BILL APPROACHED marriage the way he dealt with life — head on. His sweetheart had a son (7 years old at the time) and Bill pondered how to get the little fellow in on the notion of becoming a family. So, he sat that young man down in the apartment’s kitchen of the row house his mother was renting and asked him for his mother’s hand in marriage.
The year following the marriage, the three of them once again met in the kitchen of the row house they now owned to discuss another serious issue — Bill going into business for himself. With their two-car garage serving as the shop, a used 1966 Ford pickup and just $500 in their savings account, they knew the road ahead would be an uphill climb.
But with hard work and a reputation for standing behind everything he did, Bill’s plumbing, heating and air conditioning business grew. By the third year, the business began to be fairly profitable. Bill and his wife would do the billing and bookwork after dinner. They hoped to soon add an employee or two. Christmas was fast approaching and there would be lots of toys for that young man this year.
That night they celebrated Bill’s birthday and he wondered aloud if all those candles were really his! Bill collapsed during work the next day while carrying his bucket of tools and stepladder back to the truck.
The diagnosis was Hepatitis Type A and having blown out the candles on his cake the night before meant that all who were present had to get shots — in their butts. Recovery is slow for hepatitis and days stretched into weeks requiring total bed rest. The nest egg they’d been building in the one-man shop faded to nothing by the time Bill recovered.
How would he manage Christmas with so little to spend on gifts?
Blessings come in scrap barrels sometimes and Bill had an ongoing relationship with Ivan who would come by with his dilapidated old hulk of a stake-bodied truck and an antique scale. Bartering with Ivan was always something of an adventure and Ivan almost always got the upper hand. He carried a magnet in his pocket to quickly point out Bill’s scrap wasn’t pure and that started the numbers falling downward for appraised value. No matter how carefully Bill sorted his scrap containers, Ivan always managed to spot the smallest of anything that didn’t belong.
Only two weeks were left before Christmas and Ivan noticed Bill’s loss of weight and pale complexion. He instinctively knew Bill was selling his coveted brass and copper out of need; not for idle spending. The miscellaneous pieces of scrap that weren’t perfect were deliberately overlooked and both men knew what was being done without speaking.
The tree that year had the gifts Bill wanted under it and their table was laid for a glorious repast. Then it happened — Bill’s pager went off. It was an emergency call that wouldn’t wait till the next day. Bill’s family understood, as do the families of tradespeople on call during holidays, that he was needed elsewhere and waited patiently for his return.
Upon arrival, Bill noticed the row homes in this block were in pretty rundown condition. They had promised to pay when he finished the work, which was Bill’s policy for new customers. As Bill stepped into the sparsely furnished home, he couldn’t help but notice the conditions: clean floors; tattered furniture; a scrawny little Christmas tree with just three gifts yet to be opened beneath; and two young children. The tree reminded him of a Peanuts special that was a favorite of his stepson’s.
As he was being led to the basement door by this single mother (who was apologizing profusely for dragging him out on such a cold and bitter day, much less that it was Christmas morning), Bill assured her his family understood and supported his being there.
The flooded basement was quickly resolved and Bill managed to restore both the heat and hot water with several parts being replaced as a result of the water damage. As he stood in the basement adding up the ticket items, he thought back to Ivan and how there had been a silent understanding between them that resulted in Bill having a house full of gifts to return to. But there was one yet not given and Bill decided right then and there what that one gift would be.
“How much do I owe you?” the young mother asked tentatively.
Her daughter was asking when she could open her gift while her older brother pulled on her hair!
Bill looked her mom in the eye and said: “Not one red cent, ma’am. Merry Christmas.”
With tears streaming down her cheeks, she wished Bill a Merry Christmas too. Driving home was difficult at first because Bill found something was wrong with his eyes — they were leaking — and he chuckled at the thought that he should call a plumber to get them fixed. His family was proud of what Bill had done and they let him know that upon his return.
As the years passed by, his family and business both grew. Bill never forgot that Christmas or the service call from his past.
He says to wish you all a Merry Christmas.
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].
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