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Jerry Davich: A surprising story of free labor on this workers’ holiday

James Drews U.S. Air Force senior airman was stranded with car trouble Portage helped by local mechanic David Mrak who

James Drews U.S. Air Force senior airman was stranded with car trouble in Portage and helped by local mechanic David Mrak who fixed Drews car for free, thanking him for his military service. | Provided Photo~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: October 4, 2012 6:10AM



James Drews knew his car wasn’t running right when he left Michigan last Sunday after his annual summertime road trip to his home state.

The 26-year-old U.S. Air Force senior airman could tell that his 2002 Ford Focus was misfiring, but he hoped he could make it back anyway to his home at Fort Collins, Colo.

Before he left Michigan, his car’s “service engine soon” warning light came on so, to be safe, he double-backed to Grand Rapids, where his parents live. There, he took his car to an auto parts store to check it out.

Sure enough, a worker confirmed what Drews suspected; his engine’s first cylinder was misfiring. A tune-up was needed somewhere down the road.

“I asked if I could drive on it and the gentlemen said yes,” said James, who works on the Minuteman III weapon system at the F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyo.

“I guess I should have said that I would be driving 1,200 miles, but the plan was to push to Illinois or Iowa, spend the night, and take it to a shop on Monday morning.”

His car kept misfiring. His plan misfired, too.

While driving west through Northwest Indiana, Drews called his supervisor at work to keep him updated. His supervisor, Tech. Sgt. Victor Jeancola, suggested he stop to change that bad spark plug until he could stop driving for the night.

Drews pulled off the expressway in Portage to get gas and look up an auto parts store. His cell phone directed him to O’Reilly Auto Parts on Central Avenue, where he drove his sputtering car.

“I was met at the front counter by Joel Mossatt and this is where the story really takes off,” Drews said, talking in obvious Air Force-speak.

The two men opened the car’s hood, removed the spark plug cover, and found engine oil drowning the misfiring spark plug. Worse-case scenario was a blown head gasket.

Mossatt asked his boss to take a look at it for a second opinion.

Rob Gonzales, the store’s assistant manager, ruled out a blown head gasket but said repairing it would be costly at any shop in our area. Plus, it was Sunday and no shops were open anyway. Drews faced an overnight hotel stay and a hefty repair bill.

But Gonzales had an idea. He called a local mechanic who works pretty much around the clock, even on Sundays. His name is David Mrak.

“Immediately, Joel and two customers standing at the counter reassured me that I wouldn’t find a better mechanic,” Drews recalled.

Gonzales later told me, “David sends us business so we try to throw him business when we can.”

‘Consider this one on me’

A call was made, the situation was explained, and Mrak agreed to look at Drews’ troubled car. But now it wouldn’t start at all.

Another call was made to Mrak and he offered to pick it up and haul it back to his home garage. Ten minutes later, he arrived.

He diagnosed the problem, suggested to Drews to buy a valve cover gasket, and they headed to Mrak’s home.

“On the way to his house, I told him about me being in the U.S. Air Force and just finishing up leave of duty and trying to get home,” Drews said. “He told me about his brother being in the Air Force and we started to swap stories and a few laughs.”

When the men positioned Drews’ car in the garage, Mrak “absolutely astounded” Drews by assessing what was wrong with the engine.

“In the sort of way a doctor looks at a patient with his arms crossed and finger on his lips,” Drews said. “Then he began describing everything he was doing, step by step.”

Although Drews could, say, build a 59-foot-tall missile, he didn’t know the first thing about fixing a car engine, he admitted.

After two hours of working on the engine and chatting with Drews, Mrak said, “OK, fire her up.”

The car sputtered at first, but Mrak nursed it to run smoothly. Still, he suggested a test drive to make sure Drews had no problems again on the road home.

“As soon as we left his driveway, I already felt it was running better than ever,” Drews said.

On the way back to Mrak’s house, Drews said he needed to stop at a bank ATM to withdraw money to pay for the repair job. Without missing a beat, Mrak floored Drews again.

“Consider this one on me,” he told Drews. “Thank you for your military service for allowing me to do what I do everyday.”

Drews just stared at him, dumbfounded. He offered payment to Mrak again and again, but he wouldn’t take any money. Drews must have thanked him 20 times before they returned to Mrak’s house.

“Well, if you won’t take my money then take this,” Drews told Mrak, handing him a special U.S. Air Force coin from his pocket.

Drews was given the coin by his commander, Col. Don Adams, for his exemplary work at the Air Force base. It’s a common form of praise and accomplishment in that branch of the military.

“I had it with me for about six months in my wallet and, for some reason, it only felt right to pass it along to him,” Drews said.

Mrak politely accepted the coin, and gave Drews his phone number in case the car acted up again on the road. Drews left Northwest Indiana that day and returned to Colorado without another car problem. But he couldn’t just let what happened to him go unnoticed.

He figured that Mrak saved him more than $1,000 in repairs, towing fees and hotel costs.

“Not only that but he showed me for the very first time that America hasn’t lost what makes us, well, us — helping out a stranger no matter the cost,” Drews told me after he returned home. “If he won’t take my money, please help me make sure he takes my praise.”

On this Labor Day, that’s what I’m doing.

I figure today is the perfect opportunity to tell you about an American worker — one of our own — who valued something higher than charging for his labor.

“David Mrak is silently becoming a hero in the U.S. Air Force community and he doesn’t even know it yet,” Drews said.

I’ll bet he does now, James.

Find more of Jerry’s writings on Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In, and jerrydavich.wordpress.com.



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