Skinny and Pearl

IT MUST HAVE been my night for servicing 1 million Btu boilers. First, a 150-room hotels domestic hot water boiler, and then a rooftop boiler that had decided to take a snooze during a sold-out performance in a 1,200-seat theater. What a view from on high! The only thing missing was Mary Poppins! After getting the reluctant boiler firing, I took some time to drink in the view as the boiler began circulating

IT MUST HAVE been my night for servicing 1 million Btu boilers. First, a 150-room hotel’s domestic hot water boiler, and then a rooftop boiler that had decided to take a snooze during a sold-out performance in a 1,200-seat theater.

What a view from on high! The only thing missing was Mary Poppins! After getting the reluctant boiler firing, I took some time to drink in the view as the boiler began circulating heated water through the massive air handler’s hydronic coil. Standing on a rooftop at night and viewing the twinkling lights of the city stretching out below has something magical and mystical about it that lifts the spirit. What a grand way to earn a living.

Being a plumber gives you opportunities like that – going places no one else gets to go and seeing the world from a different perspective. At times the work is difficult: in cramped or virtually inaccessible recesses of darkened and damp places where no one else would dare enter; bugs as big as Volkswagens or cat diamonds placed neatly in piles behind the furnace that needs service – right where you need to stand on your head because someone installed it with the service door against the wall.

Much of the work brings mental challenges that require creative thinking and the dexterity of a neurosurgeon. When last month’s e-mailer made the comment about my being “just a dumb (expletive deleted) plumber,” I couldn’t help but recall some powerful memories.

His comment got me thinking about a few of the teachers I had in school, especially Skinny and Pearl. (He was thin as a rail and she was such a cat diamond!) They didn’t much care for my attitude – I always questioned authority and had to know why things were the way they were. They were from the old school of discipline and thought we should be seen, not heard.

Skinny and Pearl were the headmaster and headmistress during my fifth and sixth grade elementary school years. We used to call him Sniffles, too, because he had some sort of snot disorder that made him sniff a lot. I think he was allergic to students.

Well, I ran into them at a concert one night at York College several years after I had graduated. I made it a point to cross the auditorium to be polite and say hello. By this time, I had been in the trades just long enough to become a Journeyman plumber and I was damn proud of having accomplished that. You have to understand that, as a dyslexic, I had missed out on completing a lot of things I had started in life and this was one of the few things I had managed to see through to a successful conclusion.

Now, I have two older brothers who had both finished college and, by this time, were embarked on their careers. Skinny says to Pearl, “What are the Yates boys doing with themselves?” (I’m still standing in front of them at this point.) “Well, both of his brothers are making something out of themselves, but he’s just a plumber,” she said with derision.

There was no mistaking the tone and meaning intended as she glared down at me from her perch on the bleachers. Evidently she viewed my being a tradesman as a failure (on her part to educate) and viewed my status in life somewhere below that of a bug to be crushed underfoot. I was in shock. I mean, these were supposed to be refined and well-educated people after all. Dejected, I returned to my seat and went into a slow burn.

The irony of it all? Skinny became my customer when we bought out Behler’s! I went to his home on a service call one frigid, blustery January night, still full of bitterness and anger at those words spoken long ago. There he was, a frail shell of his former self, blind and bedridden.

God had taken away his sight as his punishment, I guess, since he had loved to read.

As an invalid, Skinny required 24-hour nursing care. Skinny greeted me by complaining about being cold and that I was to get his heat back on – right away. As I worked on his ancient steam boiler and restored his heat that day, I cursed myself for allowing them to get so deeply under my skin.

By the time I returned to the first floor to inform the nurse that their heat was back on, I felt nothing but pity for his ignorance. I never had the heart to tell him who I was on those visits to his home and he died a few years later.

Funny how some people can be so smart, yet remain so ignorant.

Dave Yates owns F.W. Behler, a contracting company in York, Pa. He can be reached by phone at 717/843-4920 or by e-mail at [email protected]