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(Not So) Common Sense – Auto service is uncertain territory, for me anyway

Every time I take my car to the dealership for service, I hear my dad’s voice -  tinny, from a distance, far in the back of my mind. It’s faint, of course.

Carole Townsend

We lost Dad two years ago, and he doled out this advice to me more than 30 years ago. Still, it will stay with me until the day I die. 

“When you take your car in for an oil change, don’t let them sell you a lot of other stuff you don’t need,” he’d admonish a much-younger me (this was back in the late 1970s, so I’ll let you do the math). “Yes, sir,” I’d nod, anxious to get my Pontiac Sunbird out on the road and out of sight of my dad’s watchful eyes, even if I was only going up the road to get an oil change.

For the most part over the years, I heeded Dad’s words of advice; every time an auto mechanic would come into the waiting room from the garage, headed toward me with a serious look on his face, I’d steel myself. Usually, they’d try to sell me an air filter. I’d smile a smug, knowing smile, let the guy rattle off his spiel, and then I’d calmly and assuredly reply with a, “No thanks. Not today.” Invariably, the guy would raise his eyebrows, shake his head a bit, and walk away, as if to say, “Well, when your engine locks up on a deserted road in the dead of night, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

I’ve dodged many an air filter over the years. Maybe I needed a new one every now and then, and maybe I didn’t. What mattered was my dad’s voice and his words of warning. I did slip a time or two, I have to admit. Once, my husband asked me to be sure to buy new wiper blades when I got the oil changed.  When I came home and showed him a receipt for a couple of hundred dollars, he shook his head, said, “Let’s go,” and we headed right back up to the shop. Apparently, windshield wiper blades aren’t very expensive, may be ten or twenty dollars. However, when the mechanic sells you the entire mechanism, arm, blade and all, the price goes way up. We went back to the repair shop, my husband chided the young mechanic for taking advantage of his wife, and we left, our wallets a little heavier for our effort. I made a mental note to myself: the blade is the rubber part, only.

I have a car now that, certainly by my dad’s standards, would be considered fancy, new-fangled. I suppose everyone’s car is the same these days; the entire automobile is governed by a computer, and it takes someone with a Georgia Tech Ph.D. to work on one. These days, my car tells me when to get the oil changed and when to rotate the tires; in fact, on long trips, it tells me when to stop for bathroom breaks and whether I’m eating too many snacks. It tells me when the roads are icy. It warns me of inclement weather and flooding up ahead. It even answers my phone for me. I had the thing a month before I understood that the random voices I heard in my car were actual phone calls, not early-onset senility.

I had my car in the shop this past weekend for an oil change and tire maintenance, and I chuckled to myself as I thought about the conversation I’ll have with the mechanic in just a few months when the weather turns cold. He knows me by now, but I have to hand it to him. He never gives up, because every now and then, he hits pay dirt. You see, when the outside temperatures drop into the 30s, a tiny symbol appears on the dashboard display. The first time I saw it, I had no idea what it meant, so of course, off to the dealership I went. “Oh,” the young man cheerfully replied, “When the air temperature drops, so does your tire pressure.”

“O.K.,” I replied. “Well, will you fill them back up for me?” And here came the pitch. Oh, if my dad were alive to hear this one. I can just imagine what he’d say.

“Well ma’am, I can, but it’ll just keep happening,” the kid said with a smile as he reached behind the counter for a slick pamphlet. Puzzled, I waited for the other shoe to drop. And boy, did it.

“You see, for sixty dollars, we can fill your tires with nitrogen. Nitrogen molecules are bigger, so they won’t leak out of your tires like just plain air molecules do.”

Stunned, I looked around for hidden TV cameras. Surely, this was a clever reality TV prank. I don’t know what my facial expression looked like when he told me that I needed bigger molecules, but it obviously told him that he needed to keep talking, so he did. I interrupted him mid-sentence, as soon as I had time to process what he had just told me.

“So you’re telling me that regular air will not stay in my tires in cold weather, but bigger air will?” Smiling as only a car mechanic talking to a woman will do, he replied, “Yes, ma’am.”

I had to chew on that for a minute. “So, I pay you sixty dollars, and you pump bigger air molecules into my tires. Are they, like, a different color or something? Maybe blue or red?” I mean, I wanted to see that I was, in fact, getting special air for that $60.00. My daddy didn’t raise a fool, after all.

That smile again. “No ma’am, they’re not.”

I considered the idea for a moment, just long enough for my dad’s faraway voice to echo in my head, shaming me for even thinking about it. Carole Ann, the voice said. Don’t you listen to that nonsense. A fool and her money are soon parted.

That’s all I needed to hear. I smiled, smugly of course, and told the young man, “No, thanks. Not today.”

Long story short, after several more trips to have my tires re-inflated that winter (those darned mini-air molecules), I bit the bullet and bought nitrogen molecules for my tires. Sorry Dad, but I did. Funny thing is, I didn’t have the problem again all winter.

I was being interviewed by the host of a radio station in New York shortly after I bought the bigger air molecules, and I told him the story. I suppose I was looking for some affirmation, a little comfort.  Instead he laughed (scoffed, actually) when I told him about my purchase. “Must be a Southern thing,” he said. I have to say, that hurt my pride a little bit. I felt taken, all over again. A fool and her money are soon parted.

Now, as summer draws thankfully to a close, my question is, “Are those bigger molecules still in there, or will I have to replace them in a few months? Were they warrantied?” 

And here’s an even more troubling question: “If they’re not still in there, where did they go?”

Carole Townsend is a Gwinnett author and freelance writer. She writes about family, from both a humorous and poignant perspective. Her newest book, MAGNOLIAS, SWEET TEA AND EXHAUST (July 2014, Skyhorse Publishing) takes a look at NASCAR from a Southern suburban mom’s perspective. She is currently writing her fourth book. Carole has appeared on local and national news and talk shows, including CNN, ABC, CBS and NBC affiliates. When not writing, she travels throughout the region, speaking to various civic and literary groups, and advocating for the health and well-being of the family, particularly women and children. For more information, visit