Real Mechanics Have a Built-In Feeler Gauge | BEHIND BARS

Out in the garage, being able to feel a fraction of an inch is what separates the men from the boys.

Paul let me occasionally hold a tool—never the torch though. Torches are dangerous.

In a conspiracy both to improve running and keep her sheltered from rain until our new shed gets weathered in, sweet Honey the dowager Beemer was stashed in Jim's country garage, home of MotoDuvall. Jim boasts two character strengths I really should incorporate into my own life—he's a spectacular friend and an even better mechanic—but Jim's no Paul and neither is anyone else.

Paul labors with utmost skill in a two-car Willamette Valley garage stuffed with a Bridgeport mill, two metal lathes, a boring bar, a pair of VS drill presses, two desks, a bench, five Gerstners full of precision tools, a glass beader, bandsaw, washer and dryer, two-stage compressor, and a Model A roadster.

Conveniently, Paul’s been married to Mom for my entire adult life. Those who assert that men know nothing about feelings have never met Paul. He also knows as much about /2 BMWs as any man alive. What I know about /2s can be summarized as “Paul’s phone number.”

Also this: The transmission, driveshaft, and rear drive of older BMWs have separate oil baths. Like many lubricated compartments, the rear drive is vented to relieve pressure should it become overheated or overfilled. The first time I spotted black spoor on the back rim, I smacked myself for overfilling it, hung my head penitently, drained off the extra, and cleaned the rim. The next time, I was pretty sure it wasn’t operator error.

The time had come to reseal. My subtle mechanical intuition deduced this when Jim swung by the house on his KTM and handed over a box carefully packed with my degreased rear end.

“I think this needs a special tool,” he said. “Maybe a couple.”

“No sweat,” I said. “Paul will have it.”

He should know better than to take my calls by now, but when I pulled up and parked him in, Paul declined his chance to flee on foot. Whiling away a fine shop day, we discussed bikes and kids and dogs, old family stories, and no politics whatsoever. He let me clean off whatsits, unwrap gaskets, and occasionally hold a tool. I was allowed to pull and retorque the ring gear, and, yes, Paul had the enormous spanner socket for that because he had cut one from raw stock.

While gabbing, I set the shims on the wrong side, and we had to pull it apart, heat it up again, and reset them. The second time we had to pull it apart, I shredded the outer gasket. From a plywood cupboard accessible only by pulling the roadster out into the driveway, Paul produced a backup set so desiccated by age that we had to gently massage its paper over the lugs.

Buttoned up at last, Paul wriggled the shaft stub meditatively. Pretty Wife smiled and shoved dogs into the car, Mom plied us with cookies for the road, and hugs were exchanged all around.

Suddenly, Paul sat down on a retaining wall and dropped his head into his hands. Somewhere around the eighth or ninth decade of life, this action reliably engenders a round of concerned inquiry consisting of the kind of questions people don’t quite realize they’re shouting: “Are you all right?!”

He shook his head, groaning. “You can’t have it.” He looked up at me. “It doesn’t feel right.”

Wordlessly, I handed back the box. You either feel it or you don’t.

Days later, a lovely sand-cast delivery landed on our porch. Apparently, paper gaskets can’t absorb RTV. My fingertip smear had pushed things apart by about six ten-thousandths of an inch, making gear engagement ever so slightly wonky. How Paul could detect that through his hands, and what he did to rectify it, are mysteries impenetrable to me. All I know is that Paul hand-scraped the main bearings of a 1954 Chevy Thriftmaster truck engine so finely in the 1980s that it pushes 45 psi of oil pressure to this day. That’s what separates the men from the boys.

Real men have feel.

Defying half a century of consistent inability to either contain himself or support his choices with logic, Jack Lewis continues to proselytize on the merits of motorcycling despite regular and heavy doses of therapy, injury, and ignominy. On other topics, he also wrote a pretty good book entitled Nothing In Reserve.