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Get a second opinion when a car mechanic gives a doomsday diagnosis

My knees felt like Jell-O as I left the tire and car shop. An hour earlier, I'd gone there simply to get my wheels balanced. But as I was paying the bill, the man at the counter told me my beloved car had a very serious problem.

The rear brake calipers were completely shot, the rotors too thin to rotate, and the brake pads down to nothing, he said. Oh, my, this sounded serious. And expensive. How much?

A dealership would charge about $900, but his shop could do it for a mere $553.22. And I'd better get it done right now, he warned.

Just then, a man who identified himself as the shop owner came in and emphasized that the brakes were a real danger.

You're going to ram into someone and do some bad damage, he said. What about the emergency brake? I wondered. Probably wouldn't work, he said.

"All I can say is, if you don't get that fixed right now, you let us know when you're going to be out on the road, because we don't want to be on the road at the same time," he said.

Stay with me here; there's a moral to this story.

I got voicemail when I called my car's guardian angel/mechanic, who has been taking care of Ol' Blue since Oct. 14, 1988, when she was 5 years old and had a scant 89,956 miles on 'er. Since then, I've driven another 292,894 miles, and only one other person has ever laid a hand on that engine, a fellow in Flagstaff, Ariz. who had to adjust something so my car could climb the mountains to the Grand Canyon. (It's a diesel.)

I'd had my car in my mechanic's shop for a going-over less than 2,000 miles earlier and he had thoroughly checked the wheels and brakes and found them in fine shape. How could so much go so wrong in a mere 2,000 miles?

Call me scared, but skeptical.

I inched the couple of miles to a long-held dental appointment and told the office staff what I'd been told. They were as suspicious as I was. They suggested I consult their trusted mechanic, whose shop was close by.

Not mentioning the previous diagnosis, I asked the mechanic to take a look at my back brakes. He was back a few moments later. "You have a dust boot on one caliper coming off," he said. Other than that, everything looked fine. He grabbed a flashlight and invited me to take a look, and I told him what I'd just been told about my "dangerous" brake situation. He rolled his eyes.

"If the caliper was 'grabbing,' you'd have uneven brake pad wear, but as you can see, they're worn very evenly." He said I'd need new brake pads one of these days, but not right now.

A few weeks later, after Ol' Blue's guardian angel returned from vacation, I got him to take a look. Not only were the calipers, rotors and pads just fine, but he said I wouldn't have been in any real danger even if the other folks had been telling me the truth.

It seems that my cherished 1983 Mercedes-Benz 300SD has a dual brake system, front and back, with 70 or 80 percent of braking power in the front, and the back just a booster. He refitted the caliper dust boot, assured me Ol' Blue was a-okay, and away I went.

Now for the moral of the story: Unless your mechanic has been working on your car for more than 23 years and 292,894 miles and you trust him with your very life, get a second opinion.

Better yet, get a third one, too.

There's no escape

The weather couldn't have been more gorgeous nor the merchandise more tempting than at last weekend's Suncoast Arts Festival at the Shops at Wiregrass in Wesley Chapel. What better way to escape the madding crowd of this year's election season than by strolling through lovely artworks and ducking into the shops and restaurants of that wonderful center.

But as we reached the entrance to the center, we saw that the corners were covered by a motley crew holding aloft signs for various and sundry political candidates in the upcoming presidential primary and shouting at passers-by.

Fortunately, the lively atmosphere of the festival soon made us forget the visual and auditory barrage, and by the time we departed, the shouting sign-wavers had made like many of the candidates this year and simply melted away.

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