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as seen on phillyBurbs.com

Monster column
I'm no mechanic, but I watch some on TV.

I knew something was wrong as soon as I opened the car door.

The theft alarm started screaming loudly and the switch on the dashboard wouldn't shut it off.

Fumbling, I finally found the remote on my key chain in the darkness Saturday night, and after whacking it a few times against the car door, I got its tiny light to shine and the siren to stop wailing.

Then I put the key in the ignition.

Clickety-click-click-click. Then, nothing.

Instead of the engine and its heater humming to life, there was only silence.

Say hello to Jesse James - New American hero? This one doesn't rob, though, unless you count the high price motorcycles he builds for musicians, sports stars and celebrities.

A few more tries and clicks later, the only heat in the car came from my mouth as I let a few choice expletives out.

"Dead battery," I finally grumbled.

Thankfully, I was at home. After a fitful night's sleep, which reminded me eerily of those days before I turned 16 and finally got my driver's license, I reached for my usual tool to handle these situations - my AAA card.

Twenty years after I first got behind a wheel, I know how to put gas in, pop the hood and add windshield wiper fluid. Anything more than that is still as much a mystery to me as open heart surgery.

Anyone who knew me back then is probably laughing now. Most of my best friends the first three years of high school were in shop class. In the clique-conscious hallways of Council Rock High School, we were the uncool.

Leather- and denim-clad, we were called  "greasers,"  "gear heads" and far worse by our college-bound classmates.  All because most of us were far more interested in learning a trade than prepping for the SAT.

A closeup of the tattoo on Jesse's hand.

Not every kid can afford or is even meant to blow at least $20,000 on a college education - even those in that highly affluent district.

Their outlet for social anxiety was to stick their heads in engine blocks or pick up power tools. Mine became the power of words, so I naturally drifted away.

I always wondered, though, why there weren't many positive role models for them to emulate. I guessed that fixing cars and building houses didn't exactly make for great TV.

Boy, has the Discovery Channel proved me wrong.

Every Monday night, motorcycle maverick Jesse James - a tattooed, nihilistic shirt-tail descendant of the wild west robber - and a handpicked team of everyday mechanics transform ordinary cars into "monster" vehicles on his hour-long garage show. (For instance, in tonight's episode Jesse is set to transform a Toyota Celica into a rocket-propelled jet car.)

Gotta love a guy who got "Pay up sucker" tattooed on his hand because distributors were late paying his real life shop - West Coast Choppers - for the parts he supplied them.

After that, commedian/actor/home remodeler Steve Watson and his team of hand-picked general contractors, electricians, plumbers and carpenters reconstruct ordinary homes into theme-based "Monster" fun houses with little input from their owners.

And you thought getting along with your folks was tough at the holidays. Try working side-by-side every day the way Paul Teutul Sr. and Paul Jr. do on "American Chopper."

Finally, Paul Teutul Sr. and his namesake son spend an hour feuding and fabricating motorcycles on "American Chopper." At times, Orange County Choppers seems more  like a dysfunctional family circus than a business. (I know I could never work side-by-side with my hot-tempered father every day, let alone handle power tools while he's threatening to put his "Size 12s" into my derriere.)

Yet, somehow televising it elevates what was once considered backyard tinkering, into high-priced art.

I may never learn how to rebuild an engine, rewire a kitchen or weld metal from these TV shows, but I find myself totally fascinated.

And I'm not the only one.

"I've seen them," said Scott Parks, assistant director of the Bucks County Technical High School in Fairless Hills. "There are some incredibly talented folks on those shows."

Parks said the trio of shows doesn't exactly have students beating down the school's doors to learn carpentry, masonry, electronics and other trades. But "any type of exposure to the trades can have a positive effect.

"Traditionally most people think about growing up and going to college," Parks said. "But the statistics say many more folks go a non-traditional route and enter the trades."

Dave Ralis' Pave The Grass column appears on Mondays. You can send him an e-mail at  or call him at 215-269-5051. To read his previous columns, click here.

Jan. 12, 2004