April 22, 2011

Cold Spring…

Category: News — Ira @ 5:32 pm


You can avoid reality, but you cannot avoid the
consequences of avoiding reality.
— Ayn Rand

They’ve been coming through our doors in increasing numbers this year at work. Shifting, lean, hungry-eyed men, pricing out a bit of trim and metal and lumber for small remodel jobs. Small time guys, probably laid off from some half-decent job they used to have, and will likely never see again. Out there slugging around for a bit of work to put food on the table. And for all those other bills.

A few weeks ago, Patrick (my boss) waited on a rough-looking guy. Well, he didn’t particularly look rough, but his clothes sure did. Ragged, worn, with patch sewn over patch. Mom used to patch our clothes when we were children, but this guy’s pants would have amazed even her. He stood there at the counter for ten minutes or so as he and Patrick talked and figured out what he might need for a certain little job. Then he left in his battered old beater of a pickup. He never returned, so he either didn’t get the winning bid, or he found his materials somewhere else.

We’re always cordial, of course, no matter who walks through our doors. Except maybe for some pesky salesmen, either the first timers or those who can’t accept rejection. But they don’t count. We are always genuinely cordial and professional, and we sell a lot of little odd job stuff to small timers. I can’t help but feel bad for some of these guys. They probably never have much left for their labor.

A persistent pulse of unease throbs in the public’s murmured conversations. It’s all around. You can feel it, sense it, taste it, speak it, hear it. A palpable undertow of suppressed panic, tinged with resignation. Silent slivers of fear. Lurking even behind smiling faces.

It’s been a long cold spring. And it’s tough out there. It really is.

With gas lurching toward $5 a gallon, things won’t get better anytime soon. Fuel costs affect all transportation, and everything transported. Food. Building materials. Getting to and from work. Family vacations. Whether or not you drive twenty miles to reach an otherwise “nearby destination.” Everything is affected, like the touch of King Midas. Except in this case, the opposite effect of his “magic” holds true. Things turn to ashes, not gold. Real life changes, big time. All for the worse.

It’s deeply perturbing, really, the shape we’re in. Not only in this country, but the world as a whole. After nearly a hundred years of deliberate currency debasement on a global scale, now comes the time to pay the piper. And he won’t lead his mesmerized flock into some mystical mountain cave. He will instead impoverish and enslave our children and their children into infinity.

Our political leaders squabble in Washington like the empty, shallow arrogant elites they are. As a libertarian, I genuinely despise both parties, and by association about ninety-nine percent of all others in that corrupt swamp who pick at the carcass of our country. The party of war and the party of Marxism. Both about equally destructive, and I really mean that.

In a time that begs for real leadership, our “messiah” Obama babbles inanely about alternative energy, as if the Left’s pipe dream could be spoken into existence. Like God created the world. Our messiah did manage to create a special board of some sort to investigate Big Oil, to make sure there is no price gouging. As if that will reduce prices by even a cent. Oh, yeah. That’ll do it. More inept and utterly senseless bureaucracy. It’s flat out asinine.

Except with Obama, I don’t think he’s as stupid as he acts. The man is determined to destroy the last vestiges of the free market that somehow managed to survive in this country. He may just get it done. I hope every single person who voted for him feels happy and hopeful about paying $5.00 for a gallon of gas. Fine change, that. (Not that McCain would have done much better, except maybe he wouldn’t have unleashed upon us the gorgon of a monster that is ObamaCare. I didn’t vote for him (McCain), either.)

I don’t hate Obama. Just his policies. I despise those with a passion. And I marvel in despair at his sheer incompetence. He’s even started his own little quagmire in Libya. Didn’t want to be outdone by Bush, I guess.

In time, there will be riots in the streets. There will be. After those desperate hungry guys out there slogging for small jobs get fed up, and decide to give it up. After it’s not worth the effort any more. After guys like that are driven to the wall and cannot find food to feed their families, that’s when it will all come down.

And right on cue, here comes Atlas Shrugged, the movie. Haven’t seen it yet, since it’s a limited release, but I plan to. I won’t go through all the contortions and disclaimers stating my disagreements with Ayn Rand. Her cold logic, devoid of any possible acknowledgment of God. Her strident atheism. Somehow, the woman wrote a timeless novel that contains a host of real core truths. Truths that will always stand, regardless of time and a myriad of political maelstroms. The book was one of the two most influential novels I have ever read.

We have stepped through the doorway into the world of Atlas Shrugged. As the clogging tentacles of government tighten their deadly grip on every aspect of our lives. Emboldened Leviathan must and will devour itself. It simply cannot sustain itself, not for long. It cannot hold. And it will never, never stand. Not in the sweeping saga of history.

Recently, a strange thing came down at work. Perhaps it speaks to the times we are in, and perhaps it doesn’t. I got an email requesting a quote for a pole building. The prospective customer was the CEO of some regional business. He wanted to erect the building on his farm. I emailed back. We chatted a time or two on the phone. And then he stopped by on a recent Saturday morning when I was pulling weekend duty.

A florid-faced man, probably sixty or so, round cheeked, slightly rotund. Confident air, as if used to being obeyed. I greeted him politely. And he was pleasant enough. Just way too suspicious. Like he didn’t really believe I was who I was, or that what I said was true.

It soon became clear that he knew just enough about pole construction to make him dangerous. And a flat-out idiot in his conversation. Somehow, he didn’t trust our normal construction standards. He wanted an option for this and for that, and an option for heavier grade metal and bigger poles. Heavier snow loading on the trusses.

And, of course, he wanted every option listed with and without labor. We sell complete building material packages. He figured he could find his own cheap crew.

I do thousands of building quotes every year. And few things are more irritating than a prospective customer blithely rattling off options merely for the sake of mild if not zero real interest or consideration. Like he loves the sound of his own voice. Buying a building is not like buying a car. Some people get that point confused. (Adding that dormer will cost about two thousand bucks. Oh, you thought it could thrown in for free, or for a few hundred bucks? Nope. Sorry.) But that day, I remained very cordial, and took careful notes. I’d have the quote to him by mid-week, I assured him. He thanked me and left.

And I got it ready, the quote. It gobbled at least an hour right out of a frantic day. I faithfully and laboriously calculated and listed each option. Even had Dave check it over, which took a few minutes of his time as well. Then I emailed my quote to the florid CEO. Almost immediately he answered, requesting a few more senseless options, then fussed when I returned the pricing. My competition was way lower, he claimed. I politely explained how I came up with my numbers, which took more time. And finally, with that, I figured he was gone.

But nah. No such luck could be mine. A few days later, another email. Maybe he was impressed with my expertise and ready to go. I scanned the page. A list, an entire page of a list. Demanding even more detailed options. Including one that would, if implemented, have destroyed any warranty against leakage on the roof. All priced with and without labor.

Some time ago, I stumbled across an essay about Pareto’s Law, which, among other things, formulates the following: “80% of your sales come from 20% of your clients.” Conversely, 20% of your sales come from 80% of your prospects. So 80% of your effort gleans 20% of your sales. All that time, gone, and the value of time is incalculable. After reading, I mulled it over. Where my sales came from. And where my efforts seemed fruitless. Pareto’s Law really made a lot of sense.

I was so impressed that I printed the essay and gave copies to Patrick and Dave, my two office co-workers. Well, my one boss and my one co-worker. Pat and I chatted about it. And after receiving the CEO’s second detailed request, Pareto’s Law stirred in my head. I discussed the situation with Patrick. Should I spend two hours working on a quote that had few prospects of success, or should I focus my time on more productive things? Perhaps because of my heavy lobbying, we decided to pass on the quote.

So Patrick crafted a very diplomatic letter, far more polite than anything I could ever have concocted, and emailed it to the florid CEO. Told him we are declining his request for the quote and why. And I moved on to other work, greatly relieved.

Sadly, the CEO promptly responded to Patrick’s letter in a most unprofessional manner. I imagine his face was more florid than usual as he reacted by pounding his message on the keyboard. Strident, unedited. Threatening, fuming. I wouldn’t work for the guy, that’s all I’ll say. Except for one more thing. Good riddance. He would have been far more of a pain that he could possibly have been worth, had he purchased the building. Which he wouldn’t have done anyway. Never had any intention to. Pareto’s Law. Look it up.

The reviews from the little independent blogs are slowly popping up out there, posting ratings on my book. Nope, I’m not providing any links. If you’re that curious, find them yourself, like I did. So far, the ratings have ranged from three to five stars, out of a five star scale. Seems like a few reviewers were less than impressed with the book. One said it was sad. Another said I left the Amish because I wanted a pickup truck. Funny, though, they all did compliment some aspect of the book. Guess that’s what you do when pronouncing a judgment of three stars.

And of course, most of those who rated the book four or five stars did only that, with few words. Praise slips from the shadows, almost mute, while criticism grumbles loudly. It all adds a bit of stress to the long wait.

Growing Up Amish is “heavy reading.” Sure, it’s got its light moments, but mostly it’s not light stuff. Pretty much like my blog has been since its inception, except the book’s flow is connected, not random. So if you’re expecting a breezy narrative with vapid depictions of the Amish, don’t buy the book. Oh, wait. Scratch that. Buy it anyway, just put it on the shelf. The cover alone is worth the price.

A blessed Easter to all my readers.

April 1, 2011

The “Tramp”

Category: News — Ira @ 6:44 pm


Let me hear my Momma calling,
Look a-yonder, ya’ll, who’s coming.
Down the road, he’s coming home.
But they know I never will.

Conway Twitty, lyrics: Play, Guitar, Play

My parents spoke now and then of the long ago world they had known as children in Daviess. And of the colorful characters they saw in that world, including the ragged dusty tramps, straggling down the road to no particular destination, lugging their meager belongings in torn rucksacks, offering to chop wood for food. Once in awhile, Mom even hummed a few verses from the classic Depression era song, “Brother, can you spare a dime?”

And the Aylmer Amish community, too, had a few local tramp legends. Way back in the dawn of its history, it was said, Solomon Herrfort left his coat hanging on a fence post beside the road while working in the fields one day. When he returned, a tramp had taken up an axe lying nearby and split the top of the post without bothering to remove Solomon’s coat. He’d been drinking, we heard. The tramp, not Solomon. (Although Solomon might have wished for a drink after he found the tattered remnants of his coat. Then again, probably not.)

And another legend was born in my own time, in my own childhood world. Late one night, Homer Grabers discovered a tramp sleeping in their barn. The details remain a bit foggy, but if I remember right, they came home from somewhere, maybe visiting at a neighbor’s place, and their farm dog was yapping insanely out by the barn. Homer and his son Alvin cautiously ventured out to investigate, and were greatly startled and then horrified to discover a man bedded down in the hay loft. One of them rushed to the schoolhouse phone and called the cops. It all ended (in subsequent greatly embellished detail, of course) with the cop hauling the hapless hobo off to somewhere, hopefully to a night in a warmer bed at the Aylmer jail.

To us, as children, tramps were mythical figures, and we tried to imagine what it would have been like to live in a world where they would just come strolling down the road from and to nowhere. And, of course, we never caught even so much as a glimpse of a real tramp.

And then one evening, we almost saw one. Or so we thought. It might have been late spring, going on early summer. Or it might have been late summer, going on early fall. The shadows of visual memory are about the same in either setting. But if I had to pick, I would say it was late spring/early summer.

It was after supper and we were outside, barefoot, playing and chattering in the yard. Probably an hour or so of daylight remained. I don’t remember who first saw him. In about two seconds, all of us did. A figure walking from the west along the gravel road toward us. We stirred a bit uneasily but continued our play. And watched as the speck of a man grew larger.

Closer he came, passing the great oak tree in the road ditch a few hundred yards away, and then he reached our lane. Frozen, we stared as he turned in and walked right up to our house. We skittered about like frightened rabbits, shifting into the shadows. Someone ran inside to tell Dad, who slowly ambled out. By this time the stranger had reached the concrete walkway leading to our house.

He was young, maybe twenty years old, which seemed old to us back then. Dressed in worn clothes and worn-out shoes. He looked ragged and tired. Dirty blond hair, and possibly a small beard (although that little detail escapes me). He stopped as Dad walked out to meet him.

“Hello, what can I do for you this evening?” Dad asked, somewhat rhetorically. The young man smiled hesitantly and fumbled nervously in his pocket. Pulled out a slip of paper.

“Your son Joseph said you might be able to put me up for the night. He wrote a note and told me to give it to you,” the stranger stammered. Joseph, recently married, lived with his wife Iva on the Sansburn farm a mile west. Dad took the note and quickly scanned it. Whatever it said, it seemed to satisfy him. He asked a few quick questions, to verify the note. And then he opened up his home.

“Come on inside and we’ll get you some food,” Dad said. He turned back to the house, the young stranger following close behind. Mom met them, smiling. She was used to unexpected company, but not this kind.

“This man is hungry,” Dad told her. “Can you fix him a bite to eat?”

And, of course, Mom could. Totally accustomed to scratching together quick meals for the swarms of Amish visitors that often popped in unannounced in every season, she quickly warmed up some leftovers on her stove. Dad sat and chatted with the young man. Nervous at first, the stranger calmed down a good deal and soon was wolfing down the plate of food Mom set before him.

Dad sat there at the table with the stranger as he ate and talked. He lived northeast of us, somewhere up in the Corinth area (if I remember right). Things weren’t going well at home with his parents. He and his father fought a lot. And he hated his job; his boss was always mean to him. It was all reaching unacceptable levels. Then in the last few days, for some reason, all the forces of life had conspired against him. He had a big knock-down drag out argument with his father the night before. And that day, the boss screamed at him for absolutely no reason (which was, of course, the stranger’s highly biased perspective). And at quitting time, instead of going home, he had simply walked down the road with nothing, really, but the clothes on his back. He didn’t own a car, or much of anything else.

Somehow, after trudging for hours, he had ended up at Joseph’s place. Joseph, recently ensconced in his new home with his bride, listened to the stranger’s story. While sympathetic, he couldn’t quite see boarding such a person for a night. So he finally decided on a sensible course of action. He sent the stranger a mile east to his father’s place with a note.

Dad listened as the man talked and talked, inserting a comment now and then. The stranger was stressed and exhausted, that much was plain. And by the way, his feet hurt. Could he possibly get some cardboard to cut out and fit into his shoes? All those miles of walking had about done them in.

Of course. That would be no problem, Dad assured him. But eat first, then we’ll take care of that.

The stranger didn’t know where he was going. This much was established as he ate and talked. All he knew was that it was over back there, back at his home and at his job. And that he needed a place to stay that night. Tomorrow he would move on, he assured Dad.

Hovering in the next room, we listened to their conversation, mildly disappointed. The guy wasn’t really a tramp, just a confused young man who had been pushed to the wall. But to us he seemed like one.

And soon enough, he finished eating. Dad ushered him into the living room, and they sat on rocking chairs and talked. The sun set, and darkness fell. Dad lit the hissing mantle lantern, and that was my last visual memory of the two of them together. Sitting there talking in our living room by the lantern’s light. And soon the children went off to bed.

The next morning, we got up and did our chores, then came in for breakfast. Dad was missing. Mom told us why.

The night before, Dad and the stranger had sat up late, talking. Dad had gently but persistently advised the young man to return home the next morning, and return to his job and face his problems. The stranger, at first adamantly opposed to such a plan, had gradually softened as Dad persuaded him. And eventually, he had agreed that he might consider returning.

Of course, Dad closed right in for the sale. And before they retired that night, he had convinced the young stranger of the wisdom of returning.

The stranger slept in our spare downstairs bedroom, in the northeast corner of our house. In the room bordering my parents’ bedroom.

The next morning, well before dawn, while all of us were still in deep slumber, Dad roused the young man from his bed. Mom got up and cooked a hasty breakfast for them both. With the stranger tagging along, Dad went out to the barn, harnessed his horse and hitched him to his old rattletrap buggy. The stranger stepped up and settled in nervously for the first and only buggy ride of his life.

And Dad took him home. The five or six miles north and east, in the predawn darkness. The buggy clattering along on the gravel roads, announcing its presence to the world with a single blinking orange light. They arrived at the young man’s home early enough for him to get to his job on time later that morning.

At home, we ate breakfast and began our day without Dad. Later that morning, he rattled into the lane with his rig, his mission accomplished. He never spoke much about the incident, at least not that I remember. It was just a thing that had happened, out of nowhere.

And thus ended this strange and extraordinary encounter between a stern, hardcore Amish man and a lost and disillusioned young English kid. Somehow, a connection was established across seemingly impenetrable cultural barriers. A father’s heart spoke life to a stranger’s son.

We returned to the normal bustle and flow of our lives on the farm. Spoke now and then of the stranger who had walked unannounced into our lives on that early summer evening. And that was that. Except it wasn’t, quite.

Some months later, one Saturday afternoon, a car pulled into our drive. Not a clunker, exactly, but not a late model, either. A clean-cut young man stepped out, smiling. He walked to the passenger’s door and opened it. A plain but smiling young woman stepped out.

It was the stranger, the “tramp” who had walked into our lane months before. He had returned home and cleaned up his act. Found a new job. Saved some money. Bought a car on credit. Started dating a nice girl. And now he had returned to thank Dad for what he had done all those months ago.

He proudly introduced us to the plain young woman. His girlfriend. And they both thanked my parents for their kindness that night.

After twenty minutes, or maybe half an hour, the first slivers of an awkward silence sprouted. There was no more to be said. A final pleasant platitude. Then the two young people got into the car, and drove slowly out our lane. Turned east, onto the gravel road, back to their English lives.

We never saw them again. We returned to the normal flow and course of our lives. Pondered among ourselves, now and then, about the tramp who had walked into our world for a few brief and surreal hours.

I don’t remember his name, although he spoke it to us. And I don’t know what ever happened to him. But I wonder sometimes how his life turned out and where he is today.