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Observations: Like it used to be

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image The tag on the outrageously expensive boat refrigeration compressor says, “Important.” I’ll tell you what’s important: having ice cubes when you want them. Mitch Traphagen Photo

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

I think the pace of change accelerates with each passing day — and much of that change isn’t for the better. The cost of food is going up while the portions go down (yeah, those new 20 packs of diet soda sure are cute, and so is the price, which is the same as what a 24-pack used to be), the price of gas is frightening, the employment picture is nerve-wracking and politicians say one thing and do another. Oh wait, that last one isn’t a change. They’ve always done that.

Regardless, I wonder how long this can continue. Last week I had to ship a small package, normally not a big deal, but when I saw the price, I was tempted to ask if they offered financing. Money, money, money — it’s flying out of my wallet at a record pace but going in at the same old plodding pace that it always has. Well, like the politicians, at least some things never change. So, I have that going for me.

Actually, there are a lot of things that haven’t changed, and I’ve been surprised the past few weeks to find a couple of them.

A while ago my wife told me her watch needed a new battery. That shouldn’t be a problem, but the last time I needed a new watch battery I went to buy one at a ginormous superstore. After walking the miles of aisles to the jewelry counter, I was told I could buy the battery, but they would not put it in, despite having the necessary tools to do so. OK, fine, could I borrow the tool for a moment? 

I swear to you the woman growled at me in response. She then eyed me for a while as though I were a potential terrorist, intent on using the little watch tool to blow up the store. She very reluctantly handed over the tool (only after I paid for the battery, of course) and then watched me like a hawk. There was no doubt in my mind that if I chose that moment to go insane and run willy-nilly through the store brandishing the little watch tool, I would be shot dead before I managed to get two steps away from the jewelry counter. To her, this was an Extremely Serious Matter of Homeland Security.

In other words, that my wife now needed a new watch battery was a big problem.

I gathered up her watch and one of my watches that also had a dead battery (I was prepared to abandon it) and slowly drove off, preparing myself for the interrogation of a lifetime at the hands of a jewelry counter clerk employed by an enormous and soulless corporation. But before I even managed to get out of Ruskin, I saw the sign on U.S. 41:  “Watch batteries $5”.

I was sure there had to be a catch, but since I was already prepared to be bound, gagged and beaten on this quest, I figured I had nothing to lose. That’s when I met Bob Henshaw at Bob’s Jewelry Repair.

Bob’s store is small and somewhat hidden. I had no idea it was even there until I noticed the watch battery sign. I tentatively set the two dead watches down on the counter and sheepishly asked if it would be possible to get two new watch batteries. I might have even winced a little.

“Sure, no problem,” Bob replied. He then put on some magnifying glasses and gently set the watches down on a workbench with a bright light, much like a miniature operating table for wristwatches.

Michelle’s watch was a gift and is somewhat unusual. Bob apparently recognized that because he took his time with it. He first tested the old battery and then he looked around with his magnifying glasses to ensure that all was OK.

After 15 or 20 minutes, I was getting worried. Yes, I knew the watch batteries were five bucks, but what was the service going to run?  There was no word on how much the examination and the time spent on the miniature wristwatch operating table was going to cost.

“That will be ten dollars,” he said as he handed me my watch, after polishing them both with a fine cloth. “Well, a little more with tax.”

Wow. I felt honored to be in the presence of an honest and hard-working man. Judging by the headlines today, I’m quite certain it was a rare privilege.

“I try to do business the right way,” he said.

He did and I’ll be back.

There is nothing cheap about boats, and boat stuff is certainly not a refuge from the prices that seem to be increasing on everything in life. That’s why I developed a nervous tic when the ancient refrigeration on my boat started to make an ominous noise.

There is no upside to an ominous noise when it comes to refrigeration on a small sailboat. If I had to replace it, for roughly the cost of a really nice household refrigerator that probably has an HD television screen and would even talk to me, I would get a box of parts that I had to assemble myself. On the other hand, I felt certain that hiring someone to take a look at it would be an experience straight out of the tenth circle of Hell that even Dante Alighieri was afraid to write about. Despite that, I opted to try at least the latter in the hope that a miracle would happen and I would once again enjoy making ice cubes on board.

That’s when I met Capt. Jack Lathbury, owner of Clear Horizon Marine. I called him to look at the ancient, rusted beast that was buried under a berth, hoping that he had a magic wand in his toolkit.

The first indication that I was perhaps wrong about hiring a repairman was that he showed up early — in fact, he had to wait for us to arrive. He carried his tools aboard and courteously listened to me babble about how I could make it run by just standing on one foot, uttering an incantation while simultaneously flipping a switch and then giving it a hard whack with a hammer. He spent a good bit of time checking out each component, looking for some ray of hope before declaring that it was indeed dead.

Now Jack had no real motivation to make things easy on me. He didn’t sell the refrigeration, he was only there to try to repair it, and he probably knew full well that we’d happily keep feeding him large denomination bills in the boundless optimism that he could fix it, thus sparing us the horrific shock of buying the aforementioned box of outrageously expensive parts. But he didn’t do that. In fact, he didn’t even charge us the full rate he quoted to make the boat call. Given that we kept him waiting, I’m certain what he ended up charging us didn’t cover his time, let alone the gas money to get to the boat. Once again, I found myself honored to be in the presence of an honest man.

It turns out that even in a rapidly changing world, some things are just as they used to be, and honesty certainly hasn’t gone out of fashion. Jack Lathbury and Bob Henshaw showed me that.

And speaking of honest, I need to share a little with you all — just for the record. When I mention people or businesses in the articles I write, I gain nothing from it but a good story. Certainly, whether a person or company advertises in the Observer plays no role. In this case, Bob had no idea who I was, and I’m not entirely certain he’ll ever see these words. Jack did recognize me, but I am quite certain that he’ll be surprised to see his name in print (hopefully not unpleasantly so). Both are honest men not because of a story, but because that’s who they are. And they are not advertisers, just decent people I felt fortunate to meet.

And on that note, I have a small favor to ask of those who may visit the Fish House on Shell Point Road in the coming days or weeks (c’mon — you know you will).  A while back, I wrote an article that included the Fish House (non-advertisers, by the way) and ran a photo of Shirley Steele — she works there and is a very special person. I later asked if she was OK with the photo of her that ran with the story and she jokingly said that no one asked her for an autograph. So here’s the favor: could someone ask her for an autograph? No, I don’t have the sway to suggest it will earn you a discount, but it will probably earn a smile from Shirley (that’s worth more, anyway) and it will definitely earn my gratitude (that’s worth what you make of it).

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