WESTMINSTER — Bob Harris’ grease-stained hands turned the bolts inside a light blue 1997 Mercury Sable. He wiped the sweat trickling down his face on his dirtied white T-shirt and carefully placed his tools on a wooden table.
Everything has its own particular spot. That makes it easy for Harris to feel around on the table and quickly grab what he’s looking for. It’s a necessary measure because Harris is blind.
“I lost my eyesight when?” he asked his wife Barb. He said he intentionally put it out of his mind.
It happened in 1990, she replied. Bob Harris was stripping the paint off the community bathroom of his apartment along Main Street in Westminster when the two chemicals he was using sent him into respiratory distress and cardiac arrest three times. Within 36 hours, he was blind.
“If I hadn’t gone in and found him (that day), he’d be dead,” Barb said.
By 4:30 a.m. every day, the 61-year-old is wide awake and looking for something to do.
“I’ve had books on tape, and they’re OK,” Bob Harris said, “but I like to be doing things with my hands.”
He’s constantly busy until his usual 10 p.m. bedtime. When need be, he fixes the lawnmowers and electricity and plumbing of his house in the 500 block of Bethany Court in Westminster. He’s made clocks and ship models and an electric train that fills up a room in the house. But most of the time, he fixes cars.
He rested one leg outfitted in black carpenter’s pants on the Mercury Sable and stabilized himself with the other as his arms extended to fix the car’s intake manifold, a crucial component to making it run. He talked about how the owner can’t afford pricey maintenance fees, so Harris fixes it for free.
Several Carroll County churches choose the car owners that will receive Harris’ free services. Rather than taking money, he says he’s been blessed enough in his life and would rather his “customers” pay it forward and volunteer in the community.
Since he returned from Vietnam in 1971, he’s worked as a mechanic in various auto shops in Maryland and Pennsylvania.
Repairing and building things is an instinct; it’s muscle memory. He can’t see, but he can feel, and being handy is in his nature.
Harris grew up in a household that never called a repairman. His family’s motto: “If it’s broken, fix it yourself and find out what’s wrong with it,” he said.
His tone is lighthearted, and the laughter between Barb and himself flows easily and often. But his voice gets firmer when he talks about adjusting to being blind.
“It was awful,” he said. “It was absolutely horrible. I had no clue what I was going to do with my life.”
Harris was evicted from his apartment soon after he lost his sight. The landlord thought he was a liability, Barb said.
Her husband started attending blind school, she said, but he was a bit ahead of the curve.
“They tried to teach him mechanics, but he could teach them how to do mechanics,” she said. “They wanted to teach him to make coffee, but he’d already figured it out.”
The two married in 1991. That year, one of their cars had a problem, and he fixed it.
“I didn’t really question I could do it or anything,” he said. “I’ve done it for so long. You really just don’t forget.”
Soon after, Bob started repairing VCRs and TVs, but it became cheaper to buy a new device than have it repaired.
So he opened up his own auto shop out of his garage called Repair, Renew and Restore in about 1997. About seven years later, the county zoning board shut it down, citing that his house was strictly for residential purposes. A business could not be run out of his home.
Three years ago, he picked up repairing cars again, but this time most are for free. Sometimes, he’s juggling three at a time. Other times, he’s not working on any.
Bob took his hands out from the engine of his current project, the Mercury Sable.
“Could you hand me the emery cloth on the second right shelf, hon?” he asked Barb.
She’ll help him find the tools they need. Some mornings, Bob will wake her up and ask her to take him to Lowe’s.
“He likes to stay busy,” she said. “He gets bored too easily.”