My Mother, Beater of Engine Blocks

Like many people who grew up poor, Pop always “made do” with what he had – the problem was that he also required others to make do, like Mom.  Sometimes, this was not a good idea.

One time, we had an old Ford that continued to run after you turned the ignition switch off.  The engine would not quite die, making a stuttering sound and vibrating the entire car body for several minutes.  Rather than pay for a mechanic to fix it, Pop had come up with his own solution – he beat it to death.

On the floor in the back seat he kept a broken baseball bat with electrical tape wrapped around the stump of its handle.  My brother Harry had snapped it in two pieces during a baseball game when he swung hard on an inside pitch near his hands.  The knob and half the handle were gone, with a jagged top stump and the barrel intact.  Pop used it to beat the old Ford into submission.

Whenever he pulled into a parking lot or the driveway, he would turn off the engine and stand next to the car waiting for it to stop, as it made a chug-a-dee!-chug-a-dee! sound and vibrated like it was possessed.  Pop pulled out the bat from the back seat, lifted the hood, and gently (“gently” for Pop, anyway) tapped on a couple of the engine parts, trying to get them to “straighten out and work right”.  Bonk!-bonk!-bonk!

The Ford gasped once or twice, and died.  Worked every time.

One fateful Saturday morning, my mother had to take my brothers and myself to the doctor, and she was very reluctant to take the car by herself.  She said to Pop, “You really expect me to take that damned thing and beat on it to stop it?”

“It’ll be fine, Jane,” Pop said.  “Nothin’ to it.  Couple a taps, and that’s it.”

So, that morning, Mom pulls into the parking lot of the Meat-cutter’s Union Medical Center with Harry, Denny, and I in the back seat.  I remember that it was a hot summer day.  Mom parks the car, turns it off, and the Ford starts into its routine:  chug-a-dee!-chug-a-dee!-chug-a-dee!…

We all pile out of the car and stand off to the side, waiting for it to die, but it keeps vibrating and chugging.

“Shall I get the bat, Mom?” Harry asks.

“Give it a minute,” Mom replies, staring at the car.  It refuses to give in: chug-a-dee!-chug-a-dee!…

“Ok, get the bat,” Mom mutters, and Harry appears with it instantly.

She gets the hood up and stares into the engine compartment with the bat raised overhead like she’s ready to club anything that might attack from below.  The Ford is now jolting left and right with each chug of the engine like something is inside trying to fight its way out.  Mom whacks the top of the engine block: bonk!

It keeps turning over: chug-a-dee!-chug-a-dee!…

She mutters something about Pop and swings again.  Bonk!-chug-a-dee!-bonk!-chug-a-dee!-bonkbonkbonkbonkbonkbonk!!!!!…….

It is 90° in the shade, the engine is blazing hot, Mom is in a sun dress to visit the doctor, and she is beating on the engine like it is Whack-a-Mole at an amusement arcade.  Sweat stains are appearing on her back, and she is cursing under her breath.

Some fellow crossing the parking lot saw Mom beating on her car, and he made the unfortunate decision to laugh.  Mom stopped in mid-swing, snapped her head in his direction, and gave him The Look.

Mom and her sisters had what we called “The O’Leary Look”, a facial expression so uniquely filled with venomous disapproval that it could only be described by its effect.  My siblings and I often tried to come up with ways to describe it: “able to stop a clock in mid-tick”; “able to curdle a gallon of milk from across the room”; “able to look at Medusa and turn Medusa to stone”; the list went on….

The poor fellow who laughed at Mom was struck dumb by The Look.  He shrank about two suit sizes and slithered away.  Mom turned her attention back to the engine, glared down at it like laser beams, it coughed once and died.

Denny, the youngest of we three, stared in wonder at the car and whispered, “Whoa….Mom killed the car with The Look…”

As she replaced the bat back in the car with the restrained delicacy that is the product of pure rage, she said, “When I get home to your father, the car isn’t the only thing I’m going to kill.”

Happily, Pop survived the day, but the Ford was in the shop that afternoon.  That was the day that I and my brothers learned that there are some things about which you do not “make do”, but rather are worth the extra cost of investment.  Like your life.  Particularly if Mom had a broken bat in her hand.

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