Profiles on Midwesterners: He who tinkers

Tuesday, September 3, 2019 - 5:37pm

Maxwell Schwarz

Maxwell Schwarz Buy this photo
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My tire was blasting out air from its bent valve stem, visibly deflating. It was flat in 15 minutes. I had a bum tire in a small northern town, over 200 miles from home, on a holiday weekend. For those of you not from the Midwest, this is a calamity of the highest magnitude. Every auto shop was closed, every mechanic at home with their families. I was given a phone number. “Here,” the voice on the phone said. “This guy might be able to help you.”

I drove to County Line Road, pulling in front of a white barn behind a stout brick house. The barn was surrounded by trees, cars sagging in the dirt and stray cats. I crept to the door of the barn, calling out a wary “Hello?” I was met by clanging and crashing as a large man emerged from the back of the barn, accompanied by a white dog with white eyes. He shook my hand and took my tire, driving northwest to Cheboygan. He came back somewhere around three hours later, the tire’s valve stem completely repaired.

In the brief moments I spent with this man while he changed my tire, I think I came to know him well enough. He was a veteran who served two tours in the Middle East as a medic. Having been blown up, they sent him home on disability. He has seizures in his frontal lobe that make him forget things. He spends his spare time tinkering with cars and other machines in the barn he’d built himself, complete with a loft, where he lives. His dog, Ghost, was a rescue from an abusive family. Ten cats freely roam his modest property of ten acres. I learned that he’d lived just about everywhere, from Detroit, to El Paso, to cities in the Middle East as a civilian mechanic for the Air Force. He had family who fought on both sides of the Civil War.

He fixed cars not for income, but for something to do, and he did it well. “Lots of people come up here for holidays and weekends, and they get stuck,” he said. “Any of the mechanics around here would probably take advantage of you.” But he assured me he wouldn’t. In fact, he didn’t even care about turning a profit. He charged me $25 total and gave me some free car advice.

He told me about the stray tools he’d come to acquire over the years, like a full woodworking set he got as a gift for helping a man move. We talked about all his dreams, too, most of which involve improving his home, with oak siding and homemade sheds to house his tools. His clowder of cats slinked and rolled around in the dirt in front of the barn.

Meeting this man reminded me that I ought to be thankful. Here was someone who spent a large portion of his young life serving his country, had suffered for it and come home. He spends his days tinkering and helping people not for money, but because that’s what he wants to do. The Midwest is home to incredible people with even more incredible stories. We are a collection of people from every corner of possibility. I drove away down M-32 humbled, the red-tipped trees hugging the road, awash in the golden glow of oncoming fall. The very best of us are hidden in the corners of the Midwest, tucked into homemade barns on the side of the road or in sleepy, pine-covered small towns. If you get stuck in Onaway, go see Wade. He’ll take care of you. He tinkers, and he is the very best of us.