Saturday, February 1, 2014

Ours Is Not to Reason Why

Dear Friends,

The Hard Taco song this month is called, "Gabillionaire." I dedicate this song to my Grandpa Arnold, who gave me my first taste of child labor.
Grandpa Arnold stopped working as a plumber before I was born. He spent the second half of his career as owner and operator of a small plumbing retail business, the Franklin Plumbing Supply. Every time we visited, there was a suspiciously temporary-looking sign on the stockroom door that read, "Zachary N. London, Warehouse Manager." A similar sign on the door by the desk said, "Sari R. London, Office Manager." I was pretty sure that my sister's sign stayed up, even when we weren't visiting. The warehouse manager position rotated among me and my four male cousins, but Sari was the only granddaughter, so she had the secretarial assignment locked up.

Grandpa Arnold at the warehouse door with cousin Kyle, my new assistant warehouse manager. April 1986.

"All employees," Grandpa Arnold was fond of saying, "earn a standard wage of 10 cents per hour per year of age." Year after year, the office manager somehow held on to the title of highest paid employee.

You may think that as warehouse manager, I would have more of an administrative or supervisory role, but my primary job was taking inventory of the fittings. For the benefit of those who have never managed a plumbing supply warehouse, fittings are defined as follows: small pieces of plumbing stuff. My grandpa tried to teach me the difference between galvanized and ungalvanized fittings, tee adapters, flare fittings, and hose clamps, but it was no use. I was hopelessly distracted by calculating how many more hours I would have to work to afford the most recent Xanth novel.

Had I continued my employment at the Franklin Plumbing Supply into my teens, I would have appreciated the vivid nomenclature of the trade on an entirely different level.  Gas cock. Male/female coupling. Discharge tube. O ring. Packing nut. French drain. Alas, at the age of 10, I had no appreciation for the comic or erotic value of these terms, and I just slipped deeper into a greasy blue-collar ennui. 

"Let's go over this one more time," Grandpa said. "This brass nipple has both a female end and a 6 inch male extension."

"Hmm? Oh, okay."

"Screw nuts," he added. "Black ballcock."

I earned my 10 cents per hour per year of age counting the number of fittings in each drawer.  Then I would write the tally down on a torn piece of paper and place the paper in the drawer. My piece of paper would inevitably be there when I visited the following year, but the number of fittings would have changed, so I'd have to start over. After some time, it occurred to me that Grandpa Arnold wasn't actually using my numbers for anything, and he was just trying to keep me occupied. I complained about this, and asked him why I still had to do it, but I already knew the answer.

"Ours is not to reason why. Ours is but to do or die."

You may recognize this as an erroneous quotation from The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Tennyson. It was Grandpa Arnold's favorite poem, and his favorite answer to any why question.

Sometimes we would go on road trips in his pick-up truck to procure new stock for the shop.  "The difference between a friendly competitor and an unfriendly competitor," he would tell me, "is a 45 minute drive." These restocking trips were always long, because we couldn't give business to any unfriendly competitors. To pass the time, my grandfather would do three digit multiplication problems in his head and quiz me on what he called SAT words. I'm not sure if Grandpa Arnold ever took the SAT, but he would have aced it.

Sari's job was to answer the phone and say, "Franklin Plumbing Supply." That was the extent of her secretarial duties. Regardless of how the person on the other end of the line responded, she would let him finish, wait a couple seconds, and say, "Hang on. I'll get Arnold." 10 cents per hour per year of age meant that this routine earned her up $2 more than me every day. I had more than one tantrum about this inequity.

"It's not fair! All she does is answer the stupid phone and I have to take inventory all day and carry around PVC and move that self-rimming sink. Why is Sari laughing when I say self-rimming? And why does she get paid more?"

"Ours is not to reason why. Ours is but to do or die."

Most of his customers were other plumbers. I can't say he was friendly with them, because he wasn't exactly friendly with anyone. Still, there was a sober camaraderie among the plumbers, a brotherhood of men who had, at one time or another, stood inside a septic tank and looked out at the rest of the world.

My most vivid memory of the Franklin Plumbing Supply was the smell. Everything in that building, from the Norman Rockwell calendar to the cabinet full of carbon paper, had the same peculiar smell. It was the smell of grease, or rather the smell of greases. The smell of the soap-thickened grease from the pipe threader mixed with the smell of the thin powdery grease on all of the fixtures and fittings. Then there was the stale dry grease that seasoned the linoleum and my grandfather's fingers.

This grease blend was the smell of my childhood. Grandpa Arnold died when I was 13, and soon the Franklin Plumbing Supply was sold off to an unfriendly competitor. It has been almost 25 years, and I have not been able to recapture that smell, but I know I would recognize it instantly. 

I can imagine him walking from room to room every morning before the store opened, daubing his effects with assorted greases to maintain the perfect pH balance. And of course, he would be practicing his SAT words. The multipurpose lubricating grease is unctuous and velvety. The silicone grease is elegant, yet austere. When the two are co-infused with the house pomade, I'll have created a perfectly robust and intellectually satisfying amalgam. 

With warmest regards,