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Letter From America: My Kingdom For A Spanner

The rig needs new brake pads? Auto service centres charging too much? No problem. Fit the pads yourself. All that's needed now is a spanner. But trying to buy a spanner in the US of A can wrench one's enthusiasm lever from Positive to Negative, as Ronnie Bray discovered.

Read more of Ronnie's effervescent words by clicking on Letter From America in the menu on this page. Read also chapters from his autobiography A Shout From The Attic.

I had a little job to do on my rig. At its last oil change, they told me that I needed new brake pads on the rear axle. I had the front pads replaced more than two years ago in Montana by my son, Curtis, who did the job in less than twenty minutes and saved me more than a hundred dollars by fitting the set of pads I bought for thirty. These were rated thirty-six month brake pads, but as we drive less than average mileage in our circumscribed life, they should be good for ten years.

Now the backs were wearing thin and Curt was a good sixteen hundred miles north of us, and unlikely to visit any time soon, more’s the pity. I bought the pads for the same as I paid for the front sets, and parked them in the garage against the evil day. Working on the family vehicular transports is something that I once enjoyed.

When the enjoyment wore off I mended them because they had to be fixed, and then progressed to where I did it grudgingly because I could not afford to have a garage fix them, and finally reached the stage where I ran them into the ground and looked for cheap replacements. Good old Russian Ladas! Cheap, cheerful, and reliable. Stunning beauties? No, but practical, and if you could forestall their rush to rust you had economical roomy transport that was cheap and easy to fix or replace.

Well, there are no Lada cars in the USA, due to a combination of a shortsighted pollution policy, and an equally shortsighted rush to use up the world’s fossil fuel, so they have not only barred Ladas from entering the nation, but also preclude thrill-a-minute Reliant Robins! They do not know what they are missing.

Not wishing to be thought unpatriotic, something that happens too frequently and with appalling ease, we bought a car that saluted oilmen at home and abroad. With eight giant sized cylinders with a combined capacity of five litres, our beast of encumbrance gorges itself on twelve to fifteen miles to the gallon around town, and, as around town is where we go, that is what we get.

Fixing the brakes on a Lada is quick, cheap, and cheerful. Providing that there is no rust in vital places the job can be done in five or six minutes per wheel. Looking at the Explorer, the task seemed almost formidable, especially since my motivation to work on grimy beasts has taken an indefinite hiatus in recent years, and, there are times when I doubt that I retain the capacity and skill to accomplish what once was a simple non-daunting task to someone who kept the British Army’s wheeled and tracked vehicles rolling through the sandy plains of the Ægyptian Canal Zone.

I began to feel guilty at seeing the box of pads on the old sewing machine stand in the garage, but the guilt was not insufficient to assuage the fear of botching the job and having to let the skilled mechanics put it right at an astronomical cost. I got quotes from "Al’s Brake Shop," and from "Tony’s You-Break-Them-We-Fix-Them! Auto Shop," but their costs were astronomical too. I wished that I was back in Tennessee so that I could roll it into the "Jesus Saves Tyre and Brake Co," in Maryville, because I knew if I did that I would not be charged one cent more than the job was worth.

I could not begin to tell you how I agonised over what to do for the best before the pad wore all the way down to the metal and scored the discs. Every time Gay told me to put it into Meineke’s or Sun Devil Autos, it almost seemed like a good idea, but George Foreman endorses Meineke, and I doubt whether a man that christens all ten of his sons ‘George’ can be trusted with anything as important as bringing a two and a half ton rig to a halt in time to not remodel someone else’s motor. I don’t worry about our automobile getting bent out of shape in a prang, because we have a substantial deer-guard that would crush a ten ton elephant, and Sun Devil Autos once charged Gay forty-six dollars to fit a five dollar air filter, so their hands are not clean enough to come near anything of mine!

"Then to the rolling web itself I cried, asking, ‘What lamp has the Internet to guide its little children stumbling in the dark?’ And, ‘Look on Ford’s Web Pages,’ it replied."

I looked, and found that the job could be done by a rank amateur with a degree in mechanical engineering and twenty years experience, ten of them on Ford Explorers’ rear brakes. Other sites were more helpful, and even provided pictures and a list of the tools necessary.

One ten millimetre spanner; a jack; an axle stand; chocks for the wheels, one wheel wrench; one ‘Special Tool;’ one box of pads; one sac of brake grease, "and thou beside me singing in the wilderness!" and the brake problem would be history! The cost of purchasing all these was – you’ve guessed – astronomical! It was time to simplify.

I removed one wheel and looked the job over. It looked like two bolts was all that stood between me and total victory. I didn’t have anything on the list except the car jack and wheel wrench. My survey led me to believe that if I could only get my hands on a ten-millimetre spanner I could take care of the whole sorry business.

Next morning, I took a different route home from the dog park and called at an auto parts store that sells everything for anything and has the most helpful staff imaginable. When I entered the store, the brakes were as good as mended. When I left ten minutes and several discourses later, they were not in any immediate danger of being mended.

"Can I help you, sir," asked the young shop assistant. It sounds much nicer than the low English high pitched "Hiya!" intoned by a person to whom one has not been introduced.

"I need a spanner."

"A what?"

"A spanner." He looked nonplussed and confused – not a pretty sight.

"I don’t understand what you need." The confused confessed.

"A spanner." I said, calmly.

He turned to one of his companions deeper in the shop. "Hey, Joe. Can you help this gentleman?" Joe rolled across to where we were stood at the end of the shop counter and smiled quizzically.

"Can I help you, sir," he asked, deja vuically.

"I need a spanner," I replied in like fashion.

"A what?" he asked. The quizzical look had vanished and was replaced by one of Cimmerian consternation.

"A spanner!"

Joe and the first man looked at each other, and I did think for a moment that they might scratch each other’s head, but they did not. I could see that they needed help, so I tried a different tack.

"Do you keep spanners?" I inquired as English as I could manage.



"We don’t speak Spanish."

This remark surprised me, because although I didn’t want any Spanish, unless they had the kind of liquorice I enjoyed as a wee boy and then I would have bought some, but he said they didn’t so I didn’t pursue it, but in this part of the world every establishment has at least one person fluent in Spanish.

"Spanners!" I retorted, curbing my rising frustration, "S – P – A – N – N – E – R! I WANT A SPANNER!"

"Sorry sir, we don’t speak Spanish."

"I want to remove that calliper mechanism from my Explorer and I need a spanner."

"Try ACE Hardware, sir. They keep all kinds of tools.''

Since it was obvious that they needed more help than I was able to provide, I thanked him fulsomely and left wondering ‘Do I wake or sleep?’ and determined to go home, straight home, not to pass GO, not to collect two hundred pounds, and to avoid ACE Hardware at all costs!

On reaching home, I unrolled my sombre tale to Gay, who listened, gave one of her good and honest hearty laughs, and softly said, "Try asking for a wrench!"

"No fear!," said I. "If I ask for a wrench they will be sure to wheel out a fetching lass in a dirndl skirt and cotton bodice carrying leathern jugs of old ale!"

Soon afterwards we visited Mark and Dee’s home and young Jocey brought out her very own handyman socket set in a little tin tray complete with carrying handle as one of her playthings. I checked it out, found the ten-millimetre socket, and borrowed it for a couple of days. Apart from one reluctant bolt, there is always one, the callipers dismounted easily, I placed the removed wheel under the back axle so that if it fell off the jack there would still be more than a foot of ground clearance.

The stubborn bolt yielded to the Mole grips and the gentle persuasion of a rubber mallet that I had had the foresight to buy when they were on sale in Libby, four years earlier. I knew it would come I handy one day.

Apart from putting the first pair of pads in the wrong way round and having to knock them out and do the job right, it went along smoothly and with more despatch than I had feared. I substituted a flat nail lifter for the "Special Tool,’ sliding its cranked part between each worn pad and the disc and turning it through 90 degrees to ease the pistons back into the cylinders. It worked a treat.

Mark’s socket was a little worn and slipped round when I attempted to put terminal torque on the calliper bolts, estimated by guess multiplied by grunt factor, so that I could not get all the tightness needed to do a really good job. But, one of these days I am going to buy the proper tool and cinch them up real tight so they don’t work loose on our peregrinations. I’ll take care of that little job just as soon as I get my hands on a decent spanner – or, perhaps, a wrench!

Copyright © 2006 – Ronnie Bray


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