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To change a battery

“This man did not know cold. Possibly, all the generations of his ancestry had been ignorant of cold, of real cold, of cold 107 degrees below freezing point. But the dog knew; all its ancestry knew, and it had inherited the knowledge.” — Jack London, “To Build a Fire.”

A cold wind blew across the Medford Cooperative gas station parking lot late Saturday afternoon as I raced the quickly setting sun to install a new battery in my daughter’s well-used vehicle.

A small, twisted part of me thought of waiting until after dark and pulling out my dad’s Justrite “Light-Stick” model flashlight just so my children could have the same experience I did growing up. Holding the flashlight while your father barks his knuckles for the fifth time while trying to get a frozen bolt loosened is a right a passage for many of us. I tend to think we are better for the experience, because if nothing else it taught us that mechanics are wonderful people.

The story of how I happened to be spending the freezing cold afternoon doing car repairs in a gas station parking lot started back in December when my daughter, Beth, came home from school for Christmas break.

Like most college students, Beth is more often than not strapped for cash. This is especially true when it comes to being able to do things like keeping her gas tank at least above the halfway point in winter.

When Beth came home for break she parked her vehicle and let it sit. I didn’t think at the time to question the status of her gas tank, things were busy. In the weeks since then her vehicle has sat there and when she needed to go out she would use either my or my wife’s cars because that way she could further avoid getting gas.

The plan was for Beth to head back to school at UWStevens Point on Sunday afternoon for the start of Spring semester. As Beth worked on packing, my son and I worked on getting her car started. Yes, I fully realize that I could have done this earlier in the week when it was 35 degrees. I never claimed to be the sharpest knife in the drawer.

The cold, having been parked for weeks, and known issue of having a short somewhere in the wiring slowly draining the battery made getting the car started a challenging endeavor. It took the better part of 45 minutes of attempting to jump the vehicle before I was able to get the engine to turn over.

Going off the lessons that my dad taught me the first time I had to jump a battery, was that I should then take the vehicle for a drive to give a chance for the alternator to work and fully charge the battery.

It was at this point that I noticed the fuel gauge was on “E.” I proceeded to drive around Medford as much as I dared, but knew I wouldn’t get far. I took my chances and rolled up to the Pride Pump at Medford Cooperative and filled the tank. After going in to pay, I got back in the vehicle, crossed my fingers, said a little prayer and turned the key.

The sound of silence was deafening. I called my wife to have her come over and try jumping it again. The hope was perhaps it just needed a little boost.

Nope, still deader than a coffin nail. Leaving it stalled out at a gas pump on a busy Sunday afternoon was not an option, so I had my wife get into the car to put it in neutral and steer as my son and I pushed it across the parking lot and into a parking stall on the north side of the building. The fact that we managed to do this without getting run over was rather impressive.

A trip to purchase a new battery and a side trip to the hardware store to get the right sized crescent wrench brings us full circle to installing a car battery in the middle of a gas station parking lot.

Fortunately, things turned in my favor as I was able to get the battery swapped out and a new one installed before freezing solid.

Fortunately we were able to get Beth back to her dorm without too many headaches. In all, it was a good experience for my children, even if I didn’t force them to hold a flashlight steady on a cold winter night.

Brian Wilson is News Editor at The Star News.