Ballad of the Battery

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ManVan. Or, my pride and joy.

To love me is to love my ManVan.

The ManVan is the moniker bestowed upon my 2007 Chrysler Town and Country minivan, not so much to give it an undue air of masculinity as much as to chuckle at the idea that something so ostentatious as this mom-mobile has earned such a coveted spot in my hairy-chested heart.

But as vehicles go, this van has proven to be a most ideal form of transportation, with ample space to carry friends and family, plenty of space for luggage, a built-in DVD player and a V-6 that affords me all the get-up-and-go that my old Camry never had. It’s hard to believe, but this minivan really has some balls.

It’s comfortable, spacious, and it’s not an SUV. Plus, at the time of its manufacture, Chrysler was owned by Daimler, so I like to think that behind that Chrysler crest on the front is a bit of that famous Mercedes Benz engineering.

And it’s all factory – right down to the battery.

At least, until last night.

The one major malfunction about the van that I’ve just learned to live with is a terminally-corroded battery terminal. I’ve replaced the terminal once when it grew so corroded the van would no longer start, and periodically I take a can of soda out and pour it over the battery, allowing the phosphates to eat through the corrosion and clean the battery post. Say what you will about the redneck solution, but it works.

Well, the corrosion finally got the best of my battery. Yesterday, already late leaving the office, the ManVan would not start. Not having a can of Coke handy, I used my pocket knife to scrape the corrosion from the post and bummed a jump from a buddy at the office. It was then we discovered that the corrosion had gnawed through the post on top of the battery, which had begun to sizzle.

I limped to an auto parts store that was on my route home. It shares a parking lot with another auto parts store. I went in, surrendering to the necessity of purchasing a new battery. The corpulent fellow behind the register asked me if he could help me and I explained that I was in need of a new battery and, per the advertisement in the window, the free installation that went along with it, since I hadn’t the tools to do it myself and did not think the van would start again without a new battery.

He was out of the baseline battery I wanted, but would happily sell me the “gold” model for an extra $60. I pointed out that there was another parts store within walking distance, and that it would look bad to have an employee from that store next door in front of his store, replacing a battery. Certainly, I said, that would dissuade me from buying from his establishment if I saw the competition fixing a car for a customer in his parking lot.

He asked to see my battery. Maybe, he said, he still had one that would be the right size for the right price. We went out to the van and I lifted the hood. He studied the battery intently for a few minutes, looking at the sides, trying to pull it up to see the bottom.

“Hmm,” he said, “there’s nothing on here telling me what size it is.”

I pointed at the label on top of the batter. “Like this?” I asked.

“Yeah, that’s what I needed,” he said and read the size off. Turns out, he had one that would fit.

Back inside, he found the battery I needed and we completed the sale. I bought a pouch of grease meant to retard the growth of corrosion to go with it. On the way back out, he said, “Oh, you said this was for a Chrysler. We may not be able to replace it?”

“Why in the hell couldn’t you replace it?” I asked. Time was ticking, and my 3-year-old daughter was still at day care a city away.

“Some of the Chryslers, you have to jack it up and take the wheel off to get at the battery,” he said. “They won’t let us do that.”

“But you just looked at the battery,” I said. “It’s right on top of the motor! It’s easier to get to than it’s been on nearly any car I’ve ever owned.”

“Oh, that’s right,” he said.

It was then I realized that I’d made a mistake. I should’ve gone to another register, or the parts store next door. Of all the parts stores in all the world, I had to walk into the one with a guy who didn’t know how to change a battery.

The hood was still up on the van, and the fellow began his work. Slowly. Perhaps the issue wasn’t so much that he didn’t know what he was doing as that it was a little cooler yesterday, a refreshing breeze blew through the parking lot, and all in all, he probably found this a better way to pass his evening than laboring indoors. After a while, another guy from the store came out with another customer.

“You still working on that battery?” he asked.

“You be careful – I’m the closing manager tonight,” the guy working on my battery said. It was then I realized that this fellow had all night, and probably aimed to take it.

I stepped in, interrupting his talk of his three cats, dog, wife second job at a home improvement store and his loathing for Bob Nardelli. “Let me try,” I said.

I rummaged through his cart for tools as he apologized for the complete lack of order to the tools thrown onto the cart. I found a socket and an adjustable wrench and put some elbow grease into a bolt that held the terminal to the battery.

It broke off.

“You need another one,” the auto parts guy said.

“Thank you,” I said. I began to go inside. He stood by the van, watching traffic pass. How I envied the people in those passing cars. “What aisle are they on?” I asked, motioning toward the door. He followed me inside and I led him to the battery terminals.

“Them are the ones,” he said, pointing toward some bolts. He pulled the barcode off the back of the pouch and said he’d go put it on while I bought it. It was $2. I paid cash.

As I came back out, he was coming in. “Get it done?” I asked, hopeful.

“Wrong size,” he said, and walked back toward the wall of battery terminals. He chose another, pulled off the barcode, and told me I needed to exchange them.

I went back to the counter, waited, and finally exchanged the one bar code for another. About then, he came back in to the store.

“Get it done?” I asked.

“Nope,” he said. “Wrong size.”

Let me save you the trouble. We did this twice more.

Finally, I got the battery secured into the van, and went to turn the key. The spirit was willing, but the charge was weak. The ManVan would not start.

I went back and looked under the hood. He and I stood there and studied the battery.

“Say,” I asked. “That grease for corrosion you put on there – that sort of prevents conduction, doesn’t it?”

“Prevents what?” he asked.

“Keeps electricity from moving,” I said.

“Oh. I guess it does.”

“Did you, perchance, put any on the post before you put the terminal on it?”

“Well, sure. Keeps the corrosion off.”

“Yep. Keeps the car from starting, too,” I said.

I grabbed a paper towel from the back of the van and pulled the terminal off the post (it was easy, due to the lubrication of the grease). I wiped the grease off the post and the inside of the terminal and shoved the terminal back on. He tried to hand me a wrench. I grabbed a hammer, and used the balled-up paper towel to keep from damaging the terminal while I pounded it into place.

I walked back around the car and twisted the key in the ignition. The motor jumped to life. Without a word, the man lowered the pole holding up my hood and dropped it into place. I dropped the shifter into reverse and waved, at last on my way.

This is the reason I hate going to a drive-thru, run in a store or do anything else that would otherwise seem mundane – it never goes as planned. I get stuck behind the car placing an order for a part of 30, or the old woman who has to study and approve the receipt before she’ll leave with her groceries. Last week, I got behind a woman who was angry that the scales in the produce department – the ones labeled “Not for Trade” – were improperly calibrated, and now she had more than a pound of bananas to pay for.

If it wasn’t for bad luck, I would have no luck at all.

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2 responses »

  1. I have the same issue with drive-thrus, grocery stores, and anything that is meant to be more convenient. I have the same bad luck with anything electronic, hence why I don’t do computers often or have fancy electronic gadgets around my house. They won’t work or work properly for me and I will just end up breaking them in frustration.

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