Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Take your wife to work day: My experience inside an automotive machine shop February 15, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 12:42 PM

My husband's NAPA automotive machine shop toolbox.

Randy grinds a flywheel.

TAKE YOUR WIFE to Work Day begins with good intentions.

My husband has been hinting for a week that he can use some extra hands in the Parts Department, Inc., Northfield (NAPA), automotive machine shop. So I, rather foolishly, volunteer to help and he, rather foolishly, accepts.

So Saturday morning I remove my wedding band and Black Hills Gold ring, borrow two of his work shirts, grab my most ragged jeans from the closet and pull on tennis shoes. I know I am about to get greasy, dirty and stinky.

During the 25-minute drive to Northfield, we admire the frost that creates a magically- beautiful landscape. Turns out this will be the best part of my morning.

Soon we pull into the NAPA parking lot and step into a world that smells of chocolate cereal. Memories of cold winter mornings on the farm and steaming bowls of Malt-O-Meal cereal, made in Northfield, flit through my mind as we walk across the icy pavement.

Once inside, Randy punches in. I don’t. This is, after all, a trial run, volunteer work, an unpaid internship. I doubt I’m ready for the payroll. But I am anxious to get started.

As I wait for my spouse to organize tools and choose a project for me, I survey his machine shop. I understand now why he has asked for assistance. I’m overwhelmed simply viewing the piles of heads and blocks and other engine “stuff” grouped on the cement floor.

Just one example of all the work that awaits my husband in the NAPA automotive machine shop.

And I am impressed by all of the equipment—the cylinder re-boring machine, honing machine, valve guide and seat machine, brake drum and rotor lathe, flywheel grinder, airless shot blaster, baking oven and more—that Randy operates. This is one smart man, I remind myself.

Me, well, I’m not so smart about automotive work, I quickly learn. I do OK removing expansion plugs and oil gallery plugs from 302 Ford engine and 292 Ford engine blocks. But removing camshaft bearings proves too challenging as I struggle to slam a rod with a huge hammer.

“I thought you could swing a hammer better than that,” Randy says.

Uh, no. It’s a swing and a miss.

I'm not good, not good at all, with camshaft bearing drivers because I can't accurately swing a hammer.

Frustration begins to set in as I sense I am not doing well.

But, hey, once I overcome my desire to save and reuse parts, I’m pretty good at tossing old parts into the scrap metal barrel.

Soon I’m standing around, wondering what to do. “This is getting to be a really long morning,” I say, glancing at the shop clock, which tells me I’ve only been here 1 ½ hours.

When Randy begins sweeping the floor, I seize the opportunity. “Let me sweep. I’m good at cleaning,” I say, practically grabbing the broom from his hands. He instructs me to keep down the dust level. Apparently I’m good at sweeping as he never criticizes.

But I feel like this is simply busy work. “Give me some meaningful work,” I say.

So he locks a 1960s vintage 327 Chevy cylinder head into a machine and shows me how to drill out worn valve guides. But I fear I will wreck the head, even though he claims I can’t. He stands watch as I try. I tentatively float the machine, line the drill with a guide and flick the switch. I did it. But when he steps away, I place my hand on the machine to steady it and knock off a part. I panic. He finishes the job.

At this point, I know with absolute certainty that I am more of a hindrance than a help to Randy. So I voluntarily take a break, glancing one last time at NAPA race car drivers Ron Capps and Martin Truex Jr. Their near life-size photo cut-outs, which I can see through the shop window on the NAPA retail floor, proved a welcome distraction during my moments of insecurity.

NAPA race car drivers Ron Capps and Martin Truex Jr. keep a watchful eye on me in the NAPA machine shop.

I head to the car and grab a bag of work that I’ve brought with me, just in case I didn’t pan out as an automotive machinist’s assistant. For the next 1 ¾ hours, I proof the spring issue of Minnesota Moments magazine.

Later, when I ask Randy to make a list of the work I did that morning, he writes:

  • Removed expansion plugs and oil gallery plugs.
  • Attempted to remove camshaft bearings.
  • Drilled out worn valve guides.
  • Swept the floor.
  • Edited magazine.
  • Distracted fellow employees.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

(Check back later this week for more images from the NAPA automotive machine shop.)

Oh, yeah, and I'm not good either at using the lifting hook.

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