Work Life

Five Jumps and a Good Mechanic

1997 Subaru

One of my work buddies is a mechanic and Vietnam veteran. He was a mechanic during the war although it’s his brother who now operates an auto shop in the county seat. He is active in the American Legion and has a reputation as a curmudgeon. I find myself pointing out I’m older than he is, although I defer to him because of his veteran status. He drives a vehicle similar to my 1997 Subaru.

Transportation is important when working for low wages. The idea of buying a new car — straight from the dealer — is a fantasy reserved for immediately after buying a winning lottery ticket or hitting it big on Bitcoin futures speculation. The chances of doing any of them are minuscule. When someone gets a new car it means nicer and newer than the previous one. My colleagues at the home, farm and auto supply store favor used cars that work and one or another of our collective vehicles is always acting up. We help each other with rides, loaner cars and jump starts without questioning it.

Essential to life with an old car is knowing a good mechanic, “good” being the hard part. Finding one means slogging through abundant folklore, experiences and stories of wrench turners to identify someone gifted at diagnosis with an approach that produces excellent results inexpensively. Being a good mechanic includes willingness to work on an old car, knowledge about the model, and doing what’s needed to keep it running and nothing more.

Acknowledging the importance of diagnosing automotive problems, three groups of mechanics took medical-sounding names for their automotive businesses in the small city near where I live. There’s an auto clinic, auto medics, and an ag clinic. Proper diagnoses are important and good mechanics are possessed of the knowledge, resources and skills to make them. I don’t normally use my curmudgeonly Vietnam veteran friend as my mechanic, even though he would likely work on my car for free.

A while back my Subaru began intermittently overheating. I took it to my mechanic and after several diagnostic attempts we figured a leaking head gasket caused the problem. We weren’t sure, but were sure enough to give it a try. If a dealer were to replace a head gasket in my car, the book calls for pulling the engine because of the configuration of the engine compartment. My mechanic saved me 10 hours labor by replacing the head gasket with the engine in the chassis. He understood ten hours labor made a big difference in our budget.

Recently the electrical system went on the fritz and I suspected the battery was going bad.

Troubleshooting began by asking people I know. My Vietnam veteran friend checked the battery and results of the computerized test he ran showed it to be okay. It wasn’t, but I took his word it was and tried charging the car each night in the garage. The issue did not resolve and repeated charging may have made the battery worse.

I called my regular mechanic, whose schedule was packed, and got an appointment for the following week. When my spouse was not working I used her car to get to work. When I used mine, it continued to lose a charge after four hours in the parking lot until it would not re-start immediately after parking it for the day. It was frustrating.

My colleagues at the home, farm and auto supply store stepped up with five jump starts during the period. On my second break I’d pore over the schedule to see whose shift ended the same time as mine and ask a co-worker for a jump. The first person I asked always jumped me: we all understand cars that have been in service for a while have issues. I was cautious about asking the same person more than once for fear of wearing out the welcome.

Car problems are an existential annoyance. They are also less important than maintaining relationships, including with family, co-workers and neighbors. We are stronger together and will need strength for the coming years. That and a good mechanic.