I suppose I should have done something when the "check battery" light came on shortly after our trip commenced. But it was Friday afternoon, going into Labor Day weekend, and we wanted to get away, so I took my chances.
The engine of my 2011 Ford Escape was running well. I figured I could get the electrical system checked the next day at a garage near my destination in Western Maryland.
But my strategy collapsed after 90 minutes of driving west from Baltimore on Interstate 70.
The Escape's power suddenly felt soft and weird. In the next instant, everything electrical shut down. The Escape started to shake.
Fortunately, I was right near an exit for Route 63 near Hagerstown. There was a sprawling Pilot travel center on the right, an auto repair shop on the left. I took the left.
We coasted to a stop at Smith & Son Automotive. The bays of the garage were open, and a man inside appeared to be working on a pickup truck. In some 35 years of driving, no vehicle of mine had ever broken down on the road. My first time, and there was a repair shop within a thousand yards of an exit ramp.
A bearded fellow in a soiled gray hoodie, dark gray trousers and work boots emerged from the bay, wiping his hands. His name was Rodney, and his last name, Smith, was stenciled across the back of his sweatshirt. I took him to be in his mid-30s.
"How's it going?" he asked.
"Fine," I said, "until about five minutes ago."
I described the problem, and in the next instant heard the word I had been dreading: "Alternator." That's more than an electrical component that keeps your vehicle's battery charged. That's an expensive replacement and, for the holiday traveler, probably a significant delay.
"Let's hope it's not the alternator," Rodney said, grabbing his electrical system tester.
Ah, yes. Holiday weekend. Busy Friday rush hour. Interstate highway. Seventy-five miles from home. And the alternator goes. Great.
"Pop the hood for me, will you?" Rodney said, and in the next minute he was on his toes, leaning into the engine, nosing around the electrical system.
"There's your problem right there," he said, pointing into a tight space where a black belt had become a shredded, mangled mess. This "serpentine belt" is supposed to wrap around various parts and pulleys to drive the air conditioning, the alternator, the water pump, the cooling fan and the power steering.
"It might not be the alternator, after all," Rodney said. "Might just be the belt and the belt tensioner."
He went into his office, filled out some paper work and ordered parts on his computer. And then we waited. My son went off to buy snacks and drinks at the Pilot across Greencastle Pike. Rodney went back to work on the pickup truck in his garage.
If his hunch was correct — that all the Escape needed was a new belt and tensioner — then the alternator might still be fine, and we might not have to spend the night in Hagerstown. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!)
In about 20 minutes, a woman drove a blue-and-yellow NAPA van onto the lot. She emerged with a black belt and a box containing the new tensioner. Rodney signed for the parts and immediately went to work removing the old and installing the new. At one point, he crawled under the Escape, but most of his work was done on his toes, over the engine.
As Rodney worked, I had time to reflect on my bad decision to keep driving despite the dashboard warning and my good fortune to find a skilled mechanic to make a repair when he might have preferred to knock off for the weekend and get a beer. I felt grateful that Rodney was there at all.
The automotive industry has been trying to fix a nationwide shortage of mechanics — described in some reports as severe — and economists and businesses frequently raise concerns about the size and quality of the U.S. workforce.
We assume this big, busy country will always have an adequate number of trained men and women to take care of the rest of us and to keep everything moving. But that's less certain with the retirement of millions of baby boomers and the reported shortages of skilled workers. We need to encourage and educate a new generation of people in the trades. And, instead of conducting draconian deportations, we need to bring new workers into the country — or let the "Dreamers" already in school or the labor force stay here — to maintain or improve productivity.
"Would you start the engine, please?" Rodney said.
The Escape turned over. The electrical system came back to life. The battery started to charge. In under an hour, Rodney had us back on the road. We gladly paid his reasonable bill and threw in a six-pack of beer.