Dealing with the alternative

My computer dictionary defines an alternator as “A device that generates alternating current, especially in a car.”

What they leave out in the definition is that the alternator works, like most machines, when it is in the mood. Mine got moody last week . . . in fact, severely depressed. And you can’t toss a Valium in the gas tank to make these things feel better.

I was making a run home from the office to pick up my oft forgotten cell phone. Halfway up Conewango Avenue a little orange light popped on my dash. I almost always have a “low tire pressure” light on the left side of the dash because I have an emotionally overwrought sensor that lives in – get this – the spare tire. It appears the spare tire is all moody, all the time.

Rick, my Mechanical Genius, (I’m not really sure if he is aware he belongs to me) turns off the little tire light every time he does an inspection or oil change. That temperamental light gremlin is just an everyday nuisance. So when the little orange box on the right side of the dash popped on, I took notice, big time. In fact, before I backed out of the driveway to return to work I called Mechanical Genius Rick.

“Oops,” he said. “Sounds like the alternator.” As my stomach flipped over (thinking immediately about my Christmas shopping list) I asked him if he was sure. A little advice: if you are lucky enough to own a Mechanical Genius, do not ever question his assessment of your problem.

“Well is the little light shaped like a battery?” he asked.

“Uh, yup, that’s it.” I said.

“You need to bring it in as soon as possible,” he advised. “If it’s the alternator, it’s possible you could lose your steering.”

OK. This isn’t good. But did I do what my Genius Guru so wisely advised? I did not. He doesn’t mean right this minute, I’m sure. I told him that I’d drive it in as soon as I completed a business meeting downtown and arranged for Dear Richard to pick me up at the garage. I went back in the house for the valet key.

Oh, and before I hung up I asked him, “Does the alternator usually go in a car with less than 48,000 miles?” He replied with the information I’d conveniently forgotten: that my car is over ten years old. Oh. Right. Rats.

After my meeting downtown, I drove back to the office to tell the staff what was happening. BIG MISTAKE. I should have called them from the car instead.

I left the office parking lot, turned right at the light and stopped at the light on Fourth Ave. When the light turned green I accelerated as I started the right turn but all I got was acceleration – NO TURN. I was heading directly for the new S.U.V. at the red light. I tried to slam on the brakes. Nothing. The pedal didn’t move at all. The steering wheel didn’t begin to rotate.

Then, in one incredible millionth of a second, part of my early driver’s training returned, from back in the days before power steering. I grabbed as low on the wheel as I could and turned it with every last muscle both my floppy arms still possess. I have no idea how few inches separated us when my car turned, but I was surprised we both still had side mirrors. The traffic was moving all around me and the tiny bit of acceleration remaining got me to a space near the sidewalk. There was a definite angel on my shoulder. Only the engine was dead.

Later, Mechanicalgenius Rick explained that when the engine isn’t running it’s very difficult to get power to the steering or the brakes. OY. Then he said, “Well at least you found out how strong you are!” Fuggedaboudit. That moment was pure adrenaline . . . strength had nothing to do with it. Adrenaline and angels are a dynamite duo.

Eveready Merle arrived in his tow truck within twenty minutes to take the car to M.G. Rick’s. (I might as well shorten Mechanical Genius to M.G. right now – I’m probably going to need Rick until my body’s personal alternator croaks.) Eveready Merle explained it could not be towed, that flat-bedding was necessary.

There was no point in my going to the garage. M. G. Rick said he would get the part in and it would probably be ready early in the week. This all happened on Friday. OK, I can do that. Dear Richard is a good chauffeur.

As I was telling Richard later, I realized how much I don’t know about automobiles. I always meant to learn more. Car repair was on my life list of things to tackle when I was young and ambitious. But, along with the piano and Italian, it never rose to the top of the check list. I actually can change a tire, add windshield washer and check the oil. After that, I just want it to work when I turn the key.

The phone rang Saturday about noontime. M.G. Rick said, “Your car is ready.”

“What? How is that possible? You said you had to order the alternator.”

He said, “I ordered it right after you first called me. I knew. It got here this morning and it’s done.” Mechanical Genius is also somewhere between a Workaholic and a Miracle Man.

You know, when you have nice working relationships like these, a lot of it has to do with living in a small town. Kindness, helpfulness, thoughtfulness – all are present when we fail or fall. We’re a lucky bunch, we small towners.

However, I do hope that shoulder angel can hang around for a few more days – I’m still not ready to take right turns for granted.

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