By Michael Norris, Pentagram Assistant EditorJuly 8, 2013
JOINT BASE MYER-HENDERSON HALL, Va. - If automotive repair has a soundtrack, it's mostly a mixture of soul, rhythm & blues and jazz. The music that wafts through the Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall Auto Crafts Skills Center comes mostly from the personal collection of Milton Hawthorne, shop work leader, but a well cranked radio also sometimes fills the void.
"It keeps me going. It keeps my spirits up," Hawthorne said.
The certified mechanic has been at the center for 14 years. In that time he's built up a sizable clientele of regulars who rely on his expertise to guide them in conducting their own car repairs. The auto center also has a library of vehicle repair manuals and an extensive tool library to help experienced and novice mechanics navigate the inner workings of engines, electrical systems and exhaust manifolds.
The facility has 17 work bays where eligible Department of Defense ID card holders can drive their cars in, install new brake pads, fix a leaky fuel line or commit to something more complicated. Hydraulic hoists are available in 10 of the bays to raise vehicles off the ground to get a better look at undercarriages and potential problems.
Because fixing a car sometimes involves a substantial commitment of time to get a specific job done, the auto craft shop's hours of operation reflect that need by staying open into the evenings. The shop is open from 12:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. One caveat is that during the extent of the federal government furlough, the center is scheduled to be closed Wednesdays beginning July 10.
Hawthorne said the center sees probably 30 to 40 people coming in the shop's doors throughout the week with 25 to 30 people each day on Saturday and Sunday.
The center's schedule is by design, said Hawthorne. "It gives more time for soldiers to use it after hours."
Time management is key for budding mechanics, however. Everybody must finish up their work a half hour before the shop closes so tools can be put back in place and the shop can be readied for the next day's customers.
As Hawthorne leans into the engine compartment of retired Army Lt. Col. Ed Clark's car trying to locate a misfiring spark plug, grime isn't an issue.
"Milton always wears black, for obvious reason," said Clark, an Arlington resident who has utilized military auto shops for 28 years as an active duty Soldier and 11 years in retirement.
"I don't trust my car to just anybody," he said. "Milton's the best I know of."
Clark said the center isn't only about getting your car in working order; it's about the camaraderie of auto hobbyists coming together and exchanging information. "You don't just drop off your car and sit in the waiting room," he said.
Paul Norris, retired Coast Guard, said he's been coming to the facility for six years. "It's a lot cheaper and a lot neater" than most garages, he said.
Norris mostly comes in to do oil changes and tire rotations. "I like to put the oil I want into the engine instead of what [a commercial establishment] gives you," he explained.
During one moderately busy weekday afternoon, Lt. Ron Foster of the JBM-HH Directorate of Emergency Services stopped by to get Hawthorne's opinion about whether a dashboard warning light on a police cruiser warranted a trip to the dealership that services the department's fleet.
Since the vehicle was a relatively new model, Hawthorne brought out a diagnostic tool that connects to the vehicle's computer and extracts codes that zero in on a problem.
Hawthorne said he's sometimes asked to diagnose automotive problems over the telephone. Unlike the hosts of the popular radio show "Car Talk," he said he's reluctant to provide advice until he can actually see a vehicle.
"It's hard to know something you tell me over the telephone, he said.
Hawthorne said he advises customers do their research on repairs before they come in because he often doesn't have the time to see a single project through from start to completion by answering every little question along the way. However, the shop also has a number of regular gear head volunteers who happily step away from their own ongoing projects to share their experience. The center is a gathering place for auto aficionados.
While working at the shop, Hawthorne has helped replace the engine in a '53 Chevy, put a new battery in a Honda hybrid and given a Maserati a tune-up.
"I'd love to work on a Humvee," he said. "Just for the fun of it." He said folks from the base motor pool, which services the vehicles, have told him he has a better collection of tools than they have.
"I'm not afraid of no ride," he added with pride. "If it's got a motor I can handle it. I haven't seen any problem I can't handle.
"I love this job. You get to meet new people every day and deal with all different types and personalities," Hawthorne said. "I don't look at it as a job. It's like a hobby, only I'm getting paid for it.
"I'm not going to work in any job I don't enjoy. It would kill me to sit all day in an office," he said. "I'd rather be stress-free for a little money than stressed-out for a lot of money.
"Find something you like to do and you'll never work a day in your life," Hawthorne said, citing the mantra of a center regular.
For a list of rates to reserve work bays at the auto crafts skills center and the cost of equipment rentals, visit the JBM-HH Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation website at www.jbmhhmwr.com/index/Auto_Shop.html. You can also call 703-696-3387.