I usually ignore those little lights on the dashboard.

Our car, a Ford Escort, was born the same year the Euro was introduced*, and is starting to show her age. I’ve decided that the “check engine” light, which has been on for the past 30,000 miles, is the automotive equivalent of arthritis. We’ve taken our beloved car to professionals, performed batteries of tests, and repaired everything from the timing belt to the oxygen sensors, but that red light just stays on. I don’t even notice it anymore.

That’s why yesterday, when the little battery-shaped icon started flickering on and off, I didn’t panic. The car seemed to be functioning at normal parameters and I knew the battery was only a year old. Still, to be on the safe side, I pulled into the NAPA parking lot on my way home from dropping Katie at school, just to have them check it out. (Side note: I love NAPA. The floor and walls and shelves are full of interesting looking parts and gizmos that I don’t understand, the air smells slightly of engine grease, and the employees are always extremely kind and helpful and not condescending at all even though I clearly don’t know a manifold from a manatee.) I told the man behind the counter about the flickering battery light, and right away he knew it was caused by one of two problems. Grabbing one of his many cool diagnostic voodoo devices, he followed me out to the car and hooked its two clips up to my battery. After studying the display for a moment, he announced, “Well, the good news is that it’s not your battery.”

In this case, the “good news” wasn’t so good. A battery costs about $50 to replace. A new alternator, on the other hand, costs closer to two hundred dollars. And a new alternator, he assured me, was what we needed. “How long have we got?” I asked. “Do I need to drive straight to a mechanic, or can I get away with shopping around for a few days?”

“Well, if you turn off your radio, heater, and headlights, you might be fine for a while. Just don’t go out of town. And ma’am? If you stop at 7-11, leave the engine running.”


“A while” turned out to be less than 24 hours. We had made arrangements to have my father-in-law, an auto mechanic who works near Paul’s office, take a look at the Escort this afternoon, but that wasn’t soon enough. This morning, as I was driving Paul to work (we only have the one car), our alternator commenced its death throes. First, the engine started missing. It lurched, and stalled, and lurched again, making a sickly thrumming noise all the while. We were about a mile from our destination. Then I noticed the speedometer had stopped working. Its needle was buried deep under the zero, unresponsive. Next, we lost our turn signals. I switched on the left one to take a corner, and nothing happened. We were about a block away. “You’d better drive straight to the garage,” Paul directed worriedly. “There’s no way you’re getting home in this bucket.”

In the end, the engine cut out (and this is no exaggeration) just as we were coasting into the last available parking space in front of Dad’s garage. In fact, Paul had to push us the last three feet. Talk about timing! I’m thinking it was a God thing.

While Paul went and consulted with his dad on our options (a two day wait for the proper part, most likely), I made phone calls to cancel my eye appointment and to tell Katie’s school why she wouldn’t be in attendance today. We came in from the cold and Paul’s wonderful coworkers set the kids up with some computer games to keep them busy as we tried to decide what to do. Ultimately, Dad loaned us his truck and Paul deposited the kids and I back at home, where we are marooned until such time as our old red tank is ready to roll once more.

Not exactly the best morning, but being a cup-half-full kind of girl, I’m going to count the blessings in this situation. Here they are:

*The car died right in front of the garage, not on the side of the road or in front of the school.

*Paul was with me, so I didn’t have to juggle kids with waiting for rescue and working out the car salvage details.

*We actually know what’s wrong with the car, and we have the money to fix it.

*It’s great to be related to a talented auto mechanic. Between Paul and his dad, our cars and computers always receive the best technical support.

*We didn’t have a wreck, despite having to drive our rapidly decomposing automobile on slick, icy roads.

*We might be stranded, but we’re warm and together and at home, with no place to go, just watching the snow falling, falling, falling outside.

It’s not so bad.

*1999 (You didn’t know my blog was educational, did you?)

13 responses »

  1. You guys are so lucky it died in front of the garage. Sorry I missed visiting with you this morning. Looks like everything is working out. šŸ™‚

  2. What a great list of thankful things in such a good situation.

    And at least it’s snowing too. Who wants to drive in snow anyway? (Plus, if you were in Dallas, school would be cancelled due to the chance of the white stuff accumulating. I’m sure that’s not true for ya’ll up there, though!)

  3. my engine light likes to come on for stupid reasons, but doesnt stay on.

    the last time i bothered my brother and he pulled out his gadgets, it told him i had issues with the gas cap. he flipped over the rubber seal on it… big high tech repair…

  4. Amen. I had a similar experience recently that caused me to lose a day’s work sitting at the garage like waiting for a surgical patient. And I decided to spend my time being thankful that I had the resources to afford to solve my problem, that I had a work environment that gave me that flexibility, that I had a streamlined life I could easily reorder, and the serenity to do so. And I listend to an audio book for 4 hours and enjoyed a day off. Nice life lesson!
    one of my many engine light stories

  5. I too have a mechanic in my family (my dad) which comes in handy, especially when all you have to do is to buy the part for the repair, not actually paying for the repair. Don’t get me wrong – I always ‘pay’ with dinner or a bottle of his favorite wine, but I would much rather spend an hour in the kitchen fixing a good meal than to pull out my checkbook, hoping the check won’t clear before payday!

    I am driving a 1999 Dodge Caravan and I too have gotten to the point of ignoring the ‘check engine’ light. It’s been on since our last oil change, so I’m assuming it’s just a fluke. But, we’ve been having minor problems for a while and I fully expect that we will eventually be visiting our favorite, local mechanic for repairs. But, I’m just praying that my car will hold out until February, AFTER we get our tax refund šŸ™‚ Michael’s ’98 Altima is a different story. We’re simply praying over it and hoping for another 10K or so miles…we’re not in a position to have a car payment, no matter how badly I’d love to be driving a newer car!!!

  6. Conrad, MT, two blocks from our motel instead of Nowhere, MT miles from the nearest house (but only feet from the nearest herd of elk- those things charge, just ask Jen). Our car died last night while we are here for a family member’s funeral. Another, another belt broke. So, no snow, but we do have a warm motel room, we have family to shuttle us to the necessary appointments. Maybe we will be back for school Friday, maybe not. Regardless, we will be in the market for a new vehicle.

  7. My alternator died a couple weeks after I bought my car. It was really strange though because all of my little gadgeties in the front started going back and forth really fast. It was like something you would see in a low-budget horror movie. Compared to me, you almost got off lucky. My alternator cost me four hundred dollars. Sorry your morning was such a drag.

  8. I have a ’98 Escort, and I love it too. I’ve never had a new car, though, and those are really tempting!!! Here it’s a big panic when things like that start going too, as the AC is as essential in Texas as the heater is for you.
    I’m glad that you got in safely – I can’t drive on ice in the most ideal of cars, so that was a big panic for me!!!

  9. Update: My van didn’t pass inspection because it’s ‘missing on cylider 2’, so maybe that check engine light really does mean something. We have an appointment on Tuesday to get it check out…uuuggghhh!!! I shouldn’t have said anything about it holding out….

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