At a time when a single broken part can relegate even the most expensive home appliance -- a clothes washer, refrigerator or lawn mower -- to the dust bin, Ralph Bryan is fighting the good fight against such planned obsolescence. And he's doing it with that oldest of old school strategies: the house call.
The San Antonio Express-News reports Bryan is the self-proclaimed Lawn Mower Doctor, driving his battered 1994 Chevy van to homes across the city to tune up and repair not only mowers, but other gas-powered tools such as chainsaws, generators, string trimmers and more.
It's almost a lost art, this fixing broken things as many times as possible, crafting parts on the fly, taking pride in a job well done. But it's an art that Bryan feels called to, in part because of a series of medical emergencies he survived years ago, the memory of which still help guide his path. These include a near-death experience during which he believes he met and received directions from his maker.
Now 64, Bryan began his love affair with engines early on. He was only 14 when he left his dysfunctional home in Devine, but not before taking over a bay at his father's shop where he first started repairing small engines.
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"I just seemed to have a natural gift for it," he said. "No matter how big they are or how small, they all work on the same principle. I can usually look at one and figure out pretty fast what's wrong."
At 17, he enlisted in the Army and spent 13 years in uniform, during which the high school dropout worked with nuclear missiles and was assigned to the DMZ between North and South Korea. After leaving the military, he held a variety of jobs, including working in a warehouse, running a construction business and being an automotive service adviser for Sears.
But he was always attuned to small engines.
Back in the late '80s, for example, a friend complained about a repair shop that charged almost $100 to pick up and deliver her mower, and then kept it for several weeks while they fixed it.
"I told her I'd fix it at her house, which I did," he said.
Happy with the result, she told some friends and they told some friends. Soon, he was fixing small motors nights and weekends while working a variety of other full-time jobs and collecting military disability.
"I'd be really busy in the spring, getting mowers and other tools ready for summer," he said. "But sometimes, if I got too busy, I'd change my phone number and disappear for a few years. And then I'd start up again. It was never a full-time thing."
Several years ago, during one of those working periods, he grew tired of having to load and unload his truck with tools every day and worrying about someone stealing them. So he took what had been his fishing van and outfitted it with what he calls an "insert," a welded steel cage with shelving that's mounted on wheels so he can roll it into and out of the van.
"I designed and built it all myself," he said proudly, as he pulls the cage from the van's interior after arriving at a hilltop home near Boerne. "I have almost everything you'll find in a retail fix-it shop here, and I can do just about any repair they can do."
While there are at least four other companies listed online that say they do mobile lawn mower repair, calls to all four went unreturned.
About five years ago, he got so busy that he hired the first of several employees to help him manage what had developed into a full-time job. Things didn't go as he'd hoped.
"We were making a lot of money, but I hated grinding out mower after mower," he said. "It stopped being fun."
Instead of disappearing again, he decided instead to pull things back a bit. His decision was made easier by a series of health scares he'd had back in 1999.
While driving a concrete mixer, he was hit in the face by a stray stone, severely injuring his eye.
During surgery to repair the eye, he was told he went into cardiac arrest for about nine minutes, during which, "I met a being I'd call my creator."
While clinically dead, he claims he asked for a gift: that God bring only people into his life who could either teach him or whom he could teach. After surviving that near-death experience, he said, came out the other side a changed man.
"I used to be unforgiving and angry all the time," he said. "And that was no longer true. From then on, bad things all seemed to fall away."
Not all bad things, apparently. During a scan of his injured eye, doctors discovered a tumor deep within his brain.
He chose not to have surgery after they told him there was a high risk that, if he didn't die on the operating table, he'd be left blind. Instead, he decided on a course of cancer-suppressing drugs and a reliance on a higher power.
"I figured God put the tumor there and that if he wanted, he'd take it away," he said.
Credit God or the drugs, but a year later, the tumor was gone.
Years later, in about 2016, the memory of those medical scares gave him the confidence to think hard about what he really enjoyed about the lawn mower repair business. It wasn't so much working with his hands as it was talking with and getting to know his customers. In fact, Bryan is so naturally gregarious, his employees often complained that he spent too much time chatting up those clients instead of moving on to the next house and making more money.
"They'd say every time I left a house, I'd made a new friend," he said.
Rather than stop making friends, he got rid of the employees and today the Lawn Mower Doctor is a one-man operation. And he's able to chat with clients as much, or for as long, as he wants.
"I love my job," he said. "I love fixing things, but I also love being able to meet people and talk with them about a lot of things, from marriage to how to maintain a lawn mower. It's not like I never get angry or have a bad day, but I no longer dread getting up to go to work in the morning."
When Bryan pulls his van up to a house, it's like Inspector Gadget meets the Beverly-Hillbillies -- with a little Zen and the Art of Lawn Mower Maintenance thrown in for good measure.
At one end of the cage inset, for example, a heavy metal screen that secures small hand tools when the van is moving folds down to become a handy work table when it's not. There's a generator that runs an air compressor, a hand pump to siphon spent oil and a propane generator that powers his welding machine and, in summer, the air conditioning unit he installed on the roof to cool the van's interior.
The van is also equipped with a roll-on, roll-off roof that extends 6 or 7 feet off the back to provide much needed shade during summer.
"It's even got lights so I can work after the sun goes down," he said.
Bryan charges $95 to service a basic push mower, pressure washer and small generators, $150 for riding mowers, compressors and large generators and $175 for zero-turn mowers and larger equipment. Basic service includes changing the oil, sharpening blades, fixing minor problems and cleaning the machine. Parts cost extra.
Bryan recently worked on Jeff Heinke's John Deere push mower, giving it a full spring tuneup and making several minor repairs. Heinke was blown away by the set-up.
"He had everything he needed right there in his van," said Heinke, who runs his own graphic design firm. "If I tried to do it myself, I'd have had to make at least a couple of trips to Lowe's. And if I took it to a repair shop, it would be at least a week before I'd get it back."
In addition to the tuneup, Bryan used metal from an old license plate to craft a new bracket to replace one that keeps the pull cord from snagging on the side grass catcher. Bryan also serviced Heinke's power washer, fixing a gas leak and putting several carburetor parts in the ultrasonic cleaner he also carries with him.
"They came out clean as a whistle," Heinke said.
Paul Sheetz recently had Bryan service his mower and said he's glad he did.
"I have a small car, and I don't want to have to stick my mower in the trunk," said Sheetz, a certified public accountant. "If someone is willing to come to my home to tune it up and clean it up, I'm all for it."
Sheetz also took full advantage of Bryan's willingness to chat.
"Let's say he `gently educated me' about caring for my lawn mower, which I admit I hadn't been doing such a good job on," he said. "I needed every bit of advice he gave me."
That's one of the many benefits of a house call.