As fast as mailboxes were made they were taken to the mail-order company 25-miles away. Sales from the catalog were so great the people who worked there had to tell customers the mailbox was “back ordered”. That meant they had to wait. Mailboxes were shipped all across the United States. A product in a catalog had the most demand when it first appeared. Sales would then decrease until the people in charge of the catalog found something else to put in its place. Mailboxes weren’t a typical product. Sales continually increased. What happened with mail order was probably the same as what happened with local installations. One person would get one, and when his neighbors saw how it withstood the slings and arrows of time they also would get one.
The business started with a broken telephone pole. It took three hours to make one mailbox. Over time a new press and better methods were found to do nearly every procedure. The time to make one decreased to an hour. Our in-house motto was “There has got to be a better way”, and our outside motto was, “we aim to please”. The first hired person had the job of sweeping the floor and making mailbox parts. I spent more time welding. Soon it was like the song said, “the thrill is gone”. It was the same work day after day. Needing money to get by, and being my own boss kept me going. Many mailboxes went out of there, but there was always a pile of over due bills on the table. I must have been doing something wrong.
The parts man died from some disease he tried to torment out of existence. The doctor told him one thing and he did the other. He looked gaunt all the time. I asked him if he was suffering from malnutrition. He had more to say about his latest gas and electric bill. He stopped coming to work and awhile later I heard from his wife and a government agency that he died. The disease won.
Two more people came to work in the Apple Barn. There was a new parts man, and someone I taught to fabricate mailboxes. Once they got familiar with the work I left for Yugoslavia to enjoy my mid life crisis. When I got back there were nearly a hundred mailboxes for me to paint. I told the purchasing agent at the mail order company you couldn’t rush a good thing. Years later they copied the mailbox and passed it off as their own. They had many justifications for their action. They probably would have found a reason either way, but I gave them one. An insider told me when the catalog company first started selling the mailbox the owner of the catalog sent one to a college friend who had a metal fabricating company in North Carolina. His purpose was to find out what it would cost to have the friend make the mailbox. The insider told me when the owner heard the friend would charge twenty dollars more he scoffed and said, “How can he (me) make them for that”. The catalog company began as a one-man operation on a folding table in an airport. By the time I sold mailboxes to them it had grown into a multimillion-dollar company. People who worked there were easy going, but collectively as a company they were not the same.
Years later the insider and another person started a new mail order company. Two big outfits were selling the mailbox. The new company quickly became a financial success. It was then the first company copied the mailbox, and no longer bought mine. The price of the copy was the same, but not for long. The insider who was now doing the new company had his assistant telephone and say a copy was on the scene, and we should meet to discuss “strategy”. Jenny and I went there. The assistant was there. We all sat at one end of a large oval table. I said to the insider in an amused way what he had said to me years before about how the owner of the first company sent a Veeders Mailbox to a sheet metal factory to learn if it could be done cheaper. I hadn’t talked much to the insider since then. The insider had become the top executive of a financially successful company. When I said what I said about the owner of the other catalog he looked at his assistant, then at me, and said I was mistaken. A pure business meeting was all that remained. If I had a seat belt on my chair I would have buckled up. He wanted to know if I could lower the price so he could sell the mailbox for less. He said the volume of sales would increase with the increased number of catalogs they planned to send out. I told him what we needed in the way of money to pay bills and put food on the table
During the months that followed we made more mailboxes and less money than ever before. The price was too low. The price of the Veeders Mailbox was much lower than the copy, but after a year the price of the copy was made lower than the already low price of the Veeders Mailbox. I knew what it cost to make them. They were trying to starve me out. When I was gone their price would go through the roof. The Veeders Mailbox and the copy looked the same. They even copied the shape of the flag. The flag was a required part of roadside mailbox, required by the United States Postal Service, but ours had a unique shape. I wrote a letter to the head man saying it was business as usual to copy the mailbox, but I didn’t think it was business as usual to copy the shape of the flag. I said I always thought he was, if nothing else, a fair-minded person, and not to stop being one now. In my own sweet way I was asking him to dream up his own flag. He never replied, and nothing changed. In his catalog he was quoted as saying other mailboxes were “imitators”. That took a lot of gall. It was as if the Veeders Mailbox never existed. Jenny and I realized there was a need to get protection from someone passing his work off as ours. We came up with a “logo”, or mark that went on everything we did. It was like a finger print or a DNA test. Gretchen drew it at camp in Indiana. It’s the cover of this book.
For the first time Jenny and I started getting money from our parents. The tax department called it unearned income. The first year it was just enough to get a shiny new motorcycle. The mailbox business was breaking even or so it seemed. The first and last winter I had the motorcycle I kept it propped up on the kickstand in the Apple Barn. I shined it up and sat back to admire it under the lights. Among motorcycle people it was a “full dress touring bike”. That year ABS anti-lock breaks were on two models made by that company. No other motorcycle had that feature. I didn’t buy it for the breaks, but that might be one of the reasons I didn’t get killed when a small truck went left of center causing a head on collision.
A few years after the motorcycle wreck the second mail order company stopped buying the mailbox. There was no money to spare. Any unearned income either of us got went into the bank and it was rationed out as needed to keep the business going. It always needed some extra cash. Money where ever it came from made it possible for me to come down to this dry, heated, air conditioned, well-lit room in the new mailbox building and write this book. I would do it under a bridge if that were all there was. It scares Jenny when I talk that way. She thinks mailboxes are our life, and when I try to convince her otherwise I can see the look on her face that I might have hit my head too hard on the road.
The mailbox that replaced ours in the second companies catalog was a copy made in Sandusky, Ohio. That mailbox had its own flag shape it weighed much less. The bracket on the bottom fit a four-inch square post. I never considered they copied the Veeders Mailbox the same way the other guy did, although many design elements were the same. They copied the concept of a heavy duty, high-end mailbox. When I started making mailboxes there was the Veeders Mailbox and on the other end of the spectrum there was the regular soup can mailbox. Nothing was in between except possibly one type of mailbox with cardinals that went to a different market. All sorts of copies of the concept have evolved. There are plastic ones and metal ones, ugly ones, and pretty ones, pliable ones, and rigid ones. The Veeders mailbox never appealed to a mass market. It is clean looking, strong enough, simple enough, and more expensive. When people on the telephone ask what it looks like I say it is “lean and mean”.
At one end of the Apple Barn on either side there are two big doors. Back in the days when orchards surrounded the place a tractor and wagon could drive in one door, deposit a load of apples, and continue out the other door. In the middle of the building on each side there were two smaller doors. One was shut permanently and one was our entrance and exit door. It took muscle to slide it open, and if a person wasn’t familiar with it they would think it was latched. There was no buzzer or bell. A knock was futile. The door was made of tong and groove wood. Occasionally, someone who wanted to get in would pound on it with all their strength, and then we would hear.
Before the mailboxes were copied, and when we were making them as fast as possible, two people came to see us. They were trim and proper looking. Each one of them had a satchel.
That day sparks were flying in two welding booths. I was spray painting in an area designed for that purpose. It had an exhaust fan. I wore a paint suit and paint hood over my head that had a remote air supply. The parts man was standing by a drill press making hinges. It was winter. A 350,000 BTU furnace went continuously when we were working. At night a heat lamp kept the water pipes from freezing in a tiny insulated room where there was a toilet and basin. Those things were always there, but the furnace wasn’t. It came from an automobile service station that was torn down to make room for a housing development. The paint hood was connected to an air hose. When I wore it I could only go as far as the hose reached. I had just walked out of the paint room with the paint hood off my head when I saw the entrance door move. I went over, opened it, and there were the two people. Much racket was behind me. One of them said. “I see you’re busy. We’ll come back at another time”. They turned and left. When they said that all I had time to say was, “bye”. It was sunny outside; the snow was melting off the roof. I rolled the door shut to keep out the cold. They didn’t ask about an over due bill. They didn’t say what was on their mind. They just said what they said and left.
The average time someone worked for me was three years. When I wanted to find a new worker I couldn’t do it by simply putting a job description in the newspaper and find a person the next day. Sometimes teaching someone how to make a mailbox took a month or more. My job went from making mailboxes to managing people.
We took breaks from work, and in the course of the conversation I’d hear about cars that didn’t work, bills that were overdue, and women who ran off. I had my own problems. Early on I decided when we didn’t have any problems it was when we were dead. How we dealt with the problem, not the problem itself, made us what we were.
The people in the Apple Barn were paid well. They had only one benefit, and it wasn’t exactly a customary one. An employee could take the day off for no reason. One job didn’t depend on another job like in a production line. If we were busy they had to make up the work. At other companies the customary benefits were health insurance, a retirement plan, paid vacations, paid sick days, and paid holidays.
They didn’t get nickel and dime raises either. A worker earned what the work he did was worth on the job market. If they wanted benefits they could buy them themselves. When I became aware how much benefits meant I was more graceful about how I talked like a ballerina with tutu and toe shoes.
A good time to try benefits came when two people quit simultaneously. After that each person got benefits that were paid from their paycheck whether they liked it or not. The take home amount was less. After a year I decided benefits had little to do with a person leaving or staying, and they were dropped. When a person was ready to quit they quit. A job in a building with barn doors and a big cornfield outside didn’t have the same allure that a real factory job did on a young man who had never been there before.
People with raw ability, and little else were the easiest to teach. That was not true for someone with all kinds of certification papers, and welding experience. An accomplished welder sooner or later always said they knew a better way to do something. The first few times I heard that I let them do it the way they wanted, but after two or three times it became clear they were wasting their time and my money. I took a new approach. I’d say, “There might be a better way, but since I was making them when you were in diapers give me some credit. Learn my way first. When you are comfortable doing that then show me the better way.”
The inexperienced welder was the easiest to teach and to have make the mailbox. Within three years they were experienced welders. I tried not to mind when they left for the big factory job. Everybody had a responsibility to better themselves. It got so when I had a production problem there were many people out there who could make the mailbox, and one of them was always available. They worked weekends, or nights until I got things straightened out. They had a key. Theft was never an issue.
The number of mailboxes a welder was supposed to get done each day was based on eight hours of work divided by the time it took me to make one mailbox. The worth of each mailbox was determined by what it would cost for an experienced welder to do the same job. If they needed more money all they had to do was make more mailboxes. Everyone, including me, was happier. I never said they had to start before dawn, but usually when I got there they didn’t even look up they were working so fast. By lunchtime they were done and went home for the day. If there was a mistake a welder could identify himself by the welds, and had to fix it on his own time.
At the beginning of each week I painted all the mailboxes made the previous week. Wednesday I packaged them and delivered them to the shipping dock of the mail order Company. Thursday and Friday I took care of any essential nonproductive business.
The little insulated room with the toilet and washbasin was by the entrance door. We cleaned it by first scrubbing the plumbing fixtures with a plastic abrasive material and when that was done the entire room, the floor, and everything in it got power flushed with water spray from a high-pressure nozzle on a garden hose. Water on the floor was then swept out the entrance door. On Friday I also cleaned up the paint room and carried in the mailboxes that were going to be painted the next week.
For some reason I wasn’t going to be there on Friday. There was only one welder at that time, and I asked him if he would power flush the little insulated room. He was working when I asked him, and he didn’t answer yes or no. I thought that was because he was busy. On break the following Monday I said no one cleaned it out, and I told him to do it the following Friday. It was a thrill to clean that way, and I wanted him to experience the feeling. Also, I was afraid he thought he was beyond cleaning a toilet. His work was good. He hardly ever had to make corrections. He made a good mailbox. For a year and a half, like clockwork, without any interruption, he came to work, finished his work, and went home in the early afternoon. He had never cleaned the toilet room, but knew enough about how it was done to figure it out. It wasn’t very complicated. I asked him if he rather do it some other day, and without waiting for a reply told him by the end of the day on Friday if that room wasn’t cleaned then that would be his last day. I told him if he acted on the assumption I didn’t mean what I said it would be difficult for both of us. I didn’t take any more breaks that week, and had no occasion to talk with him.
When I was teaching him how to make a mailbox we sat down to drink some water, and he told me he was a Jehovah’s Witness. I knew that was a religious group. He said, very soon Armageddon would happen. The story about Chicken Little came to mind, but I didn’t say anything. If his religion made him who he was then it couldn’t be complete foolishness.
It seemed all of the young people I worked with had problems of one kind or another. When I kept hearing them my first impulse was to give advice, or help. A few times I would hold up my hand and say I had problems of my own, and couldn’t get involved in their personal lives. Then I realized they didn’t expect or want me to get involved in their lives. I was hearing about it because I was sitting there. We worked close together. I heard about a parent who cheated at bingo, and got caught, a girl friend’s child, a father who left. I’d hear about wives who ran off with truck drivers, guns, bar room fights, police, and jail. One person who was an exceptionally good worker had a drinking problem. I bailed him out of jail, and told him the only reason he was having a problem keeping a job was that every few months he got all drunk and missed over a weeks work. One time he put his fist through a glass fish tank.
The Jehovah’s Witness lived in a trailer park in Milford, Ohio with several children, and a rosy cheeked wife. In comparison to the others his situation seemed rather wholesome. She worked in a nearby dairy store. The one time I met her she was wearing a hand made dress. He often talked about a congregation near where he lived. The day after we talked about Armageddon he gave me a book called “Revelations, Its Grand Climax at hand”. He was serious about giving it to me. It came with a remark about how it would tell me more about Armageddon. I thanked him. Talking about Armageddon was not why I went over to his workstation. I asked him how much welding wire was left on the spool in his machine. A few minutes later when I got in my truck to do an errand the book was still in my hand. I flipped through the pages before putting it down on the seat. The Jehovah’s Witnesses printed it. There were many illustrations in bright colors. Jesus Christ never posed for a painting and cameras didn’t exist then. The pictures of him in the book weren’t my idea of what he looked like. In the Cincinnati art museum there was a painting of him dead being taken down from the cross. In that painting he appeared to be a very ordinary and common man. That image stuck with me and when I saw another idea of what Jesus looked like in that book I thought the whole book was another idea. Anyway, to me books were a thing of the past. Now I had no time for idle pursuits. I had more pressing things to do like paying bills and raising a family. I didn’t read books anymore. Some people could do that, but I wasn’t one of them. I put the book away on the back of a shelf at home.
It was Friday and the toilet was still not cleaned. I was there at noon to get a head start painting the mailboxes made that week. I had the paint suit on and as I was about to put the hood over my head, stopped, and went out in the shop area. I told him I was going to start painting, and didn’t want to stop in the middle of what I was doing to see if the little insulated room had been scrubbed and power flushed. I said for him to tell me if he was going to do it, and if not then to go home now. He said he wasn’t going to do it, he hung up his welding jacket, and left. That was the end of that. I started painting, and thought how there are plenty of good fish in the sea.
The children went to a school operated with tax dollars. In the United States it was known as a public school. Each day they went there, played with other children, learned to read, write, and do arithmetic. Children were required by law to be educated so they would hopefully become useful members of society. The law said, as long as they got educated, it didn’t matter how it was done Public school didn’t cost any money. All we had to do was get them there on time. Private school cost money, and when thinking about doing it ourselves it didn’t take a whole lot of imagination to see teaching our own children would take professional quality plus lots of time, neither of which we had. The school where our children went, like every other public school, was locally controlled. Some of the people who oversaw how money was spent had school age children. Everything about public education was a function of money. Constantly, decisions were made about things such as whether to start a new soccer team or use the same money to give teachers a pay increase. An involved parent was a welcome sight, but ultimately it was the elected school officials who decided where the money would go. What they said before the election determined if they got elected.
From talking to children, parents, and other people I was convinced my children were in a good public school. My own personal experience with formal education was somewhat tumultuous. Just walking down the halls of that place made me sweat. I didn’t get very involved with what went on there. Maybe that isn’t the way it should be, but that is the way it was. Jenny got involved. She knew the names of all the teachers and talked to them often. A few times I went to a concert or a school play. Some students did a musical solo or were able to recite all of their lines without help, but most of them sang songs with hundreds of others. My children were always goofing off in the back. Once, when parents were filing out of the auditorium in an orderly manner I saw some vaguely familiar people, and asked them in a critical way if they were starved for entertainment? Our three children were at an age when they thought their parents could do no wrong. It was a formative time. I became aware how much influence we had. There were five years separating the eldest child from the youngest. They did what we did.
It only lasted a few years. After that each of them made deliberate attempts to do things their own way and have their own opinions. They started to question what I said. Until then, their unconditional adoration made me especially aware of the parental responsibility I had. They were like a sponge soaking up whatever information was around them. One time I was watching television and Sam came into the room and sat down on the edge of the sofa to see what was so captivating and entrancing about the cathode ray tube. An automobile commercial showed a particular type of automobile suspended in the air revolving around in a futuristic setting. The announcer said this and that about the car and then in the same important, authoritative, booming voice he said it had four doors. Sammy looked at me with a startled expression, and very seriously and loudly exclaimed, “Four doors!”
They lapped up exposure to things like four door cars, but they weren’t getting any spiritual exposure. The law of the land said state run schools were not to sponsor prayer. That resulted when someone who insisted God didn’t exist went to the highest court in the land and got a decision in their favor. It affected everybody. The ruling wasn’t about the existence of God, but the guarantee of religious freedom. In effect the ruling said the Government could not legally mix itself with religion. It made sense to me. One person’s God might not be the same as another’s, and what government of and by humans could presume to say who God is or is not. So where my children went to school no spiritual matters were discussed.
I didn’t have a pronounced spiritual part in my life. Spiritual thought was always around me, and by osmosis I got some. It was not something I could deposit in a bank, and on a worldwide basis I was aware that religious conviction was the cause of much grief and human suffering. I didn’t know if it had to be like that, but it was like that. I wanted my children to have religious understanding.
We all got dressed up on Sunday, packed ourselves in the family car, and went to the “family service” at the church where I went with my father so many years ago. Back then my mother refused to go, and never said why. She always asked about the sermon when we got back. It was not as if I had never been there since I was a child. Over the years Jenny and I went for baptisms, weddings, and funerals, but when we went to the family service it was the first time in all those years I went for a regularly scheduled event. It lasted forty-five minutes.
At that service once a month the preacher who was not the same one as before asked all the children with birthdays that month to stand up front, and face the congregation. Then he went from child to child asking some key questions. The month of Gretchen’s birthday she went up front. When the preacher got to her she did not know the answer to his question. He asked her what was the date of her birthday. He didn’t stop asking her. It was a simple question. He asked her a third time. All the other children said when their birthday was. She couldn’t take the humiliation anymore. She broke ranks with the other children and walked down the whole length of the aisle to where we were sitting. Her face was beet-red, and her shoulders were raised up as she tried to contain herself from crying. Afterward someone came up to us and sympathetically said that was just what she would have done. In turn I talked to the preacher. He was friendly toward me. I suppose it was that he didn’t know any better. I had a hard time understanding how an adult could be so insensitive, and unaware of making a child feel so stupid.
The family service was informal compared to the other two services. The preacher walked up and down the aisle. He instructed everyone to clap their hands in an exact cadence. Hard as I tried I never got the number of claps correct. Sometimes the only sound was me clapping. We weren’t the smartest people there.
Once someone asked me why we went each week. That was a question I could answer. I said we wanted to learn about Jesus Christ. The next week and for several weeks after that the preacher took a moment to review where Jesus Christ was from, where he was born, and a few other facts even the Roman Empire wouldn’t deny. Also each week someone told a Bible story. The family service was geared toward children. Someone said if I wanted more I should go to one of the other two services. I never did. My efforts sort of fizzled out, and we stopped going.