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Among the many characters who shaped my early life was my father’s younger brother and polar opposite, Billy McClellan. In his life, Uncle Billy had many occupations, ranging from submarine sailor to school teacher to game warden. He was licensed to fly planes, pilot tug boats and drive semi-trucks. Before he passed away in 1999, he had raced boats and cars, and crossed both the equator and the arctic circle.
He was good at anything mechanical, but there was one field in which he was more than merely gifted and in fact approached savant-levels of genius. Uncle Billy may have been the best outboard motor mechanic who ever turned a wrench. He had an intuitive understanding of motors and machines, and watching him open a hood or remove a cowling was like seeing Chet Atkins pick up a guitar. It was second nature, as was his inclination to help anyone who needed it.
I was the beneficiary of his generous nature on a number of occasions, including once while I was off at basic training. I left my old, raggedy Ford truck parked at my parents’ house for about four months. It wasn’t in good shape to begin with and, after sitting idle for so long, I wondered if it would even crank. But when I got home, my father told me that Uncle Billy had used my truck a couple of times while I was away. That was terrific news because it was beyond his ability to notice a problem and not fix it. Sure enough, I came back to a truck that was running far better than it ever had.
* * *
However, Uncle Billy performed his most memorable mechanical miracle several years before then, when I was about 10 years old. And I don’t know if he ever realized what an indelible impact it made on my life.
It started with a 1959 3.5-horsepower Johnson outboard that had been sitting in my father’s shed for as long as I could remember. It was old, rusted, and several pieces had been removed and scattered around in various places. For some reason, however, I decided that the old motor should be mine. I spent hours fantasizing about driving it down Iamonia Lake (on my imaginary boat, apparently). All I needed was someone to help me get it running.
Daddy said I could have the old motor, probably figuring that would be the end of it. However, he underestimated my determination to have it running again, and apparently forgot how much his younger brother loved a mechanical challenge. I made an impassioned plea to Uncle Billy, who readily agreed to get it running again, but only if I helped.
What happened next is the reason why God created summer breaks.
Home from his tug boat duties for a few days, Uncle Billy and I took the motor over to his house and began the meticulous process of tearing it down, piece by piece. With his tool box, a pad and paper, and a wash tub with diesel fuel, we stripped the motor down to its smallest constituent pieces. All the while, he was making careful notes about which needed to be replaced. In the process, Uncle Billy explained to me in painstaking detail how an internal combustion engine works, the unique way an outboard operates and why some pieces had to be scrapped while others could be salvaged.
After we had the motor disassembled, Uncle Billy had to go back to work on the tug boat. While he was gone, my job was to take each part and clean it thoroughly with diesel fuel. Tibetan monks would have envied my complete devotion to this task. Every day, I walked over to his house and diligently cleaned each piece, being especially careful not to lose a nut, bolt or screw.
My other job was to approach my father about the delicate issue of ordering parts. Uncle Billy had made a list of all the things we needed and priced them in a catalog at the old Chevrolet dealership (which also sold Johnson outboards because this was Blountstown and that’s how we rolled). He estimated it was going to cost about $30-$40, and he wanted to make sure his notoriously cheap older brother was willing to pick up the tab.
So, I worked up the courage to approach Daddy and ask him if it would be okay to order the parts, offering to do odd jobs around the house to work off the bill and . . .
Nah, just kidding. That’s what I should have done. What I really did was lie through my teeth.
Having that motor was way too important to me to take a chance on Daddy saying no. So, I told Uncle Billy that Daddy had approved the purchase, and he went ahead and ordered the parts. I was counting on having the motor repaired and running before he got the bill. (Strategic miscalculations like that have been a hallmark of my life and career.) It didn’t pan out that way because Daddy came home at lunch one day and patiently explained why what I did was wrong, forgave me and left me with a big hug.
Nah, just kidding. He hit the roof and threatened to take $40 worth of value off my backside if I ever pulled something like that again. But, he also said he couldn’t send the parts back and had to go ahead and pay for them, so we might as well finish the job. (This was an early lesson in asking forgiveness before permission that has actually served me quite well over the years.)
* * *
Waiting for Uncle Billy to get back off the tug boat was like waiting for Christmas to come. Every day, I scrubbed parts. Then I would wipe them down and scrub them some more. My biggest fear during this time was that it wasn’t going to be good enough and thus delay the day when I finally got to drive my own motor.
After what seemed like a months of waiting, Uncle Billy finally returned from his two-week stint and called me over to reassemble the motor. I remember laying newspapers out on the floor and then spreading the parts out all across the living room. Aunt Ann had no doubt surrendered her living room to this sort of thing before because she was a lot more tolerant than any other woman I’ve known before or since. She simply walked around us, unfazed by the fact we had turned her home into a makeshift garage.
Piece by piece and part by part, we gradually put it all back together. Once again, Uncle Billy explained what each component did and why it was necessary. To me it was complex and fascinating, but to a man who had repaired, overhauled and raced some of the largest outboards in production, I’m pretty sure it was less difficult than changing a tire.
* * *
As we were putting the final parts together, it was getting close to 9 PM and my brother Bill showed up to bring me home. I distinctly remember two things about what happened next:
First, Bill made the comment that the old motor would never crank. He said there was no way it could sit up that long and be resurrected with a few new parts and some TLC.
The next thing I remember is Uncle Billy smiling as he put the motor in a barrel and yanked the cord.
On the first try, nothing happened. Second try, still nothing.
But on the third pull, that old motor came to life, purring and putting like new.
The sight of that motor running filled my heart with joy and my mind with possibilities. I could tell my buddies — honestly — that I now had my own outboard motor. (A big deal for a kid back then.) It was a step toward manhood. It was independence. It was redemption. But mostly, it was mine.
Of course, I thanked Uncle Billy profusely and I know he was proud of once again seeing a broken, neglected engine return to service.
* * *
Uncle Billy passed away in 1999 and I tried to make it over to see him one last time, but he died while I was en route. And though I’m usually at a loss for words in situations like that, I knew exactly what I wanted to say to him before he left us. I didn’t get a chance to then, so I’ll say it now:
Thanks for taking the time to bring a young boy’s dream to life before his eyes and for teaching him what’s possible with a skilled hand, a sharp mind and a patient heart.