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The five smartest people I have ever known were all mechanics. Two of them didn’t graduate high school, but the three who did also went to college but only used higher education as a means of burnishing their already well-designed engines built upon mechanical knowledge.

By smart, and with all due respect to my academically educated friends, smart means having the ability to recognize, analyze, and solve problems. Intellectual knowledge like philosophy, economics and history, gives you the ability to consider other intellectual things, but it doesn’t solve things that are broken. At one time, I counted thirty-four Ph.Ds in my personal phone book (That’s an archaic term for Contacts), and only a few knew which was the working end of a hammer.

Mechanics, and we’re not just talking about grease monkeys here, take problems that require a solution and go head to head with them until they work. Think Rocket Ships, automobiles, power plants, racecars, and magnetic resonance imaging machines. Most of those things indeed have abstract, intellectual foundations, but when the rubber meets the road, the mechanics and engineers take over. If one considers, which came first, the wheel or the theory of a wheel, I think we know the answer.

Mechanics don’t have the luxury to dally in “what should be;” they deal in what is. My Uncle, Wes, one of the five, mentioned in this column before, had little interest in school. He lied about his age at sixteen to enlist in the Army, and once there, he took every practical mechanics class he could. Here’s a truth that should blow your mind, until 1980, when computers became the central force of automobile technology, my uncle knew every part of every automobile ever made! His job in the Army was keeping things running, and in the military world, there isn’t a lot of use for what should work, only what does, whether a single jeep or an entire occupation motor pool in Germany or Japan. He completed his Army career in 1966 with the rank of Chief Warrant Officer Grade 4. 

Four of the five mechanics are of the variety I like to call, Philosopher Mechanics. That is, they stand upon physical and mechanical reality, and from there, gaze into the vastness of the Universe. They also work alone with their hands all day and listen to the radio a lot, so they develop a lot of depth. They probably can speculate on unknowable things like how many planets in the Universe might have life as we know it as well as an astronomer at Yale.  

The second of the five (Gene) is a world-famous musician who invented and patented The Stringbender, which most people who listen to music know well. The third, Fullar (R.I.P.), was a transcendent machinist, domestic and civil engineer, and gunsmith extraordinaire who could fix and speak with authority and accuracy about, well, everything! The fourth, Markus, operates a repair shop and is at the cultural and intellectual center of his community, and the last, Marvin, was a software guy. I’m not sure what he did, but I do know he could make sense of complex books in college that scared the living you know what out of me. He not only understood The Matrix, but he read Thomas Pynchon’s, Gravities Rainbow, a book that made my brain blow before I abandoned it after a few hundred pages. Marvin and I once drove past a dump truck full of auto scrap, and I said, “Look at all of that junk.” He responded, “That is not junk, but high-tolerance, low-failure machinery that has outlived its utility and is ready to be re-purposed!” Boom!

I confess to a pang of guilt when leaving some people off the list whose cultural and literary knowledge is remarkable, so, in the spirit of journalistic c.y.a. I give honorable mentions to my sister, Bess, and my friend, Michael, who would be my Jeopardy coaches or Phone A Friend’s on Millionaire. What they do with ideas and literature is on the level of what Van Gogh did with painting. 

They know a lot! A lot! 

There are many ways to be smart in the world, including remaining silent when everyone else is blathering. This quality is sadly elusive to the world of politics, where the most common quality seems to be bluster. Nuff said on that! And then there are the people to whom smart is irrelevant, the creative ones, the musicians, painters, poets, who bring something to the world, molded from nothing but imagination. They inspire, soothe, elevate and inform, drawing inspiration from the ether. With creatives, the dumbest thing you can ask them is, “What are you doing?” The best thing you can do for creatives is to appreciate them, give them money when you can, and never, ever tell them what to do! 

The world is simultaneously simple and complex, so start identifying the people you want beside you when it all blows up, like today, or like every day. And now, since I’m stuck for a solid closing line, I’d like to phone a-mechanic.

Write to Joey at [email protected].



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