I got the call at 2:30 on a Tuesday afternoon. At the time I was putting the finishing touches on a PowerPoint deck intended to convince the firm’s investment committee that a particular $40 million investment would yield an 18% return, but only if every last one of the fifty-seven assumptions in the financial model came to pass over the ensuing seven years.
The day was deceptively cold. The view from the office window was of a clear February afternoon, with a sun incrementally higher and incrementally brighter than it had been the day prior, and a faint psychological impression of winter soon yielding to spring. But the thermometer read single digits and the weather jocks were selling everyone who would listen the concept of minus twenty-five wind chills. But for the occasional wisp of bone-chattering artic wind, the air was silent and still, without so much as a peep from a distant chainsaw, tractor, or mutt. Due to the extreme temperatures even the hardened rural guard dogs had been granted temporary asylum indoors.
In said conditions anything more than the most basic of outdoor projects is likely to be an exercise first in Creative Language Arts and then in futility. Doubly so for anything involving machinery or power tools.
“I’ll come by and pick you up,” Hank offered.
“You live across the street,” I responded. “I think I can make it on foot.”
A county snowplow had torn off Hank’s mailbox, leaving what little of its post not submerged in a snowbank looking like a giant splintered toothpick. “I saw them do it,” he told me in a voice more appropriate for someone in a witness protection program. “I was just sitting there, eating my sandwich, when they come along and ‘pop’, it’s broke.” He needed my help. And maybe a couple of 2x4s.
I was more than anxious to pitch in because I call Hank practically every day asking about something. “What is it now?” he always answers with feigned exasperation. Lately it’s been frozen tractor hydraulics and problematic toilet flanges. “What is it with you College Boys, anyway?” he’ll say. Then, after a short pause, “I’ll be right over.”
More often than not, after getting a careful look at my problem du jour, we’ll end up back at “Hank’s Hardware,” a tool and hardware emporium with a better selection than that of the local True Value. Better prices too. Everything is free, unless you count frequent mild ribbing as a form of payment.
I don’t often get to reciprocate. For one, Hank rarely needs my help. He’s the kind of guy that will go out after breakfast and replace the fuel line on the tractor, frame a new deck off the back porch, and weld a new culvert for that mucky spot on the back forty, all while I sit in my office and debate pro forma property tax assumptions on Dallas real estate.
And our schedules don’t always align. Hank is retired – a Vietnam vet and proud recipient of not one but three pensions – and like most retirees he is most active during business hours. By six he is back inside for a regular cycle of easy chair, spaghetti, local paper, television. He’s winding down just as I’m changing into my steel toes and ramping up. I frequently have to reiterate why I can’t go cut wood on a Thursday after lunch. I gotta work I tell him, gotta pay the bills. Gotta ride the airplanes and bang the phones. Gotta feed my brood. And I gotta keep sending those taxes into the feds. Uncle Sam has bills too, pensions to pay out.
One of these days I tell Hank, when we get someone truly brilliant into office, there will be a government-sponsored buddy program. Twice a month I’ll come by and cut the check direct. No withholding. No bureaucrats. No Washington back office. No waste. I’ll drive on over, pick him up, and give him a lift to town. I’ll buy the meds, the haircuts, the groceries, and the inventory for “Hank’s Hardware.” I’ll even pick up the tab for the baby back ribs at Applebee’s. Government will be a real, tactile thing, something you can literally smell and touch. Then, the day after, when I need a 3,200-PSI power washer and a box of 2” finish nails, I’ll just come right back over to borrow them.
So after getting Hank’s call I sprang from my desk, layered up in my best Carhartt (no hobo look this time), and crunched through the snow to my workshop to gather supplies: my trusty impact driver, extra battery, extra drill bits, a five lb. box of screws, and a couple scrap lengths of 2×4.
In the end, the mailbox was a simple fix, even with the battering-ram blasts of wind. I dug out the drift on either side and splinted the old post with two pieces of lumber, driving nine or ten three-inch screws for stability. The tool made an unusually flat, staccato thumping in the frigid air.
“You ever think of moving to Florida?” I asked Hank above the metallic cranking and slapping.
“And miss out on this?” he chuckled. “I’d be bored out of my mind.”
We talked about skyrocketing propane prices, where all the melt would flow come March, and how lethal the spring mosquitoes might potentially be. We made plans to eventually get back into the woods to take out some of the old, dead ash hewn down by a late November windstorm.
In six minutes, before any need for Creative Language Arts we had the mailbox standing on an improvised perch once again.
Hank offered me a ride home and I told him that the College Boy could manage it just fine. He asked me what I had planned that afternoon and I told him it was 2:45 on a Tuesday and I’d be up to the same as always.
“Good then, get back to work,” he grinned. “Someone’s gotta keep those pension checks coming.”