By Paul Koch –
A garage is a special thing, well at least for me it is special. For you, perhaps, it is just a glorified parking spot or an overstuffed storage closet. But for me, my garage is something more. I’ve never used a garage primarily for its intended use, storing a vehicle, rather it has always been a place of activity. It was a place of busted knuckles, colorful language, and loud music from my high school days blaring through a beat up boom box covered in dust and oil residue.
My first garage, after leaving my father’s garage, was the one we had attached to our home in Georgia. It was a small one car garage in which things were placed with the careful imagination of a Tetris master. In there I had managed to build a small but adequate workbench. I had a decent size vise, a wonderful drill press (it’s hard to imagine what I did before I had that thing), my welder, tool chest, and assorted power tools. I had to back my motorcycle out into the driveway to get any significant work done in there, but it was a place of comfort and escape.
Now let me clarify what I mean by escape. It was not a place of hiding away. It was not a place where I could sneak off to have a beer or a smoke. It was not a spot established by the wife where I can decorate how I see fit. My garage was not a so-called “Man Cave.” I’ve grown to hate that term. From what I can gather, a Man Cave is a place where a man can act like he’s at the bar without going to the bar; pool table (check), beer cooler (check), dart board (check), big screen TV and place to congregate with other men (check and check). Just go to the damn bar! Bars are fun. But to escape to the garage is to engage in activity with purpose, to work with your hands to produce something of quality that will stand outside of your own mind.
I don’t think we appreciate how powerful this production can be. Whether you are wrenching on your car, building a chair, or shimming up a new door the content of your mind is impacting the world. It can then be measured and tested. Its quality can be established. Such experiences are part of the fuel that gives man his courage, vigor, and spirit.
Some of my fondest memories in that garage are when I was tearing down and rebuilding my motorcycle. I stripped my ‘89 Harley down to the frame, rebuilt the motor, completely rewired it, chopped it up here and there to create the “look” I was going for, and even got pretty good at laying down my own pin stripes. After dinner I would grab a beer and head for the garage. Some nights I would lose track of all time. Lost in a rhythm of welding, grinding and re-welding (I’m not the best welder) I’m sure I was keeping up my neighbors with all the racket coming from my garage. Before she went to bed, my lovely wife would finally pop her head out and remind me of the time. After all, I did have to get up and go to work in the morning.
More and more it seems that our world is comfortable with losing this experience. From mechanical work, to wood working, to just about every sort of craftsmanship you can imagine, we rely especially on the professionals to do the job. Everything has a hood that only a certain few can get through. It used to be when you opened the hood of your car, you could sort things out and make your way through the components, wires, and hoses underneath. These days when you open your hood, a whole other hood lies underneath: one of complicated wires and self-diagnostic systems and computer assisted driving modules. The signal is loud and clear – you have no business being under there. I’m typing this on a computer that I hardly understand how it works. You may be reading this on a phone that you couldn’t dream of recreating if you had to. The whole discussion of quality becomes the property of companies and factories, and the average man is left to just sort through online reviews to make his choice.
So instead of garages, we have Man Caves where men gather to escape through inactivity. They tell stories of the good old days as they laugh at YouTube videos and share their latest experiences at the electronics superstore. We have forgotten what it feels like to fire up a rebuilt motor for the first time, that feeling that you could do damn near anything if you worked hard enough. And we’ve forgotten what it is to fail, not fail through disappointment and laziness, but fail when our thoughts wouldn’t play out in the world. When our effort to do what we thought we could do wasn’t good enough and we are sent back to the drawing board to learn from our mistakes and try again.
I know for me, it has been far too long since I’ve been in the garage. This past weekend we finally cleaned it out. I built my new workbench, bolted down my drill press (have I mentioned that I love that thing?) and began organizing all the tools. Last night I walked out there just to smell it and to stand for a moment imagining all that could be done with such a great space. It’s time to wake from the slumber of our Man Caves and get back to work!