It was sometime in late 1973, maybe late September or early October when I started getting feelers from the Caughlin brothers about whether I'd be interested in selling out my business to them. Frank and Ryan Caughlin had once worked for Billy, back when he first started out on his own. There had been a falling out between them and Billy had been forced to fire them after he and Frank got involved in a pushing match that almost turned into a fight. Ryan had been ready to jump in on his brother's side but the rest of Billy's crew had kept him out of it. When Frank saw that he wasn't going to get any help, he backed off and he and his brother collected the money owed them and took off. A month later they started their own logging business and started going around like I was and selling firewood to larger home fueling businesses for resale.
Over the years I'd run into one or the other of them, usually when they were out trying to steal one of my delivery accounts. As a general rule, people who delivered coal and heating oil to homes were hard workers and pretty loyal to the suppliers who had serviced them decently over the years. Every once in awhile though, one of my deliveries would switch over to the Caughlin's, for either a lower price or because they thought I should have been catering to their needs better than I was. I had as much business as I could handle anyway, so I didn't feel too bad when I lost an account to them. I could usually replace the lost account with another, just as good, in a matter of days. Billy had gotten used to being outbid on logging work by the Caughlin's. He wasn't happy with that, but wasn't really in a position to do much about it since a lot of the bids were public works and open to all comers.
By the 1970's, the Caughlin brothers were running about twenty small logging crews and had ten or so delivery trucks operating over three states. My firewood delivery business had been starting to shrink because the newer homes were all being built with central heating and propane or natural gas service. Mostly people had fireplaces as a decorative thing rather than as a source of heating. I was still selling a lot of firewood, but the people I was selling to were selling half cord loads and doing free deliveries and stacking for their dwindling customer base. They had to offer the service just to be competitive, but they no longer thought of it as a good profit center for them. Any fool could see that the business was changing and not for the better. It would have been a good thing to sell out at that time if it hadn't been for the fact that it would leave Billy at the Caughlin's, not so tender, mercy. After I ignored their feelers for a month or two, Frank and Ryan came over to Groton to pay me a visit. Like me, they were both in their early thirties. Frank was a couple years older than Ryan and I, about Billy's age. They didn't waste too much time bullshitting about old times with me, but came straight to the point of their visit.
"Jackie, we're either going to buy you out today or else we're going to run you out of the business pretty soon anyway. The business in this area isn't big enough to support everybody. Ryan and I will pay you $75,000.00 for everything. All your trucks, drivers and all of your customers. You and Billy can keep that fancy furniture thing you're doing together. That's the offer and it's all we're going to give you so don't try to get us to sweeten it. What do you say?" Frank, like usual, did all the talking for the two of them.
"Where would that leave Billy?" I knew I wasn't going to sell to those two, but it never hurt to find out how far ahead they had been thinking.
"Fuck Billy. We don't care about him one way or the other. If he can find places to sell his wood, we won't bother him. Hell, you can even help him as long as you stay away from the customers we're buying off of you. You better take our offer Jackie, otherwise you might find bad things happening to your trucks and drivers. You're going to get out of the business one way or another anyway, you may as well do it the smart way."
"Look guys, I appreciate you coming to me with an offer. I need to take a few days and talk it over with my wife before I can give you an answer. I'd been thinking of selling anyway, but I thought I could get at least $100,000.00 for the equipment, customers and the goodwill. Are you sure that $75,000.00 is your best offer?"
"That's it, and that's only if you sell today. In a few days you'll wish that you took it when you had the chance."
"All right, if I have to give you my answer today, then it has to be a no. Frank, if I were you I'd think twice about threatening me or my drivers. If anything happens to the drivers or the trucks I'll be over to square it up with you myself. I've let you assholes go around slashing your prices to steal away my accounts for a long time and I didn't say anything because it was so stupid for you to do it. How can you raise up your prices on any of them without them coming back over to me, or at least giving me a phone call?" I moved in closer to Frank as I was talking. I was hoping he'd make some kind of move so I could knock him on his ass. He backed away from me a little. "How about it Ryan, you agree with your brother about putting me out of business if I refuse to sell?"
"Jackie I thought you'd see that this was a good, fair offer. Frank didn't mean what he said about that other stuff. We're businessmen not thugs. Frank watches too much television that's all. If you don't want to sell, then we'll just undercut you on price until you can't compete. There's no need for that other stuff. Come on Frank, let's go home. Jackie's not interested." Ryan was the smart one. He knew enough not to make any threats himself.
As soon as they were gone I drove over to Billy's to let him know what had happened. As I expected, Billy was excited at the prospects the Caughlin's had offered. Billy was always more blood thirsty than I was. He had matured in some ways as he got older, but not to the point where he didn't enjoy a good scrap. His advice was that the two of us go over to the Caughlin's and make them an offer of our own. Billy's basic argument was that he didn't want to see anybody innocent get hurt, like Lenny or one of the other drivers. If we waited, he asserted, they'd have at least one free crack at doing just that.
"What it comes down to is who do you want to protect, those dick heads or your employees who depend on you to look after them? If you don't go over there and put the fear into them, they'll work themselves into believing that you'll fold up your tent if they give you a little push. It would be a damn shame if something bad happened because we didn't show them that they're mistaken soon enough."
I'll admit to you that I was a little pissed myself at them having the gall to come over thinking that they could strong arm me in the first place. Maybe I'll even admit that I hadn't fully grown up either, and wasn't above getting a little excited at the prospect of kicking both those bozos asses. I'd like to think that my main reason was to try to avert violent injury being done to one or more of my employees. I made Billy promise to sleep on it overnight and to not mention anything to Theresa. I told him that if we both agreed on going to see them in the morning, then that is what we'd do. Billy was grinning when I left his farm. He said he'd call me in the morning to let me know whether he'd changed his mind or not. He woke me up at four thirty the next morning, telling me that he'd meet me in New London at six. I just laughed when he asked me whether I'd had a change of heart about it. It would have been too cruel to do that to him after letting him get his hopes up overnight. We arranged to meet in the supermarket parking lot in New London that we sometimes used if we were going somewhere together in one car. I got there at about a quarter to six and Billy was already parked and waiting for me. He jumped in my car and asked if I wanted to stop somewhere and grab some breakfast. I'd gotten some coffee before I left the house, but I figured a nice breakfast would be a good idea before we went over to the house where the Caughlin's lived. Frank was married and had a few kids, but Ryan still lived with all of them. Ryan had almost married a girl right after high school, but something came up and they called it off at the last minute. She had gotten married to someone else a few months later, and Ryan had stayed single ever since.
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