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Where Have All the Heroes Gone?

April 2, 2010

Today’s post is Part 2 and the conclusion of a previous article published on March 22nd.

Last month, as we were driving from Los Angeles to New Orleans, my daughter (Mlle. Butterfly) and I were in a 1989 Toyota Celica. We had done all the right preparatory measures before starting a long road trip in an old car – oil change, new tires, fluid checks, etc. But the potential for car trouble is ever present in a car this old, and by the end of our second 500 mile day, we saw two warning symbols light up as we pulled into our hotel in Van Horn, Texas at 9:30pm. called my daughter’s mechanic in LA in the morning since the lights were back on the dash; he thought we might have an alternator problem. But the car started so we headed for Austin. Two hours into our drive the radio stopped working and the car started to decelerate even though Mlle. Butterfly’s foot was on the gas pedal. Looking to the right and the left of the Interstate, there was nothing in view for miles (which you can clearly see in this desert-like part of the country).

One of the best ideas I had before leaving home turned out to be grabbing my GPS to bring on the trip; it located all auto shops on demand, with a special icon just for Auto Services. After a few seconds of searching I see we have hit the jackpot – a few miles away in Johnson City, Texas is the Commercial Alternator and Starters Company. We manage to make our way to the shop.

Upon arrival we are looking at a garage that is piled high with alternators. There are alternators in the storage area, piled outside the building and all over the floor and work benches in the work area. We realize that we are not in an auto repair place – this company refurbishes car and equipment alternators and starters for commercial customers. There are no other cars on in the driveway, no parking lot full of cars awaiting repair.

We are in the birthplace of Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 39th President of the United States. I poke my head into the dark inner sanctum of the workroom and say ‘hello’ several times in a loud voice. Finally a man emerges and I explain our predicament. He is visibly agitated – he’s already had a long day. He tells us he has no help, he is working alone today. “Can’t get good help”, he explains. Moreover, he already has 70 orders that he needs to research parts for. But he comes over to our car and I ask him just to take to see if he thinks we can make it to Austin which is another 50 miles from here. Ever so begrudgingly, he opens the hood.

Kenneth looks under the hood in Johnson City, TX

We learn that our mechanic’s name is Kenneth, and that he was born and raised Johnson City. He quickly confirms that our problem lies inside our alternator. He shows Mlle. Butterfly the label indicating that her alternator is the original from the Toyota factory, and predicts he will find worn out alternator brushes at the root of our engine trouble. Within minutes he has taken the alternator apart and is showing us the difference between the worn down “brushes” and those of the new part he has pulled from his extensive inventory. He takes Mlle. over to the work area and lets her watch him rebuild the alternator, test it for power generating ability on his specialized equipment and place it back in the engine.

How lucky were we to find one Comparing New and Worn Alternator Brushes at Commercial Alternators and Starters Company, Johnson City TXof the remaining alternator rebuilders in the country, easily the most knowledgeable in Texas if not the Southwest, who not only knew how to repair our car, was willing to do the hard work to get it done in an hour? And one who had the part we needed on hand for a 20 year old car?

What has become of these unsung heroes who were once the bedrock of our economy? Why are there fewer people with auto repair skills when this is still a viable way to make a living?

According to an article summarizing the 2009 ‘How’s your Business?’ Survey Results, (an annual survey compiled by the Auto Service Association): 

“…(with) an aging workforce that is either retiring or nearing retirement, there are more efforts to attract and retain technicians in this industry.” ~Robbie Addision, AutoInc. online edition

Manual labor may be passé in the eyes of younger generations, but automobile travel is far from an outdated concept. Addison goes on to state that “Customers are pushing businesses to delve further into the new dimension of electronic communication. Today’s customers want to communicate with speed, simplicity and (most of all) convenience.” We  can read between the lines and see what a terrific opportunity there is for Generation Y to partner with Baby Boomer repair shop owners to create a true win/win – the elders would exchange hands-on technical knowledge about their craft with a younger apprentices who grew up in the electronic age and bring an intuitive understanding of all 21st century media.

There is further proof of strong business potential in these numbers – It is estimated that 70 percent (176 million) of out-of-warranty vehicles are repaired at independent shops. This is a good customer base for a small business.

Quote for today:

“A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles.”

                                              ~ Tim Cahill

Within an hour of stopping in on Kenneth, we were back on the road and headed to Austin, driving past dozens of family owned ranches like the one in Kenneth’s family. He works on the ranch on the weekends and helps take care of his elderly parents. He’s been keeping this schedule for the last eight years, since his father had a stroke and was no longer able to keep up the ranch himself. Kenneth told us that hard work was the story of his whole life. Which is not entirely true – his “whole” life includes being an expert at his trade, owning and operating a successful small business, and daily acts of kindness to friends and strangers alike. And for me and Mlle. Butterfly, Kenneth will always be the hero in the story of our 2010 road trip across Texas.

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