Over the years, usually around the holidays or at company outings, we often share stories about our customers and their many exploits. We debate who could take whom in a cage match, who is our favorite customer, worst customer, strangest customer. After more than 20 years, the conversations are endless and the topics insane, with only one commonality: our customers… and the tales they bring with them.
Like all the contributors to WFB Magazine, I write a lot about hardwood flooring and try to find ways to help people in situations where may not have enough experience. I try to bring in others to share in their experience and expertise via the blog. So I was thinking that to mix it up a bit, maybe I would share some of the stories about the people I have known over the years—their adventures and misadventures! With this in mind, I have only one place to begin: my favorite customer of all time, Old Mr. Welcome. Though he passed away about 10 years ago, let’s go with “”Mr. Welcome” out of respect to his real name and the fact that some of the things he told me about “the old days” might be pushing legal limits today … just a little bit.
Mr. Welcome stood about 5’10” and was well into his ’80s. He was solid as a brick wall, had cataracts in both eyes, and was for the most part deaf. He called my assistant manager—whose name is Chuck—“Jack” because he just couldn’t hear clearly. So, whenever Old Mr. Welcome came in, Chuck had no problem being “Jack” for a while. Some readers might call him a tough old Yankee, but up this far north we would say, “a rugged old New Englander.” Eighty or not, no one messed with Old Man Welcome!
He responded, 'I’m gonna tell you how I did this—only if you promise not to tell those idiots.'
Mr. Welcome was a retired master-welder, and he was brilliant. He told me how he basically welded just about every section of railway in Boston’s MTA subway system. At one point we were having issues with a brand of floor sanding machine where the motors started breaking away from the motor mounts. The company that built the machine had to replace motors and had no solution to the weld failure situation. Old Mr. Welcome took one look at the motor sitting on my office floor and said, “Hey, you have Jack throw that on the front seat of my truck and I’ll have it back tomorrow morning. No problem.” I called our machine rep, all excited, and he said, “No! You can’t do it. The heat from the weld will ‘fry’ the electronics. We’ve already tried several times, it won’t work.” The next morning, right when we opened, there was Mr. Welcome with the motor and not only a beautiful weld, but also painted to match. I had to plug it in, knowing it was likely “fried,” and sure enough, it ran like a charm! I told Mr. Welcome what the manufacturer said, and he responded, “I’m gonna tell you how I did this—only if you promise not to tell those idiots. I got a friend down at the lobster pound, so I go there and he gives me two large cakes of dried ice. You set the motor on the dry ice long enough, and then when you do your weld the electronics can’t overheat. That’s it.” Make that “Crafty Old New Englander.”
The hardwood flooring part comes in where just about all of Mr. Welcome’s sons ran a hardwood floor installation and finishing company. Mr. Welcome would run errands for the boys and “smarten ’em up” when they weren’t getting along. My favorite part was “The Soup.” Once a week, Mr. Welcome would back his pickup truck into the warehouse, drop the tailgate and lay out an old piece of plywood. He was here for “The Soup.” Back then we could buy oil polyurethane in 5-gallon pails, which Mr. Welcome called, “The Soup.” “Steve! Hey! How yuh doin’, Jack!?” “Good! Good! Mr. Welcome! You here for the soup!?” Chuck would have to project loudly. “Yuht, yuht.” Mr. Welcome would grunt. He couldn’t walk very well, either, so he would go to the shop counter or my office and grab a stool or comfortable chair and tell me about his week while Chuck stuffed as many pails of poly as he could into the truck ($50 a five back then).
On this particularly memorable day he told me of a “situation” at home he needed to set straight. And, trust me, like my own father, that meant old-school justice. “Stevie, listen to this,” he started. “So, the boys, they got all my wood cut and split and stacked for me back at the house, all set for winter, right? Well, the last couple weeks I notice we’re going through the stuff like water. This makes no sense. So, I talk to the boys. I wanna know if they know what’s going on here. Stevie, Dave [one of his sons] tells me, ‘Dad, I seen boot tracks that go from the pile to the guy’s house next door.’ So, I says, ‘You sure about that?’ Dave says, ‘I can show you right now.’ So I says, ‘Come with me to the shop, we’re gonna end this right now.’”
As he tells me all this, Mr. Welcome goes on to say that he and Dave go to his shop in the garage and he tells his son to go to the wood pile and grab a decent-sized piece of firewood and bring it back to the shop. As Dave heads off, Crafty Mr. Welcome digs into his bag of tricks and it just so happens from his years in heavy construction and demolition he has what he called a “blasting cap.” According to Wikipedia: “A blasting cap is a small sensitive primary explosive device generally used to detonate a larger, more powerful and less sensitive secondary explosive such as TNT, dynamite, or plastic explosive.” Uht. Oh.
Mr. Welcome could see my jaw had dropped and I was a bit panicked.
Dave returns with the wood. They place it in a vice on the workbench, and Mr. Welcome drills a hole in the log’s butt end. He takes this blasting cap and slides it into the log and packs it with the wood curls from the auger bit and a little glue to keep the cap from falling out. Mr. Welcome could see my jaw had dropped and I was a bit panicked. He reassured me that a blasting cap is about the power of what as kids we called an M-80: “It’s not enough to blow up a stump, but, Stevie, it will scare the living $hit outta yuh!” He looked down, shaking his head, and laughed until he started coughing, then wiped a few tears of complete joy from his cheek and giggled some more. He couldn’t have been more proud of himself.
I can’t recall how much time had passed since I had last seen him, but then one day Old Mr. Welcome came in and sat at the counter stool grinning from ear to ear. With a worried sigh I asked him, “Oh God, Mr. Welcome, what happened?” He told me Dave set the log back on the pile right on top, very convenient. There was no snow on the wood, so everything looked “perfect.” He told me only about a day later, around dusk, they hear a commotion from next door. They peek out, and there’s the neighbor with the sliding glass door open and the smoke alarm chirping away, and he’s waving a towel or something, and black smoke is pouring from the chimney. The man was obviously shocked and shaken. Mr. Welcome tells me: “Holy $hit, Stevie! We just roared! Hey, I wasn’t tryin’ to hurt no one and thank God no one was, but he got what was coming to him. We found out his wood stove had to go to the dump, it’s completely shot! He needs a stove, new piping, you name it. He won’t be taking ANYTHING off my property again. I guarantee it!” Old Mr. Welcome laughed and laughed and we were in shock a bit as we pictured the chimney blowing out the back of the house and fire and police showing up, but the old man had his plan, and he staged it perfectly.
Luckily I had a few more years to hear more of Mr. Welcome’s stories, and some were even a bit more insane than this. I have to say the greatest part of my job is my customers, my fellow floor guys, co-workers and the online folks. And, it’s the characters like Mr. Welcome that make it all worth talking about.