Friday’s Weekend Column
Southern Hospitality

by James Glaser
July 14, 2006

When I left Northern Minnesota I left my jumper cables on the workshop wall because why would I ever need them in the South. Well last weekend I found out why.

I was driving from Tallahassee to Dothan, Alabama taking the back way through Georgia where I was going to hook up with highway 84 going west. I stopped at the Georgia line to get gas as it is less expensive there. My truck wouldn't start back up, it had that click, click, click, sound like the starter solenoid was out or maybe the battery was low. I checked the terminals and they looked all fuzzy with corrosion, so I went in to get a coke to pour on them.

I had the hood up and a guy stops and asks if I need help. He asks if I have cables, and I can just picture them on the wall 1500 miles away where I left them. Everyone in Minnesota carries them. Well as luck would have it, this Southern Gentleman did too. The truck started right off with a jump after the terminals were cleaned up, but the guy knew what he was doing and said, "Why don't you shut it off and see if it will start again." It wouldn't start, so he gave me another jump. I thanked him and set off for an auto parts store for a new battery or maybe an alternator. As soon as I pulled out on the highway my alternator gage went down to nothing, and I swung back toward Tallahassee. We made it 6.5 miles before the engine quit. I was rolling good enough to pull off into a church parking lot driveway.

We put in a call to AAA, and they said there would be a wrecker there within the hour. We did have plenty of water, and there was a breeze, but time sure does drag when you are waiting. We had the hood up and the doors open. Electric windows don't come down when your battery is dead.

We were in this driveway, parallel to the highway, totally visible to anyone driving by, with the hood up, looking stranded, and there were at least hundreds of cars if not thousands that went right on by.

Four people took the time to turn off the highway to ask if we needed help, and I have to tell you I was kind of surprised, because every one of them was African American. One middle age white man road by in a bicycle and all he said was, "Praise the Lord," and kept right on going. The people who stopped sounded like they would like to help if they could, and the man that gave us the jump at the station (also African American) stopped on his way back to Tallahassee just before the tow truck got there.

That "within the hour" was actually two hours later. The driver said he had been swamped with calls all morning. He had some cold water for us, which was nice.

We got the truck to a garage, and Monday morning they told me it wasn't just the battery, but also the alternator like I thought. Last time I bought one was about 1990, for my '79 Ford F-250, and it cost $59.95. This one was $240.95, plus another $70 for the battery, and with labor it came to $407.00. They keep telling us that inflation is under control.

Just for grins I looked up an inflation calculator, and that $59.95 alternator of 1990 should cost $89.17 today, if only the cost of inflation were added. I look at things like that, and I start thinking about what cost what years ago. Then I remember my mom talking about the depression or she and my dad going out on the town for just a couple of bucks.

Back in 1976, I was working construction up in International Falls and my take home pay was $408 a week. We had total family medical coverage, and fifty cents an hour was put away for vacation pay. It sure was nice to draw out a grand when we took a couple of weeks off.

That was thirty years ago, and today there are millions of Americans taking home less now than I did then, and family health insurance is becoming a thing of the past for hourly workers.

For a construction worker to have the same buying power today as I had back thirty years ago, he would need to take home $1400 a week, and I don't think any construction worker is getting close to that. We are headed in the wrong direction. Prices are going up and wages are staying the same or going down. My mother's generation lived in a time where wages increased, and people lived better than their parents. Now there is a good chance that our children won't have it as good as we did.

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