One oil change ago

by Dennis Hinkamp

I'm not really sure how I met Jim. Like everything else in life, it was probably through a series of bad choices, weak will and cosmic roulette. I probably should have said "no." I probably should have moved on. I probably should have done a lot of things differently, but that's how you end up in a Western map-dot town for 26 years -- one choice at a time. Nobody plans it that way, you just "end up" there.

I ended up at the very Western sounding "Canyon County Tire" because it was within walking distance and Jim took pity on my poor choice in automobiles. I still couldn't quickly tell you for sure which tire company has the blimp or which brand Jim sold. Like I said, it was just convenient, and, while dealers and the more effete mechanics in town looked at me with distain, Jim had a friendly can-do attitude that hooked me.

I don't know much about women, but know for sure that I don't know how they mark time. When I'm stuck trying to remember an earlier year in my life, I often ask myself, "What car was I driving at the time and how new was it?" I think my father actually has photos of all his ex-cars. I may have imagined it but I thought I once caught him fondly fondling the photos as if they were dog-eared love letters. The continuity for me is that I took almost all those vehicles to Jim's place for the last 22 years.

While I joked that my repairs had bought him a fishing boat, there was something nice about having someone recognize your name when you called for an oil change or a clutch rebuild. I know "nice" isn't a high level compliment but when it comes to commerce it's rare thing. Though I didn't know him well, it was comfortable and regular; one of those calming parts of life in a swirling world.

"I've got to get my oil changed, I'll call Jim."

We choose boring regular things like oil changes for the same reason we eat at McDonalds; it may not be the best hamburger, but it's the same hamburger, and sometimes that's enough.

Jim was better than that. Anybody who has had less-than-new cars knows that a good mechanic has to be part psychologist. He kept my business because he treated me like a real person and my cars with respect. Jim once bought a large ring binder manual to try to figure out the French wiring in one of my most unfortunate choices. Unlike our top political leaders, I bear no animosity to the French, but you must admit that when it comes to quality automobiles, they don't make many top 10 lists.

Jim also helped me fix a third-hand rust bucket Toyota I bought for an ex-girlfriend in Arizona because that is where he was from. I think there were a couple of other Bedouin Toyota camper-like things, an ill-advised sports car and a Volkswagen that even Jiffy Lube refused to service. We commiserated over that. I mean how rare and weird does your vehicle have to be to be turned down by Jiffy Lube? Apparently, the oil filters are harder to find than pandas born in captivity, but Jim always said, "I can find that." And he did.

Birthdays, anniversaries and holidays are great, but the personal rhythms that mark our lives are the every six months or 3,000 miles you end up cleaning your teeth or changing your oil. You always think that these stable things in your life are going to last forever. Then, you go in for an oil change and find the place is abandoned.

I think the last thing I said to him involved some guy talk about a snow blower and how I was looking forward to being the eccentric old guy on the block who blew the snow off of everybody's sidewalks. He joked that I should hit his neighborhood while I was at it. I never got the chance.

Jim Kuykendall died of cancer April 14, 2006, almost exactly one oil change ago. He was the owner and the manager of Canyon Country Tire in Logan, Utah. To me, he was a small hero in a small town.

Dennis Hinkamp is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He writes about life in Logan, Utah. © High Country News