MOSES LAKE — When Natividad Cardenas first started in the auto program at the Columbia Basin Technical Skills Center, he wasn’t sure he was up to fixing cars.
“At first, I was scared to touch a car,” Cardenas said as he popped the hood of his 1997 Nissan Maxima. “But now, I understand how things work.”
It was a “shop morning” at the CB Tech auto program in Big Bend Community College’s Bldg. 3300, and Cardenas had brought his car in for an oil change.
“I’ve always had a passion for cars,” the Moses Lake High School senior said. “I want to buy a race car.”
With his car up on the lift, Cardenas unbolts the plug on the oil pan, and after watching dark brown motor oil run out, he replaces the plug and then grasps the oil filter.
It’s work that gives him a sense of mastery and accomplishment.
“I feel like I am the car,” Cardenas said.
Rich Archer, who has taught in the CB Tech Auto Program for the last six years, says he is teaching around 53 juniors and seniors from across the Columbia Basin this year.
“I love kids, always wanted to teach, but I never thought I’d get a chance to,” said Archer, who began working in garages in 1970. “The Skill Center came to me and asked me to teach, paid for me to get a teaching certificate. I love it.”
“I’m old, 66, and I can’t bend over hoods all day, my back won’t let me. So, I get to share what I have with the kids,” he said.
The program begins with small engines and includes some bookwork, something not all of the students in the program are good at. But Archer is quick to note these kids aren’t dumb, and most excel when it comes to working with their hands.
“Mastering things with their hands, touching and feeling and doing things they’ve never done before,” Archer said. “It’s kinda neat to see the light go on in their heads.”
As he speaks, a group of students are busy reassembling Chevrolet 350 V-8 engines — what Archer calls “a very basic engine” — replacing gaskets and cam shafts.
“They all learn how to repair stripped out threads, make a gasket out of cardboard,” Archer said. “We teach them to think outside the box. They may need to make a part.”
Drayke Mooney, a senior in Moses Lake who says he’s always had a passion for cars and trucks, is going to be starting the diesel program at the Universal Technical Institute in Arizona next fall.
“I came in here basically not knowing a thing, and now I can tear apart engines, brakes, suspensions, even do a little wiring and engine diagnosis,” he said.
“When I found out you can make a career out of this, I didn’t really want to do anything else with my life,” Mooney said, adding that he hopes eventually to work for Cummins or Peterbilt, companies that make large diesel-powered trucks.
The auto program may have to find another home in a couple of years, however. BBCC has plans to tear down the old collection of shop and maintenance buildings and construct a new industrial arts center, and may no longer have space for the CB Tech program.
The district may have to scramble to find a new home, since it is unlikely a new high school will be built any time soon and it will take several years to build the second phase of CB Tech even with state funding.
“I’m still trying to get Big Bend to leave this building up, so we have a place to work,” Archer said.
Susan Freeman, a local business woman and a member of the Moses Lake School Board, said she has spotted a site elsewhere in Moses Lake the district could potentially rent as a new home for the auto program.
“It’s a program that’s been going for a long time,” Freeman said. “It teaches skills that are marketable, even if you don’t do this kind of work yourself, it’s good background.”
As Cardenas lowers his car, puts in several quarts of oil and then checks the level, teacher Todd Welch looks on.
“Make you check it in the morning after it’s been sitting a while,” he says. “And write down the mileage, so you know when to change the oil again.”
Even as computerized as cars and trucks have become these days, Welch said a mechanic still needs to know how an engine works.
“If you understand the mechanical parts, you can do anything,” he said.
Charles H. Featherstone can be reached via email at email@example.com.