MISSOULA, Mont. —Tim Kline’s head pokes up out of the garage pit as he dips his brush into the bucket of bright yellow again. A moment without a truck to work on is rare for Kline, so he takes advantage of the spare time to repaint the faded pit which, much like himself, is usually decorated with diesel, grease and oil.
The phone begins to ring, echoing throughout the shop walls. Kline stares blankly at the stairs — his only escape from the pit — and analyzes the wet paint, then screams:
“Little Brother! Phone!”
Jeremy Himber, Kline’s co-worker and buddy of 20 years, emerges from the back door, wiping his greasy hands on a shop rag before answering the phone. They’ve got a truck to work on.
Kline has worked as a truck mechanic at Muralt’s Service Center for 26 years, but the 55-year-old has done auto repair for much longer.
“I’ve been a mechanic my whole life,” Kline said, “I can fix anything. If I can’t fix it, I have friends who know how to fix it.”
Kline said he was mostly a self-taught mechanic as a youth, but he learned a lot of what he knows after graduating high school. At age 18, he worked for the National Guard in Kalispell, Montana, but he ended up in trouble because he was a “bad boy.”
“We stole’d an M50 machine gun, big one,” Kline said, smiling at the memory as he puffed on a cigarette.
He landed himself in jail and was faced with an ultimatum — armed forces, prison or Job Corps. He chose Job Corps and was shipped to Ogden, Utah. There he remained for the next three-and-a-half years, passing every automotive class he tackled with flying colors and learning to be a “pretty good criminal.”
With these new skills under his belt, Kline made his way to California, where he worked as a mechanic and learned how to repair big trucks. After six years in California, he moved home to Hot Springs, Montana.
Kline said he remembers a warm summer night when he joined a few buddies at a bar in Plains. What he thought was just going to be another night of getting “slammed drunk” soon took a memorable turn when he met Carey, his future wife.
“When we first walked into the bar, I noticed the old lady sittin’ in the corner,” he said, putting out his cigarette and lighting up another.
“I told them, ‘I’m taking [her] home with me.’ And I did. It’s been 27 years now,” he said.
He and Carey were married and have since had two kids and several grandchildren.
The newlyweds moved to Missoula, and in 1993 Tim Kline responded to a hiring ad for Muralt’s Service Center. The crowded, greasy shop that always smelled like cigarettes and weed soon became his home away from home.
Kline is not a manager, but he considers himself to be the shop’s best mechanic. He said that even if the opportunity had been presented, he wouldn’t have wanted to move up.
“I’ve learn’t you stay at the bottom — it’s nicer there,” he said. “You get up to the top — then they expect [sh*t].”
Over the past 26 years, Kline said he has built up quite the posse of loyal clientele. He said he’s so popular that the shop owners couldn’t even fire him when they wanted to. Several years ago, Kline hurt himself and was required to take a drug test. When he failed, he was fired. It only lasted a few weeks. Muralt’s received so many calls from angry customers threatening to close their accounts that they had to hire him back.
“My truckers, they love me,” he said as he munched on pork rinds, the bag turning black from the smudges of oil and grease on his fingers. “I’m famous.”
Himber — dubbed “Little Brother” by Kline — said he’s learned a lot from him over the 20 years they’ve worked together.
“If someone asks, ‘Who’s Timmy?’ I say, ‘He’s the best mechanic Missoula’s got — and probably Montana,’” Himber said.
“Hence, I’m famous!” screamed Kline’s voice from the other side of the shop, followed by a long cackle.
Included in Kline’s large pool of loyal clientele are Don Johnson and Jerry Balk. The two truck drivers have been stopping at Muralt’s at least once a week for years just to have Kline look at their trucks.
“He can’t ever quit,” Johnson said. “He’ll do anything for you if you do him right. He’s just like a brother to me.”
Balk, described by Kline as his “most loyal-est customer,” appreciates the meticulous effort Kline puts into his work so that potential issues are caught before they get too out of hand.
“He’s a great guy; knows what he’s doing. That’s why I keep coming back,” Balk said. “Timmy always cares.”
Kline is happy with his plan to remain at Muralt’s until he retires.
“I’m gonna die here,” he said. “I do it my way, the way I want it. And if you don’t like it, I don’t care.”
Story by Erica Staat, special to The Trucker