For more years than I can count, my Saturday morning ritual has been to tune in to Tom and Ray Magliozzi, (the Tappet Brothers), on NPR’s Car Talk. With the death this week of the older brother Tom from complications of Alzheimer’s, my Saturdays will never be quite the same.
The two self-professed bum auto mechanics from Cambridge, Massachusetts guffawed and stumbled their way through an hour of the most madcap radio you will ever hear, straying far afield from car advice to solve callers’ real or imagined dilemmas ranging from how to dump a boyfriend because of his rusty truck to rigging a taxi-cab security window to muffle the backseat driver voice of your mother.
Most people have profound indifference to what exactly is under the hood of their car, and they are close to repulsed by the notion of actually lifting a hood to find out. Tom and Ray were the sherpas for millions who were bewildered with the increasingly complexity of cars, feeling victimized by technology or auto mechanics drooling over a chance to make their next boat payment.
I can’t say I learned much about cars the whole time, being a pretty committed gear head since high school. My wife Carol would roll her eyes when I would play verbal Whack-A-Mole during the show, trying to spit out the answer to a caller’s complaint before they did. (“It’s the outside rear wheel bearing, not the differential…” “Sounds like a wheel bearing to us…” “Ah-HAH!! Got it!”)
However, I wonder if there is something else I did or could have learned in all these years with Tom and Ray that have little to do with cars and a lot more to do with leadership and life:
- The “smartest guy” in the room rarely wins. Tom and Ray had advanced degrees in engineering from MIT, but they used their intellect and knowledge quietly, even making fun of their education at times.
- We have a way of rationalizing any bad decision. No, a ’64 Comet is a terrible car to admit to owning, but Tom knew that some things hold a certain affection for us, or represents something larger.
- We all have dreams and fears, but it takes a safe place to share them. No, it wasn’t whether it was worth it to put new tires on the ’86 Wagoneer with the bad clutch when that beater was the only wheels you had to get to that girl in Oklahoma who said she’d like to see you again.
- Trust is a fleeting thing, but it is everything. More than one listener marched defiantly to their mechanic on Monday saying, “The guys at Car Talk said I don’t need a whole transmission…” Tom and Ray had a way of connecting with people — simple, honest, funny, vulnerable — to where callers would do almost anything they suggested, even if they were making it up.
- If you can make people laugh, you have given them a gift. There’s nothing inherently funny about a defroster that shoots out spider guts or a skunk nesting in your heater vent (okay, maybe that’s funny), but Tom and Ray could drag a laugh out of the most mundane or worrisome situation, somehow making it a little easier to deal with.
- We all have an idiot light. More than one person has poured windshield washer fluid into their radiator or left off a lug nut during a tire change. The basic humility of realizing we all can do dumb things is common to us all if we can admit it. And, as Tom and Ray did at every chance, laugh at ourselves about it. Others don’t feel so all alone.
- When you do what it love, it shows. Tom began his career as a marketing consultant with an engineering degree. One day he was slammed in Boston traffic and just decided he hated everything about his work, so he opened a garage with his younger brother, and then they popped in a local public radio station to take a few calls, and… everyone fell in love.