- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 12, 2009

INDEPENDENCE, Mo. | Car mechanic Michael Satterwhite stands in a garage beside a blue 1980 Chevrolet Malibu, with its hood up and engine exposed.

Mr. Satterwhite frowns, holds up his left arm and reaches for the tool-cluttered wall for balance. With his other hand, he walks his fingers over a worktable searching for a bolt rack, eyes closed. He doesn’t know why he closes his eyes - maybe to concentrate.

Open or closed it doesn’t matter; he can’t see in either case.

Mr. Satterwhite, 48, was born with retinitis pigmentosa,a type of hereditary retinal disorder that leads to progressive visual loss. By the time he was 16, he could not see well at night. Today, he no longer sees out of his left eye. His right eye can detect only various shades of gray, depicting a shadowy world where everything swims before him in a fog.

“Where’d I put those sockets?” he asks himself.

He pauses and considers. A large man, Mr. Satterwhite wears muddy work boots, jeans and a black T-shirt. Since 1994, he has worked by himself in his pastor’s garage getting jobs from friends and through word of mouth. He long since stopped looking for work. No shop wants a blind car mechanic, Mr. Satterwhite says, adding that he assumes it comes down to liability. They think he will hurt himself.

He had his own shop once when he was 23. But three weeks after he opened, he was robbed and lost all his tools. He closed and worked for other people until he lost his vision completely, in 1984.

Now these many years later, he still has all his fingers and toes. Front wheel drive, rear wheel drive, he can do it all, detecting problems through touch and sound.

A click, clack or knocking sound can mean anything from a dropped valve to a rod out of place. Cars can be tricky: A cracked flex plate makes the same sound as a rod knocking. He listens carefully, head down and cocked to one side.

He feels for problems with his fingertips performing a slow delicate ballet turning his hands this way and that as he feels around an engine. He recently worked on a 1991 Ford F-150 four-wheel-drive pickup. The clutch no longer worked, and bolts had backed out of the crankshaft.

Mr. Satterwhite pulled the motor out and placed it on an engine stand. He put a new crankshaft in it and oil pump, no problem. Like two plus two.

Decades of experience compensate for his blindness. He worked in his father’s service station as a boy, fetching wrenches and pumping gas. At 17, he began working on cars. His father owned a 1957 cherry-red pickup, chrome stacks up the side of it, in which he took the young Michael fishing. He also bought his son his first car, a 1962 Chevrolet Nova Super Sport.

Mr. Satterwhite concedes he needs help with some little tasks. He tends to overfill radiators because he can’t see. He can change oil without too much fuss: Most cars use one filter and five quarts. But newer cars, with computer chips and sensors, tease his mind with their complexity.

“Got it,” he says lifting the bolt rack up.

Carrying it, he slides against the Malibu, moving down to the left side of the car, and begins bolting on a tire. A friend wants to use the car for drag racing. Hot-rod stuff, Mr. Satterwhite says. Old school.

The last car Mr. Satterwhite drove was a 1977 Pontiac Trans Am, with a 454 long-block motor, like in “Smokey and the Bandit.” He still dreams of it. On a recent night, he saw himself cruising down a highway. He saw a billboard and just as he was close enough to read it, he woke up. He took that as a sign; He would never see again.

“Get the broom out and sweep a little so I don’t kneel on pebbles,” Mr. Satterwhite says to himself.

He stands and turns his head this way and that, instinctively looking for a broom despite his blindness. He reaches out with his hands and shuffles around the garage until he finds it. How he’d love to have his own shop. It would be a lot to take on. Someone would have to do the paperwork for him and pull in the cars. He would have to pass even if the opportunity presented itself.

These days, he comforts himself with the few jobs he gets and the company of his wife and 2-year-old daughter. They bring him all the joy he could ask for.

Except of course if he could see.

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