VOL. 41 | NO. 29 | Friday, July 21, 2017
Dirty work sometimes requires an even dirtier mentor
Kate Roller, who needed a school project, selected car engine repair. She found a willing tutor/mentor in Andy Kimbro at Andy’s Auto Repair. -- Photograph Courtesy Of Pamela Roller
By inchworm standards, this future moth is a monster. And it is “attacking” the truly gentle man who taught 14-year-old cellist Kate Roller how to repair the engine on a 2000 Mitsubishi Eclipse. Unusual request, perhaps, but Kate couldn’t have turned to a better guy than Andy Kimbro.
“He’s a really great person,” Kate says when we talk about her car-repair mentor, who not so incidentally raised daughters and step-daughters and spends his free time tending to a menagerie of pets at his farm far from his Music City hometown.
“He just lit up when we asked him,” says Pamela Roller, Kate’s mom, who searched for weeks to find someone to teach her daughter how to repair car engines after the young woman decided that’s what she wanted to do for her Linden Waldorf School eighth-grade project.
“The timing belt had gone bad and damaged the top half of the engine,” Andy says of the old Mitsubishi before his student got her hands joyously greasy while repairing all that damage.
More on the kind mechanic’s hands-on tutoring later.
More pressing, at least for me during the first of my now-frequent visits to his Charlotte Avenue Andy’s Auto Service Inc., is that the little destined-for-mothhood critter crawling or wiggling – however you describe inchworm movement – up the right side of Andy’s shirt.
“It’s not bothering anything,” says Andy, as he looks down to survey the wiggling, white pilgrim’s progress across his upper torso. (I am color blind, so there may be a slight green tint in the inchworm’s coloring, but it looks white to me.)
Taking a long draw on his American Spirit cigarette, Andy turns his attention to the small cloud of smoke he exhales into his office, which has a “Thank You for Not Smoking” sign prominently displayed.
Perhaps the sign is for customers.
Andy – in remission from a bout with laryngeal cancer – is one who curses the habit pretty much every time he takes a draw.
“I shouldn’t be smoking these damn things at all,” he adds, proffering the pack and pointing out the claim the smokes are “all organic,” or some such. “That’s why I smoke these. And they are expensive. Six dollars a pack.”
As he reaches to put the pack back in the pocket of his dark-blue T-shirt, he notices the inchworm has made its way the two-plus feet from where it was first spotted and now is apparently aiming for that pocket. “C’mon knucklehead, let’s get where you are going,” he says to the inchworm.
He reaches for it without the fatal vision most of us would have for such a crawler. “There you go,” he says, lifting up the inchworm from his shirt and gingerly setting it down on the counter of his office at 4210 Charlotte Ave., in West Nashville. “Go on, little buddy.”
He looks up to answer the unasked, “to-smash or not-to-smash?” question. “He’s not hurting anything, anybody.”
Such kindness to all creatures great and small is not found often. When it is, it should be celebrated. A live-and-let-live treasure in an increasingly live-and-let-die world, Andy brings at least one of his chocolate Labs with him daily from his farm 60 miles south of Nashville. Wife Ronnie usually rides along, too.
“We raise a little hay. We raise a little hell ... not much,” Andy says with more than a little chuckle when asked about the other “friends” that share the 33-acre farm with the couple.
“We got a couple of pigs that are pets. Fourteen hens. A couple of guineas that are fixing to have babies today or tomorrow. … Hold on a second, I need to remind my wife about them.”
He plops into the office chair by the cash register and calls Ronnie, who on this day is at home on the farm. “Hi, darling, you need to be keeping track of those guineas.”
After uttering two or three enthusiastic terms of endearment, he hangs up the phone.
“We’ve been married seven years,” says the mechanic whose youth was spent in Crieve Hall and who lived off Ashwood, near Vanderbilt, for the rest of his adult life … until moving “up to the country, where the water tastes like wine,” as Canned Heat’s Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson once sang.
Andy notes that when he was a kid on Ashwood he delivered The Tennessean in the mornings and Nashville Banner in the afternoons.
“I was all up and down there by Brown’s Diner,” says the former paperboy, speaking of the beloved burger-and-brew joint.
Those pastoral paperboy days and the quiet community he served have been steamrollered into memory as city planners and contractors continue their furious assault on Nashville’s historic charm.
“I love Nashville. Love the people here. I love people,” Andy adds. “But it’s changed. Too much damn traffic.”
Mechanic and farmer Andy Kimbro commutes about 60 miles daily – sometimes with wife Ronnie but always with one of his chocolate labs – from his farm to Andy’s Auto Services at 4210 Charlotte Pike. -- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger
He says getting away from that traffic was the main reason he and his wife “fled” in 2014.
“I wanted to get at least two counties away from Nashville,” he says, pointing toward the ever-sprouting skyscrapers 40-or-so blocks up Charlotte.
“I was born right up there at St. Thomas Hospital. That’s when it was right here in downtown. I don’t know where it is now.”
This kind human being admits that love was pretty hard to come by … but worth the heartache that preceded it.
“I was married two times before,” he explains. “When I said ‘I do,’ I didn’t.
“After the second one, I knew I hadn’t ever really known love and figured I’d stay single a long time.
“That was until Ronnie came up here to get her truck fixed. She knocked my socks off. It was love at first sight.”
He smiles. Finally, pretty far along in his 58 years, he discovered what love’s got to do with it.
“She has two daughters, and I have two daughters,” he says, pointing up to the cluttered office bulletin board, where pictures show his daughters, Barry and Amanda, standing proudly in military uniforms.
“That’s Barry there,” he notes, planting his index finger on one side of the photo. “Her name’s spelled just like the man’s name … She was in the Air Force. She works in Winchester. Some kinda part-time job. She’s got her a boyfriend that I really like much,” he says of his 35-year-old daughter.
“And that’s my baby, Amanda. She’s 33. She was in the Marine Corps. She did two tours of Afghanistan. And you can imagine that really didn’t make her old Daddy too happy.”
Andy points to another picture of Amanda with her desert-camouflaged platoon, which explains the U.S. Marine Corps medallion hanging on the wall not far from a playful sign about the art of “bull-shitting.” “She works in the Sheriff’s Department now.”
And he’s not forgetting stepdaughters Julia, 29, a chef, and Jocelyn, 24, who works for an insurance company, but “I don’t know which one.”
He turns to the rug on the floor of the office and points to chocolate Labrador Buck. “Got him with me today. And sometimes I bring in Maggie, too. They are two and a half. Brother and sister. Twins.”
Kate Roller’s project car, a Mitsubishi Eclipse, sat idle in Andy Kimbro’s shop facing a major rebuild, the result of a broken timing belt. Under Kimbro’s tutelage, Roller was able to get the car back on the road. -- Photograph Courtesy Of Pamela Roller
He laughs and then offers some friendly advice to this battered, old writer: “When you want to go buy a dog, don’t take your wife with you.
“We went over there to Waverly, in Humphreys County. I wanted to get one male chocolate Lab. But there was one female that kept going at my wife. She fell in love.
“She said, ‘I got my dog.’” He had his boy dog by that point, too. The sibling dogs sometimes both ride with their “dad” during his 60-miles, each way, commute from the 33-acre farm to Andy’s Auto Service … this paradise of humanity, humility, auto repair and oil-changes along Charlotte Avenue.
I finally got to meet Ronnie on my third trip to Andy’s shop.
“Ain’t I the luckiest man in the world,” Andy says, rather than asks after introducing me to his wife.
She’s just 54, so I tell Andy he’s a cradle robber. He laughs and adds that Ronnie takes care of the computers, books, billing, parts- purchasing and more.
“I do everything but fix cars,” explains Ronnie, with Andy immediately echoing that job description.
Andy’s daughters, stepdaughters, third wife and beautiful dark brown dogs are pretty much his reasons for living.
“I’m a family-oriented people,” he points out.
And that orientation and his life raising girls bring us back to the first part of this column, where I briefly mention his work as a mechanical mentor to a teenage girl.
The fact he has daughters is one of the reasons he quickly agreed to teach Kate how to fix the old Mitsubishi engine.
“I got talked into that,” he says, warm amusement rather than ire flavoring his voice. “My wife and then her (Kate’s) mom talked me into it.”
He recalls the girl’s mother’s first approach to him at his shop.
“The mom comes in here and says, ‘I’ve got a strange question to ask.’
“She said her daughter was in a private school and a project was required in time for her to do a presentation by the end of the school year,” Andy recalls.
“She said ‘My daughter wants to fix a car.’”
Kate Roller and her mother, Pamela -- Submitted
The lifelong mechanic – he worked at seventh-grade school chum Kenny Polly’s landmark service station on Belmont Boulevard until buying his own shop 13 years ago – didn’t hesitate. Sure, he’d teach Kate how to fix a car.
“We spent several days messing around. She couldn’t do it all by herself.
“So, I explained what we were doing” as his student – unafraid to get a little grease on her delicate, cellist’s hands – followed his instruction and guidance.
“Kate would come over here at the end of the day when I was done working, and I could actually sit back and relax, because she was so intent on doing it. To me it was a cakewalk.
“I would tell her what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, and she made it happen. I’d give her the tools she needed and I’d sit on the chair. I had to help her occasionally but not a lot.
“When she was working here, I gave her an ‘Andy’s Auto’ shirt. And she got covered by grease and everything. … Her and her mother are both beautiful,” he says, pointing out that Kate was anxious to get thick grease on her delicate cellist’s hands.
She and her mother came by recently to bring cookies to Andy, who was pleased to see his star pupil in pretty schoolgirls’ summertime clothing.
Kate’s grease-to-grace transformation made him smile.
“I’m just saying: I can’t believe this beautiful young lady can fix a car like she just did. She looks not like she oughta be a mechanic. She looks like she should be in Hollywood somewhere.”
Andy notes that progress on the Mitsubishi engine would stall occasionally. Sometimes her school duties kept her away from her mechanic’s lessons. Sometimes his own workload – there are probably a dozen vehicles of all flavors and vintages awaiting repair parked on and around this lot – kept him from having time to teach.
“We started in September and finished up in May,” Kate says.
Mom Pamela laughs when talking about her daughter’s mostly girly passions.
“She plays the cello. She likes clothes and she likes shoes. She’s my girl.” (She also has a 13-year-old son, Harrison.)
The fact her daughter – whose previous automotive experience was helping her father, Jim, change the oil on his Prius – wanted to repair an engine while other students were building ukuleles and recording songs they’d written, pretty much stunned Pamela.
Ronnie Kimbro says her job at Andy’s it to “baby sit” her husband. Actually, she’s the secretary, parts retriever, customer service provider and basically, as her husband says, “does any damn thing that needs to be done.” He adds “I hit the jackpot, didn’t I?” -- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger
“That came as a definite surprise,” she points out. “I have to give credit to her teachers for that way of thinking: You don’t have to follow the norm. You can be a young girl and you can do anything you want.”
It wasn’t easy to find someone to mentor her daughter on engine repair. “I’d say it took six-to- eight weeks,” Mom says. “We asked around. Nobody knew anything, knew anyone.”
She finally got results after sending notes to four or five neighborhood listservs – those parochial e-mail networks – soliciting input.
“Two or three said Andy would be perfect,” she adds. “They said ‘He’s a good guy.’”
He demonstrated that on his first encounter with the mom from the Richland-West End Neighborhood. “He said ‘I’ve raised four girls. I would love to teach a young lady how to fix a car,’” Pamela says. “But he did not want to make a big deal of the fact she is a girl.
“He was volunteering his time. This is no small thing we were asking,” recalls Pamela, adding “I feel like as a mother, when you have a daughter that’s interested in doing something that’s a little off the beaten path for a girl, you want to encourage it.
“I had looked high and low,” she says. “And for Andy to volunteer his time and be so excited and energetic when teaching Kate …. It takes a village to help young people. I think it’s so important to try to teach young people to be excited about learning things. People learn by doing. And it’s important for young people to have relationships with adults outside their own families.”
Andy’s own determination to never quit is illustrated when he recalls his high-speed days of racing his 1967 Chevy “with a 383 big block” around the State Fairgrounds’ oval “until I crashed the car up real bad, and it bent the frame up real bad. We put it on a frame-straightener, but we couldn’t get it right.”
Even so, he didn’t give up on the beloved ’67 Chevy, thinking it might still have a few more championship laps in it if he drove it off the asphalt and on a dirt track instead.
“I finished dead last. But a lot of guys didn’t finish. Man, they did smoke me down there, but the operative word is I FINISHED.”
He’s briefly interrupted by Jon Marinelli – his head mechanic, service manager and friendly sidekick – who passes the “Thank You for Not Smoking” sign and bums a smoke from Andy.
After lighting up, Jon picks up the phone to call a customer to let her know he’s done working on her car. He’s going to test it again before releasing it, he tells her, kindness and care coating his voice.
“Jon’s the one man I have working with me. He’s a damn good mechanic,” says Andy, noting that others he’s tried out over the years at his old-fashioned car repair shop have made too many mistakes. When they finished a job, he always felt the need to go back and closely examine their work. After all, his name graces the “Andy’s Auto Service” sign on Charlotte Avenue.
“If I have to go behind ’em and babysit, no sense having ’em. With Jon, I don’t ask anything. If he’s done with it, it’s fixed.”
Andy decides it’s time for one more organic cigarette.
“You know during the entire time I was doing chemo and radiation for my throat cancer, I never quit. That’s one of the worst drugs in the world,” he says, as smoke rises toward the ceiling.
As a matter of explanation rather than excuse, he adds he hasn’t quit because the stock-car driver, turned-gentleman farmer and ace mechanic, only has two speeds. “I’m either asleep or I’m wide open,” he says. “It’s just like when I was driving at the Fairgrounds. There’s two speeds: gas all the way to the floor or stomp on the brake pedal.”
He admits he did slow down a bit – even to the point of “relaxing” – when teaching Kate how to rebuild an engine.
He knew he was helping her school project. Along the way, he also was helping shape her dreams. No, Kate doesn’t plan on being a mechanic, mom says. “But mechanical engineering is an idea, because she enjoyed that experience with Andy,” explains Pamela. “She also loves creative writing.”
No hurry. “She’s just going into ninth-grade at Hillsboro, and she has lot of time to decide.”
I never saw that inchworm again, by the way. But thanks to Andy’s gentle guidance and nurturing, it was given at least a chance to sprout wings and fly toward the light.