This is going to be longer than usual. I’ll break it out in parts. It’s been floating around and I’ve been putting it off, but this is an important post to me. It’s the story of an American small business owner and his son. It’s not something I read about, this is personal.
I had 4 children. That’s important to the story for a couple of reasons. First, because it meant when this story began we didn’t have any money to spare. The grocery store took most of it. Then it was shoes, glasses, school supplies, doctor visits. We lived month to month. And second, because we needed a big vehicle. Did I mention we didn’t have any money? We needed a big, cheap, reliable vehicle. What we had was a 1971 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser with 3 seats. My kids called it The Brown Boomie. It cost me $800.00 when I bought it.
We heat with wood. When we started, the money I saved on the wood went to buy an old pickup truck. Think about what sort of pickup you can buy for $450.00, because that’s the truck this story starts with. An old Dodge. The wood slats in the bed were rotted out. The wiring was a disaster. When I first saw it, it was parked up alongside a barn in a horse pasture. It started right up though, and the motor sounded strong. The man that sold it to me told me that there was a mechanic he knew that ran his own shop that could help me with it if I ran into things I couldn’t do. Gave me directions, told me the guy was honest, and opened the gate as I drove the old truck out.
I did most of my own work in those days. I could change the oil, plug a tire, replace a water pump. A couple of times I’ve swapped engines. I’ve changed a clutch. But sometimes having a lift and some real skills is important, so I ended up meeting this mechanic.
His name was Dennis Buck. The shop was an old two bay full service station. It stood back from an intersection where three roads and a set of railroad tracks met at odd angles. It looked like every gas station you remember. They used to be everywhere. A pile of old tires on the side, rows of cars that had been towed in, three or four guys working all the time. The bays looked like they needed to be steam cleaned and painted, the office was all run with paper tickets and a filing cabinet. Some old chairs, a soda machine, and a freezer full of popsicles and ice cream bars. In the winter there was heat, from an old cast iron stove in the corner.
To get to the heart of this, he was honest. He liked me because I always managed to pay when I picked the vehicles up. I liked him because after a while I absolutely believed what he was telling me about my junk. Years went by and we got to be friends. He helped me keep the Brown Boomie on the road for a decade. The Dodge truck was a daily driver for seven years until I replaced it with a 1976 F-250, a $1400 truck that needed as much work as the truck it replaced but had the advantage of not being completely rusted out.
He had bunch of kids of his own, along with his parents and extended family. We would joke about how he was overcharging, he would accuse me of stealing food from his children when he knew I did some work myself. I started buying gas from him, even when it wasn’t cheaper, knowing that as an independent he was paying more to get it, so I saw him every week. I bought my tires there. As we did a little better and started buying better cars, I would take them to him to get checked out before we bought them.
He was an anachronism. A small business owner, dealing with customers who often didn’t pay on time, employees good and bad, paying his own bills, and coping with ever increasing government regulations and taxes at the local, state and federal level. He had taken the business from his father, and in turn, was teaching it to his oldest son. He was never going to get rich doing this, but it was enough to provide for his family. In ways he might not of thought about, he provided something to the community. Support for his family, honest work at a fair price, employment for his crews, taxes. He contributed.