What things are these, what shells and curios of outworn
custom, what relics here of old, forgotten time?
It was such a small thing when it happened that I didn’t think about it much at the time. No reason to, really. But later, I analyzed the incident a bit. And one thing led to another, in my head. And when that happens, you never know where you’ll end up.
I get those messages now and then. Through Facebook, or my email address, which is posted on this blog. Hey. What would it take, to get a signed copy of your book? Would you consider that, sending me one if I paid for it? And I always respond. Of course. I always have copies on hand. Send twenty bucks to my work address, and I’ll get you a signed copy. Made out to you, or to anyone you say.
And so it is that once in a while, every couple of weeks or so, I slip by the local post office in Christiana, and walk in with a few signed books to mail. I always take one of those nice little padded envelopes from the rack there, that they offer for sale. I slip the book in, and seal the little adhesive flap. Slap on the mailing sticker I prepared back at the office. And walla, it’s ready. With book-rate postage, the whole thing costs four bucks and change.
A few weeks back, I walked in one day with a couple of books to mail. The postmaster lady is used to seeing me. She always smiles in welcome. She got so curious about seeing me mail so many books that she asked about it a few months ago. Then she bought a copy for herself and read it. Claimed she really enjoyed it. So we have a nice little friendship. That day, though, she wasn’t around. Some young guy, a part timer, waited on me. I did the usual. Grabbed two padded envelopes from the wall, stuck in my books, sealed them, and passed them over the counter to him. Book rate, I said. He jabbed at his computer screen, and printed out my postage stickers. Then gave me the total. Four bucks and change. For both books. Something was wrong.
That’s not enough, I said. He looked at me strangely. “It’s the price of the postage,” he answered. I almost turned and left. But then it hit me. The envelopes, I said. You forgot to charge me for those. “Oh, you got those here?” he asked. Well, yes. I always do. He quickly scanned the envelopes, and I handed him the money. He thanked me for telling him. Not a problem, I said.
And it wasn’t a big deal at all, in my mind. That’s just what you do, when a mistake like that comes at you. You make it right, that’s what I was always taught. There is no agonizing, there are no questions about whether or not it’s the right thing to do. It always is the right thing.
But that wasn’t what struck me, when I thought about it later. What struck me was, what if it’s you on the other side of that equation? What if someone actually tries to rip you off? Comes at you with that intent from the get-go? What then? How do you handle that?
And I thought back to years ago, of how it was when my father was running his metal sales business back home in Bloomfield.
The summer before we moved there, Dad built a brand new dairy barn. Laid it out with all kinds of newfangled but untested ideas, almost all of which eventually proved entirely worthless. But that’s a bunny trail. He had to order the metal roofing and siding for the barn from the only local supplier. Bloomfield Lumber. And they delivered a quality product. Sure, it took some time, because they had to order everything in. And their prices were right up there.
After we moved and were settling in, Dad had other building projects. He wasn’t particularly satisfied with the product, mostly the prices, of Bloomfield Lumber’s offerings. He still bought from them, those first few years. But something stirred, in his mind.
Why not find metal roofing and siding at a better price? And he made some calls, found a dealer in Missouri. A guy who would ship it in for a lot cheaper. And Dad put the word out, in the community. I got good metal prices. Order from me. I’ll save you money. I don’t think he mentioned the grade or quality of the metal. Metal roofing was metal roofing.
It was never planned, this business. And that’s the beauty of it. It just sprouted on its own, because Dad saw a need and provided for it. During those first few years, in the late 1970s, he got a load together every month or two. It was seconds metal, if I remember right. You couldn’t order a specific color, necessarily, even. It was mostly white or off-white. But the price was so low, compared to Bloomfield Lumber’s, that it didn’t matter. It was metal, it would cover your buildings, and it was cheap. During those first few years, the loads were delivered from somewhere in southern Missouri on a battered old single axle white International flatbed truck. Russell Krause, the one-armed driver, usually arrived during the night and slept slumped in his truck. And he usually ate breakfast with us. The boys, my brothers and me, went out after breakfast and unloaded the metal sheets by hand. The whole load, stacks and stacks. Hundreds and hundreds of sheets.
Russell Krause was a pure southern Missouri hillbilly, probably in his mid-50s or so, wizened and stooped and one-armed. He was the only person who was ever allowed to smoke inside our home, near as I can recall. And that’s because he didn’t ask, he just lit up. Filterless Camels. Mom always just smiled and gave him a Mason jar lid for an ashtray. He sat at the breakfast table, devouring Mom’s delicious food, and told large tales of the things he had seen and done. And it always got a little uncomfortable for him after we finished eating. Because that’s when Dad would take up his Bible and read a passage or two. And then we would all kneel for the morning prayer. Except Russell. He never knelt. Just leaned over, on his chair, like he was kneeling. It was a natural reaction for him, I guess, in an unfamiliar setting. Just bending over. But we saw it, that he didn’t kneel. And we judged him for it. We figured he was probably not a Christian. Maybe even a wicked man, seeing that he smoked and all.
It was all a bit of a ramshackle affair, but Dad’s metal business grew steadily over the next few years. Actually, it was just plain primitive. The whole setup. We piled the metal in stacks on the south side of our new machinery shed. Outside, in the weather, which is a huge no-no. And during the summers, great weeds sprouted among the stacks, sometimes almost overwhelming them. We built a rack inside the shed, to hold a small selection of trim.
When a customer arrived, we boys took care of him, most often. He would tell us what he wanted, and we’d find the closest thing we had to that. We’d hand load the metal, then write out a bill of sale on a little white and yellow pad. White to the customer. Yellow for the record. Those were heady days, when wads of cash flowed in and out of our pockets. Some small bits of it stayed there, now and then, as Dad’s bookkeeping was also very primitive. He wouldn’t miss a $20 bill now and then, we figured. We were right. He was so disorganized that he rarely caught on. But he sold a lot of product, because his prices were low, way lower than those at surrounding English lumber yards. And you couldn’t beat his hours. Any time during daylight hours, six days a week. No Sunday sales. That was just assumed. And they came, locals from all around, and many non-locals from out of state, to buy at discount prices from Wagler Metals.
Dad advertised, and his metal business grew and grew. By the time I left for good in the late 1980s, it was his main source of income. Long before that, he had switched suppliers. Russell Krause no longer came up from southern Missouri in his old rattletrap International. Instead, Graber Post Buildings from Daviess County now delivered Dad’s inventory by the tractor-trailer load. And about then, my brother Joseph bought a share of the business and took over the day to day operations. I’m not sure of the exact timeline of some of these events, but it’s not important. They built a brand new but somewhat ramshackle building halfway out the drive to keep their metal in. And people flocked in from miles around and bought. Wagler Metals was a flourishing business in Bloomfield.
And 99.9% of those people who came and bought were honest customers who paid with honest money. Dad took cash and checks. The checks were almost always good. Once in a while, though, some hoodlum would pass off a bad check that bounced. Sometimes, that was not done on purpose. And when that happened, the customer made good. But from a few, those bad checks were planned. Those few refused to make good. They figured Dad was Amish, and he wouldn’t do anything about it. For such a trivial thing, they sold out their good name. Which they had probably done long before, so it wasn’t that big a deal to them anymore, I think.
Dad’s position on such matters was pretty much what the official Amish position has always been. You don’t get the law involved. You don’t sue, or hire a collection agency to go after your unpaid bills. In most places, I think that’s still their position. And as far a I know, Dad never once got the law involved in any way, to fight for his rights. He didn’t believe in calling the cops for any reason. And he never did.
But in today’s fast paced business world, I know that’s really tough to do sometimes. Especially when a large sum is involved. It’s tough, to just stand by and let a wrong go, when it might take down your business.
But they never did go after the bad guys, neither Dad nor Joseph. And once, when I was home visiting for Christmas, Joseph told me the classic tale of how it all comes down, when one sets out to rip off an Amish business.
It all happened one fine afternoon when a dilapidated old pickup rattled into the long drive of the old home farm out north of West Grove. A redneck coming to buy some metal roofing. Joseph told me his name, which I don’t remember and wouldn’t write here if I did. But the guy came from up north of Drakesville somewhere.
He was loud and jolly, Joseph told me. And he needed a couple of different lengths of metal. For the sake of this tale, we’ll say ten footers and twelve footers. So Joseph showed him what he had and the redneck bought a stack of each length. Twenty or thirty sheets of each. They loaded the metal on his now-sagging pickup, and the guy pulled out his checkbook. “You’ll take a check, won’t you?” he asked. Joseph said he would.
The guy paid and left. Disappeared over the steep hill to the north, heading back to Drakesville. Joseph returned to what he was doing. But then, about twenty minutes later, he looked out toward the road. And behold, the dilapidated old sagging pickup was staggering back into the drive. The redneck pulled up to the yard and braked. Stepped out, smiling sheepishly.
“You know what, Joe?” He said loudly. “I just got to thinking. I’m going to hold back on that one part of the roof, for now. I really don’t need all these ten foot sheets I bought. Would it be too much trouble to unload them and put them back in stock?”
Joseph probably sensed something was wrong. But he couldn’t put his finger on it. Sure, he’d take the metal back. “Sure, we’ll unload it,” he said. “I’ll give your check back. You can just write me another.”
The man was a fine actor. Or maybe Joseph was just easily fooled. I don’t know. We all want to believe in the best in people. And the Amish are especially susceptible to frauds, seems like. Because they trust people easily, in everyday life. It’s just how they were taught. The redneck made a great exaggerated expression of dismay.
“Ah, man, Joe,” he exclaimed regretfully. “That was my last check, the one I gave you. Any way you could just write a check back to me, for the difference?” And so the trap was set. And Joseph, bless his heart, walked right on in. Completely unassuming. Sure. Sure, he’d do that. And that’s what happened. They unloaded the ten footers, all twenty or thirty of them. And Joseph handed the redneck a check for them.
You don’t have to think too hard to figure out what happened next. The redneck from up north of Drakesville, that man’s check was bad. Worthless. Not only did he get all his twelve foot metal for free, he also got a good chunk of cash from Wagler Metals when he cashed Joseph’s check. Which was exactly what he set out to do when he came for the twelve footers he actually needed. Which is exactly the kind of scheme he and generations of his thieving blood had pulled off countless times before, I’m pretty sure.
I gaped at Joseph as he finished his tale. Told with all the relish and detail and vocal inflections any respectable Wagler would come up with. What? Are you insane? I hollered. (We talk to each other like that, it’s all good.) You still have the guy’s check in your hand, and you won’t go after him? All you have to do is give it to the cops. It’s a crime, what he did. Here. Give it to me. I’ll take it in to them right now. Come on. You can’t just let him get away with outright theft like that.
“Nope, nope,” Joseph grinned nervously, as he tends to do. “No. That’s not what we do. Yeah, a man stopped by the other day. He runs a collection business. He wanted all my bad checks. He’d go collect the debts, take his percentage, and give me the rest. But I told him no.”
And I could only sputter in frustration at my brother. There it was, an easy solution. Give someone else the right to collect your debts, and you’re not directly involved. But still, he wouldn’t even do that. I would, I told him. That redneck needs to be stopped. He’s just going to keep on doing it, until someone does stop him. It’s justice. Do it. And my brother had a comeback even for that.
“No, he’s known now, in the community,” he said. “People know his name is bad, they know now who he is. That his word can’t be trusted. Sure, it’s hard. Of course it is. I want that money I’m owed. But I won’t go after it. A higher power will deal with that man. I don’t need to concern myself about it, however much I want to.”
I stood there, still shaking my head in disbelief. And I still told him in no uncertain terms what I thought he should do. You bet I did. Go after the guy. Make him pay. It’s the only sensible thing to do. Surely you can see that. But I’ve thought about it now and then, in the years that have passed. Thought about my brother’s obstinance. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me. Still doesn’t, not from where I am. But it doesn’t have to. He knew where he stood. And that’s all that matters, in the end. It was his business. Not mine.
But still, I figure it is my business, to think about it. And I keep thinking, who made the best choices? The redneck from up north of Drakesville, a guy with a thieving heart, a guy who started out his day plotting to steal, in a way that would be known? And did just that, to get what he wanted. Because that’s how he lived. Or a guy like my brother Joseph, who somehow found the internal fortitude, the strength to actually follow through with what he claimed to believe? To let it go, even when someone did something bad like that to him. To turn the other cheek, even when it was hard to do. Even when it was especially hard to do, because of the way he’d been taken across.
And I’m thinking, who would you choose to be, if you had only those two choices? Sure, to outsiders looking in, there are plenty of other options. But that’s beside the point. Because in this little tale, the details can’t be changed. They are what they are. Two flawed people made conscious decisions to do what they did, all the way through the story. Who made the best choices?
And I’m thinking, it’s pretty strange, looking back. How some of that stuff you walked away from makes a little more sense now than it used to.Share