Roadside adventures with a nomadic mechanic

"Have a good day rescuing," faxed a friend. I'd told her I was about to share "a day in the life of an AA man."

"A good day rescuing" is precisely what I do have in and around Edinburgh with Derek McHale, Automobile Association patrolman.

It is my first (and last!) time donning a yellow AA safety jacket. There are reasons I never took up this profession. Totally unlike Derek - whose love of taking things apart and putting them back together, he tells me, began as a child - I scarcely know a spark plug from a battery charger.

We head for the Ring Road, which skirts the city. "A good place to be when a call comes in." He tells me how he used to work for a number of dealerships, repairing all kinds of different cars.

"But this is the best job I've ever had." He gets to help people from all walks of life. Every call is different. "Big problems, little problems."

"The ability to fix cars isn't enough," he says. "You have to be good at dealing with the public. That's the part that matters."

A few years ago, an AA member might have waited two hours for rescue. Today, with satellites and other systems, the average wait is 35 minutes. Derek proudly helps keep that average down on the calls we answer.

Signals bounce off a satellite-location system on the roof of every patrol van, telling base where a van is. Job details appear on a small monitor on the dashboard. Not that technology always works perfectly. At 9:03, Derek receives a message about a vehicle whose fuel tank has fallen off. "Not for me," he says. "Requires a truck."

His first kosher call comes through at 9:24. "OK, we're going to Granton. A 'non-start on a Peugeot.' But until you're there, you can't tell exactly what the problem is."

This customer is a young woman with a faulty starter motor. "Quite a common one," Derek comments. A tap on the starter gets her rolling. Then we follow her to her local garage to leave the car for repair.

While Derek drives her and her child home, I'm left sitting on a wall at "Hancock Tyres" garage. His van, packed to the gills with equipment, has little passenger room.

After rescuing me, Derek logs the information about his first call and looks to see what's next. "Back of Telford Road," he announces, "Western General Hospital, Department of Microbiology. It's 'a warning light.' Could be an alternator, or a fan belt."

It's a broken fan belt in the somewhat vintage Vauxhall of Robert, an amiable and chatty development manager. He is rather attached to his old car, he tells me, as Derek - hands deep in a local oil disaster - struggles to fit the recalcitrant new belt.

"But," continues Robert, "I suppose she's really ready for the scrap heap." Diplomatically, nobody argues with him.

Derek tells his customers what he is doing ("so they can tell their friends in the pub later what the problem was").

"It is quite a bad leak," he says. Robert says he's told his garage about it, but they take no notice. "I'm going to have to insist more loudly, aren't I?"

Derek, smiling, says, "Yes."

That job done, we head for Fountainbridge Leisure Centre, a multi-tory parking lot not designed for AA van access. (Derek will have to walk up a down ramp to find his customer.) The problem is Mrs Thompson's immobilized immobilizer.

On the way, he is suddenly reassigned to a customer stuck on Moriston Street with a jammed wheel. "They may have prioritized. He may be holding up traffic."

Quite often, before the AA man arrives, problems correct themselves. The jammed wheel has. Derek cleans it anyway, so the driver can get home safely.

Now we head once more for the immobilized Mrs. Thompson. It turns out she has not been worried by a little more delay. She is a teacher. She has been catching up on correcting papers.

Observing Derek's amiable efficiency, I am not surprised he finds most customers pleasant and grateful. Sometimes the car is not the main problem. "You should meet an irate mother who has broken down on her way to fetch her children from school! She might be most concerned about not being on time. You have to assess the situation." Headquarters makes no fuss over spontaneous decisions. If he wants to run the mother to school and see to her car later, he can.

Mrs. Thompson's predicament is that she dropped her key ring earlier in the morning and has lost the battery. She can get into her car, but no one can start it.

Her car is a rather obscure Korean make. Derek phones the AA's National Help Desk in southeast England to find out the correct battery needed. Nobody knows. Derek makes a guess, and we drive to an electronics retailer. His guess is right.

Derek says, "She needs to make sure the battery doesn't fall out again." A strip of sticky tape would do the trick.

"I bet you don't have any sellotape in among all your tools," I say, and laugh.

"As it happens, I do." He grabs a roll in the glove compartment. And another good rescue is finished. What's next?

An occasional series.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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