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Manpower in Action

Jeffrey K. Actor

NO ONE SCHEDULES when the car battery is going to die.

Monday morning arrives after a full weekend. Bleary-eyed, I roll out of bed, make a steaming cup of coffee, and pull up the latest HumbleDollar articles on my iPad. My wife rushes past, gives me a quick peck on the cheek, and leaves to drive to her study group.

And then I hear the groan. Alas, the car won’t start. No power, no lights, no bells or whistles. It just sits there, dormant as a hibernating bear in the dead of winter.

There goes my morning routine. It is, of course, my fault. I signed up for this when we married 36-plus years ago. I’ve always been the go-to guy for mechanical repairs. This includes all manner of expectations for automobile upkeep.

I like to keep cars for a long time. My Honda Civic recently died after 23 years, by the end literally held together with duct tape and J-B Weld epoxy. We budget $2,000 a year for regular car maintenance, oil changes, tires, brakes and registration. Our goal on automobile upkeep is to spend less each year than the equivalent of three monthly payments on a new car. My wife likes the budgeting, but hates the unexpected breakdowns and inconveniences that come with owning older autos.

I quickly change out of my jammies into shorts and a T-shirt. I put on a baseball cap and make an effort to appear mechanically inclined while I head to the garage.

So much for a leisurely cup of Joe. We only have one car, currently an eight-year-old Honda CR-V. Technically, I own and pay the auto insurance on three vehicles. But our 2014 Civic has been claimed by my daughter and, thanks to our son, our 2005 CR-V currently resides in a parking lot in New Mexico. So, we only have one car available to take my wife to her study group.

I figure the problem could be as simple as a spent battery. Fortunately, I have a spare marine battery with some juice, a holdover from my poorly engineered experiments using solar panels. Within 10 minutes I’ve gotten the engine to turn over. In the meantime, my wife made a few calls and secured a ride to her class. As she leaves, she gives me a wink and a thank you, clearly expecting the problem to be resolved before she gets home.

The car is now running and I don’t dare turn off the engine, mostly out of fear of damaging my ego by having to call AAA. Yes, we’ve been a member of AAA since the late 20th century, but I stubbornly refuse to use the service. There must be a gold star next to my name in the accounting department. But to me, it’s worth the $75 a year to not use it, thus impressing my wife with my car-fixing superpower. The stupid things men do to impress their spouses.

I head to the local auto parts store. The battery is under warranty, and the sales clerk cheerfully assists with a replacement. Of course, my current battery is not in stock, but the store will gladly install the next most expensive one. I get a pro-rata rebate due to the “limited” warranty, although with taxes and other charges it still seems to cost about the same as the list price. Hmmm. Without my full morning cup of coffee, I can’t even begin to figure out the price discrepancy.

A strapping young employee helps swap the old and new batteries. Then came the moment of truth—testing to see if the car will start. Nope. Dead as a doorknob. The clerk was a newbie, and reversed terminals. Reversing polarity is never positive in engine work, unless you’re installing anti-matter on the Starship Enterprise. Reconnecting terminals in the correct orientation didn’t solve the problem.

The manager was a mensch. Although the store was busy, he immediately left the counter to check on my situation. The manager and I got under the hood. We figure the problem was a shorted main fuse circuit breaker. Luckily, we’re at an auto parts store. But as luck would have it, the store didn’t carry the part. Sometimes, bad luck is the only luck available. He gave me some hand cleaner, and told me he would make the situation right. He found the part at a nearby Honda dealership and immediately sent a driver to retrieve it.

Of course, the nearest dealership didn’t carry the part. Good thing I live in a large metropolitan area. The second dealership had the part in stock. Two hours later, the manager personally installed the fuse controller. The engine started immediately and purred like a kitten. He thanked me for my patience and, unexpectedly, warmly told me how much he appreciated me, as a customer, for not cursing and yelling during the extra time it took to repair my car. I said accidents happen, and offered to pay for the fuse controller. He said he would eat the cost of the part.

Sure, I was inconvenienced. But the personal touch that the manager exhibited held more power than the battery I purchased. Before I left, I told him I would continue to be a valued customer. Indeed, it could have been so much worse. All I lost was a bit of time. In the end, I returned home in a functional vehicle before my wife did, thus keeping alive her slightly skewed vision of my mechanical prowess.

Jeffrey K. Actor, PhD, was a professor at a major medical school in Houston for more than 25 years, serving as an academic researcher with interests in how immune responses function to fight pathogenic diseases. Jeff’s retirement goals are to write short science fiction stories, volunteer in the community and spend time in his garden. Check out his earlier articles.

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