Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

Junk yard

I was watching a show last night that’s about bad jobs – it usually involves someone removing feces from subways lined with rats bigger than dogs or something, so I never watch it. But last night, it was about guys working in a junkyard, which I thought was funny. Not ha-ha funny, but because it was the kind of intellectual porn aimed at blue-staters to show them how horrible life is out in the flyover zone. But to me, it brought back the vivid memories of the wrecking yard, a place I knew well from my teenage years.

Growing up, I did not drive a new Mercedes provided by my parents on my 16th birthday, and my idea of car service went beyond self-service gas. When I was 15, my stepdad bought this totaled Camaro for $300, and along the way, it eventually became my project. By the time I got my license, a lot of major work had been done, from brakes to tune-up to tires to a new interior. A month or two later, I bolted on a new exhaust from stem to stern, while trashing three socket wrench handles in the process of wrenching off rusted bolts. But one of the biggest things I needed to fix was a badly dented fender on the front passenger side, along with a cracked fiberglass nose. I couldn’t buy those parts from the local AutoQuest, so I had to make a trip to the junkyard.

The junkyard in Elkhart, or at least the one I went to, is out on CR 10, west of the Nappanee extension. It’s way up north of town, in an isolated corner of the county, by the regional airport. It’s also coincidentally by one of Elkhart’s several EPA superfund sites, the old Himco dump site, but I didn’t know that at the time. I’d never been there before, but my stepdad used to go out there back in the 60s and 70s when he was always working on muscle cars, and I think I made a call or two out to the place.

I planned a whole day around the fender swap, a Saturday, and awoke early to find a few inches of snow on the ground. That bummed me out, but I vowed to put on an extra layer of clothes, some old boots, and forge onward. Because I didn’t have a truck, I took out the passenger seat and carefully measured the existing fender to make sure I’d have enough room. I left early enough to head across town and get to the place just as the chain-link gates were opening. When I got there, I found a big prefab metal building with a run-down front office and a set of big garage bays that could probably fit a Peterbilt semi, if they cleared out all of the junk first.

I remember getting there, and the guy in charge told me where to head for the Camaros, to pick out a donor and then come get one of the guys to wrench off the parts for me. He set me loose in this labyrinth of dead vehicles, everything dusted with a powder of snow. The white padding muffled all of the sound around me, except the crunch of my feet on the dirt path. Most of the narrow roads within the yard were heavily rutted, and muddy and wet, since the temperature hadn’t been freezing for that long.

I found a row of F-body cars, Camaros and Firebirds, along a treeline. None of them were on tires anymore, and half of them were missing engines. I could imagine someone around town driving a piece of shit Chevelle, bragging “yeah, I got me a Z-28 motor in here” for each of the engineless cars. Some of the cars were smashed in the front; others had extensive rust damage in the rear panels. A few had smashed glass in spiderweb patterns that suggested a fatal collision.

To say that I’d spent a lot of time in my Camaro would be an understatement. I took apart and put back together so many pieces, spent Saturdays scrubbing the interior, running speaker cables under carpet, changing fluids that I’d just changed 100 miles ago, and dreaming about what parts I’d tear off and replace, when I had the cash. I memorized the Chilton’s guide for the car like it was scripture, and had a solid mental image of every part of the car, inside and out. So to look at all of these cars, at the minor differences from year to year, the missing chunks and damaged pieces, felt a little weird. It was like seeing a relative without a head, your house with the roof removed. But it was also exhilirating in a way, to think of buying a more tricked-out center console from a newer model, or a faster engine from a different car, or whatever else. Mostly it was weird to see all of these rows of cars, missing pieces, gently frosted over by that winter day.

I found a white ’77 with a front fender that looked good, and trudged back to the front gate. When I got there and said I found it, a guy that was maybe in his early 20s waved me over to the most motley car I’d ever seen, an old Suburban or some sort of pre-SUV truck, but with half of its parts missing. It had no hood, half of its glass gone, no front lights or bumpers, little interior, but the back held a set of welding tanks and a haphazard bucket of tools. The dude, who looked like Alice Cooper but no makeup or anything, told me to hop in, and we creaked across the lot. The truck rocked and swayed so much, the windshield was flexing and I was sure it would explode at any moment, but we got there.

It took the guy a few minutes, and I carefully watched what screws he took out to extricate the sheet metal from the old car. I also got a rear-view mirror for the side door (and unfortunately, broke it before I got it back on my car – oh well, five bucks.) The fender, still wet from the snow, just barely fit in the car, and I got a baggie full of hardware to bring with me for the transplant. It felt so weird, driving across town, listening to Iron Maiden or whatever I was into that week, with no passenger seat and a huge chunk of metal taking up half the cockpit.

There’s not much else to the story, except that it’s a bitch to work on old metal that’s rusty, with concealed little sheet metal screws in hard-to-reach areas. I had to take off the hood, and spent an hour or two playing the “I think all the screws are off but maybe there’s one more” game. I had a 5:00 shift to work that night, and almost entertained the idea of driving to work with no hood on, but I got everything set up, and made it to the mall in my red and also white car.

I went back a few more times for a few more cars, and I always liked the whole idea. Every car there tells a story, and it’s sad to see them dead like that, but it’s also cool to know they will be recycled, and other cars will live longer lives with all of the parts. It’s a weird little bit of midwestern culture, and a pleasant memory, even if more of my cars ended up in the junkyard than not.