Today, a grimy man helps us think more clearly. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
My son is home for a visit.
He's driving the old 1978 Nova he inherited from
his grandmother. It runs like a top, but it looks
its age. He needs to replace body parts. We go off
to the junkyard together.
"Do you have Nova parts." "Yeah, take your tool kit
to row 26." We enter the old graveyard. Row on row
of wrecked cars are piled in towers, three cars
high. We find a Nova on top of one pile. My son
clambers up the stack with a screw driver. He pries
loose an arm rest and a window gutter.
I wait in wreckage that reaches as far as my eye
can see. Engines, tires and hubcaps have all been
stripped. You buy them in the building. Doors,
hoods and bumpers are missing randomly. Nearby, a
grimy man breaks the deep silence with his
Out in front are an old 1935 tractor and a 1970
pink Cadillac. They're both in perfect repair. I
ask about them. Vintage tractors are one man's
hobby. Another made his own pink Cadillac out of
junk -- just for the fun of it.
I climb on the tractor. It's a lovely piece of
history. The parts are clean and understandable.
You can see how the carburetor, clutch, and crank
starter all work. You learn from this old machine.
The cars in the lot are newer. They're more
complicated. This is no place for stupid people --
for uneducated academics like my son and me. If
we're to use this place we must be smart like the
grimy men around us. We must know how things work.
We must be able to figure out what we don't
A man needs to use the bathroom. The men's room is
occupied. He uses the ladies' room. No matter --
there isn't a woman within a mile. Our world makes
places like this invisible to women.
We teach each other many wrong things. We've been
taught that this male preserve is ugly. So I gaze
at twisted metal and cannibalized husks of once
shiny automobiles while my son pays. He has $300
worth of parts. They cost him $16.
This place speaks of death and regeneration. It
speaks of conservation and reuse. The wild tangle
holds order and beauty. It's like humus on the
floor of a virgin forest.
The man nearby moves quietly. He knows things most
of us do not. He knows how machines work. He honors
regeneration. He sees the beauty of function. He
can create in his mind and execute in the world. I
can learn from these grimy men. They accept me for
now -- not as an equal, for I am not. But they know
that I honor this place. And that is enough.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds