Our Turn At This Earth: Cheater Bars And Self Reliance

Jan 11, 2018

As a young girl, I resented the gender divisions on my family’s Kansas farm, where my brothers worked in the barn and fields and I was relegated to cooking, gardening and cleaning the house with my mom. Today I realize that all of our work contributed equally to our thriving in that place, but I grew up in a cultural climate that viewed women incapable of fixing a tractor, while to cook or sew threatened a man’s masculinity.

I therefore considered it quite a triumph when, in my early thirties, I learned the basics of engine mechanics. This knowledge proved necessary because I had become obsessed with the rugged beauty of the Mojave Desert and often traveled there alone. A breakdown in the middle-of-nowhere types of places I loved most could prove disastrous.

A cheerful and supportive guy friend of mine helped me overcome my misgivings by sharing with me four basic premises that farm boys understand before they learn their ABCs. (1) Throw yourself into the work, and don’t worry about getting your hands dirty. Grease can be cleaned off. In fact, they sell this stuff in an orange bottle made expressly for that purpose. (2) Don’t worry about not being strong enough. Anyone can loosen a stubborn bolt with a “cheater’s bar,” which is nothing other than a length of pipe that you can fit over the end of a wrench. (3) Don’t worry about lacking knowhow. You can buy a manual for virtually any vehicle that will walk you through repairs step-by-step. If you’re still baffled, do what guys do. Go back to the auto supply store, plunk your greasy water pump or whatever down on the counter, and ask the parts guy what to do next.

These lessons acted like a cheater bar themselves, breaking free in my mind the stubborn notion that there were certain types of work that only a guy could do. My newfound confidence emboldened me to act on my wildest dream. In my desert travels I had run across a beautiful but abandoned rock cabin that sat on a hillside surrounded by over a million mountainous acres of dramatic desert. With the permission of the ranching couple who owned the cabin, I moved there and over the coming months made it habitable.

My biggest challenge came when the 1959 Ford pickup that I needed to haul equipment and lumber for those repairs spun a rod bearing. During a visit, the mechanic guru who’d taught me those basics helped me pull the engine, but I disassembled it myself and took the crankshaft to a machine shop to be reground. To this day, I recall the sense of fulfillment I felt after I put the engine back together, and it fired up! Driving with one hand, my elbow resting on the sill and smiling, I reminded myself of my father as he drove through his fields.

Back in my cabin, I would sit down to the dinner I cooked, happy to realize at last that there was no such thing as men’s work or women’s work. There was just work. It felt good to have crossed the divide.