those urgent-care facilities where the out-of-pocket is much lower than an emergency-room visit.
But my biggest garage injury wasn’t a head wound. When I was rebuilding the engine in Kugel, my Chamonix ’72 2002tii, about six years ago, I went from the garage into the basement to grab the Dremel tool, and while scurrying down the two steps separating the two areas, somehow lost my footing, folded my left foot under, and heard a bone snap. It was a “Jones fracture” (named after a Dr. Jones who reportedly did the same thing ballroom dancing with his wife), fixed with a little titanium screw, but still requiring me to wear “das boot” for weeks.
My latest injury, I’m sorry to say, was not automotive in origin. The mechanics of it are really downright embarrassing, but we’re all friends, so I’ll just spill it: I had a stomach bug and got in and out of bed several times during the night to use the bathroom, and on the last trip, I apparently stood up too quickly. Emergency room, seven stitches to close the 3-1/2″ gash, CT, EKG, blood work, and COVID-19 test all negative.
There was, however, a BMW-related moment. The emergency-room doctor asked me what I did. (Actually, what she asked was, “So, are you still working?” which is the “this guy looks old enough to be retired” version of that question.) I explained about my odd life and my passion-turned-vocation, and she said that she has an X5 and her husband is a diehard BMW guy; he’s driving an Audi now, but the end of the lease is approaching and he’s looking to get back into the BMW fold. (Actually, what she said was, “He looks at BMWs online the way most men look at porn.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her—never mind.)
She left the room to get the suture kit, and when she came back, she was holding the kit in one hand and her phone in the other. Reading from the phone, she said, “My husband wants to know: M2 Competition or M340i?” While she was suturing my forehead, I had to explain that I’m mainly a vintage-BMW guy, my newest is a 2003, I have no detailed information on either of those models, and am sure that her husband knows more about them than I do. (Too bad: I probably could’ve arranged to get the next suture and CT scan of my head for free.)
Even though I couldn’t really help, Maire Anne commented, “Only you could land in the emergency room and wind up getting called into a BMW-related consult with the doctor’s spouse.”
Being me, and having no secrets, I posted the photo on social media. There were a hundred Harry Potter jokes, someone even photoshopping in the full proper lightning-shaped scar. It was, of course, my “friend” Paul Wegweiser who envisioned me as a transmission… or maybe a differential. God, I hope none of my wounds are ever large enough that I require a drain pan.
So, I’m good. There are worse things than occasional emergency-room visits and their attendant head and heart scans to verify the absence of clogged arteries and brain tumors. No worries. Move along. Nothing here to see.
Except, of course, the scar.
I’ve written about the appeal of wear and patina on my cars and guitars, how I don’t want perfect things that I’m afraid to use, how I like the damage because we’re all damaged goods, and how we wear our scars proudly, so why shouldn’t our cars? And I usually mean it. But this is a pretty big scar, nearly the size of all the others put together. And worse, it’s totally got the wrong story. I should’ve gotten it attempting some epic passionate repair on the 3.0CSi or the Lotus only to have the car swat oh no you WON’T back at me. At a minimum, with all the work I recently did resurrecting Zelda the Z3, living under it for weeks while replacing the bent lower control arms and pulling the transmission to do the clutch, I should’ve gotten the scar there. Hell, the angle of the scar is even perfect for the diagonal of a Z. But noooooo, I got it going to the goddamn toilet. Is that really a story you want to wear right in the middle of your forehead? It’s a good thing it’s not shaped like an A, so at least it won’t fade to that scarlet letter.
Now, I think of myself as a rational yet spiritual person, someone with his hooks into the cosmos, part Carl Sagan and part Mr. Natural. I’ve nearly made a career out of writing about the Zen of the garage. I seek meaning where I can find it. So, thinking about this all carefully and holistically, I realize that all of these mishaps have one astonishing thing in common: I was absolutely stone-cold sober for every single one of them.
I’d be lying if I said that I’ve never had a beer or two while working in the garage, but I’ve really been pretty careful, particularly during the long-haul alone-at-night sessions. Fully realizing the number of ways you can get hurt even while wrenching sober, I never wanted to turbocharge that by routinely adding alcohol to the mix.
Then, recently, there was a new variable. As some of you know, two years ago I had prostate cancer. It was the good kind, wholly-contained, low-volume, low-grade, treated with brachytherapy (implantation of tiny radioactive seeds), one outpatient visit, boom, done. But alterations to the plumbing can have subtle effects, and one of mine is that my relationship with alcohol has changed. As much as I love beer, I found that if I have even a single suds later than like four in the afternoon, I’m up all night peeing it out. Further, my body just doesn’t seem to metabolize alcohol of any kind as it used to. At some point, I decided it simply wasn’t worth it. Although it wasn’t any kind of a big New Years resolution, I had my last drink on this recent very low-key New Years Eve.
However, with the recent head injury and forensic analysis, it leads me to one inexorable conclusion: Looks like I picked the wrong year to quit drinking.—Rob Siegel
Rob’s latest book, The Lotus Chronicles: One man’s sordid tale of passion and madness resurrecting a 40-year-dead Lotus Europa Twin Cam Special, is now available here on Amazon. Signed copies of this and his other books can be ordered directly from Rob here.