Jim Deccan is ambidextrous. He thinks nothing of this other than how great it is when he’s bent in half, hanging halfway upside down inside a car when trying to fix it. He can hold a wrench in either hand and twist so no matter where he is digging into an engine to repair something, he can get at it with ease.
“Cars are like cranky children. They can’t really tell you exactly what’s wrong, but if you listen long enough, their bodies will tell you.” Jim holds up his hands and the faint black line under his nails belies his occupation.
Jim’s father was a mechanic, and HIS father was a mechanic. His grandfather, James Sr., scrimped and saved to open his first little shop by renting a garage slot in a gas station. He started with specializing in fixing foreign cars, when it wasn’t very popular to do so. But as people in the town became wealthier, they wanted to show off their wealth and stroke their egos by flaunting cars flown in from overseas.
James Sr. liked all kinds of cars. He slowly built up his business - most of it from referrals from his church, where they’d send all sorts of small engines to him along with cars. As the electronics and sophistication of the motors increased, James Sr. closed shop for a while and decided to take a few classes at the local community college in Parkersburg. There he learned more about electronics and alongside fixing cars he became the town’s “go to” guy for clocks, toasters, radios, vacuums - anything that had an engine inside. This was of course before electronics became so cheap and it’s easier to replace than repair them. Back then, everyone repaired everything.
Jim’s grandfather built his own little store and prospered as a glorified engine mechanic. His son, Jim’s father George, started working in the shop when he was 10 and would rush home to sit on the tall stool behind the counter and help customers as they brought in their broken and busted electronics hoping to squeeze some more life out of them.
James Sr. encouraged his son to go to school. But his son George didn’t have the aptitude to excel in the way the school was taught. He couldn’t sit still and was forever getting into trouble. He spent more time in the corner or in the principal’s office than he did learning in his desk. He wanted to work with his hands and had no inclination towards “book learning.”
“There is just something about popping the hood [of a car] and looking inside to try and analyze what’s going on that’s thrilling.”
When Jim’s grandfather died of a heart attack at the early age of fifty-three, George took over the business and continued repairing gadgets for people, taking over the what was now a family business. He too continued the tradition of spending hours in the shop working under a magnifying glass at the intricate pieces of electronic gadgetry that people brought in. Jim would bring his homework, and would sit in the same well-worn stool behind the counter and learned the tricks of the trade.
George had instilled one thing in his son, even if the advice had been discarded, but that was the value of education. George knew that he’d been a failure at school, and was determined that his own son would grow up to be a real businessman or doctor or lawyer. Something more respected than a small engine mechanic.
The family scrimped and put Jim through college. He studied electronic engineering and his father maintained a vision of his only son working for a big electronics company designing electronics or appliances in a pristine lab with all the latest technology at his fingertips. Jim helped out by taking a part time job at a local garage while in school. It was here that he felt most comfortable.
“I don’t know what to tell you. I certainly didn’t know what to tell HIM (my father) when he’d sacrificed so hard to put me through school. There is just something about popping the hood and looking inside to try and analyze what’s going on that’s thrilling. I truly feel how a doctor must feel when he has a patient come to him with a problem and he gives a true diagnosis to fix his patient.”
Indeed, Jim dropped out of school twice. He felt he just wasn’t cut out for the academic part of the learning process. He just wanted to build and repair things with his hands! He fixed all his friends’ cars from the other scholarship kids like him who drove junkers, to the rich jock who drove a brand new Porsche. Everyone trusted him with their cars, and Jim felt a deep sense of pride knowing that all the students and professors, no matter from what socio-economic background they came, brought their cars to him to repair. They trusted him.
Jim did finish his degree, and for a while went to work for a semi-conductor operations plant in California. But he was still fixing cars of friends and co-workers in the evening and weekends. Many times his bosses made snide comments about his dirty hands, but no amount of scrubbing could ever fully erase all traces of grease that built up over the years.
When Jim was twenty-five, he got a call from his mother that his father had suffered the Deccan family curse of a weak heart - his father had had a heart attack. He would recover, but he wasn’t going to be able to work for several weeks. Could Jim come home and help out a bit?
Jim could barely contain his excitement. This was his chance to prove his worth, work at the store that he so loved and felt close to his father and grandfather, and show them how to bring the shop into the 21st century.
He drove his souped-up Camaro cross-country and reveled in the trip. He even stopped a couple of times to help stranded motorists, bandaging their mechanical babies up and sending them on their way.
Today Jim owns a car repair shop in Wheeling, West Virginia. Far from being the rusted out, dusty old shop of yore, the store is now sleek and lined with neon lights that showcase the gleaming cars full of computer electronics over which he manages daily repairs.
“Cars are like extensions of some people’s bodies. I don’t know how some people would survive without their cars. I just make ‘em run!” Jim grins and wipes away a fleck of grease from his face.
Thank you Jim, for sharing your Story with us.
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