Lead Parachute

by Howard Faxon

Tags: Slow, Transformation,

Desc: : My boss fired me in a fit of pique. I was about as un-prepared as I could be. I took advantage of my environment to get ready for a great retirement

Imgine that you're sitting at your desk at work. You're working through your list of 'attention items'. Some you can't do right off because you'd screw up someone else's work. One department was frantically busy getting ready for a big multi-venue day of seminars that Friday, so you were holding yourself on-call for any disasters that struck. You had six things you were juggling, including filing the returns from fingerprint investigations done for background checks. All the public and private schools had to do them for new hires or returning staff with no previous record of having a background check done.

That's where I was, trying to keep the lid on a frantic Monday. The boss must have been closer to the end of his rope than what showed. He stuck his head in the office, looked at me and said, "That's it. You're out of here."

"What? Fired? Just like that? No HR? No warnings? Nothing???"

"I could see his upper lip trembling. "That's right. You're an at-will employee. You're terminated as of now." He spun around and slammed the door to his office.

Well. Well, shit. I sat there wondering whether to shit or wind my watch. He did not make jokes like that. The first thing I did was to drop my I-phone in the trash can. I picked through the contents of my desk drawers to separate out my stuff and put it all in a box. I changed my password on the network and the mail server, installed an out-of-office message on my email account saying that I had been fired, go piss off someone else. Then I turned off my computer. I looked over at a little HP netbook in a slip-case leaning against a filing cabinet. That mysteriously found its way into the bottom of my box. I then picked up my tool kit, a bottle of gorilla glue from the supply cabinet, a USB-3 half-gig drive that I'd bought for the company (and never been paid for) and my box of stuff. That drive had the image for all the office machines on it, but tough shit. He could work out his own solution. (my ex-boss) I carted everything out to the car then went back upstairs for my coat, jacket and gloves. On the way out I said my good-byes. I was glad to see that at least some people were sad to see me go. I gave accounting the news. I was fully vested in the county-wide teacher's retirement fund so I got them busy getting me started on that. They agreed to hold my last check instead of direct depositing it. I remembered to pick up my drop-light and a three-headed contractors three-foot-long extension cord from the server room. I spotted a standard sized flatscreen sitting in the corner. I was just pissed enough to stick it under my arm. I left my keys in there as I headed out the door. What a slap in the face with a dead fish!

I had been paying over a thousand a month for my apartment rent. I couldn't afford that now. I had to find another place to live, fast. And cheap. I looked over at my old jeep. It was fourteen years old. I'd just put in all new brakes and lines, had the rear differential rebuilt, a new battery installed and all the high-voltage system replaced. It should be good for another thirty thousand miles or more, but it wouldn't tow a trailer, and that's what kept swimming up in the back of my mind.

I'd seen some trucks for sale last fall out near a sod farm a bit east of town. I took a trip to see if they were still there. I found a Ford F250 crew cab with a replaced driver's door and a primer grey paint job. There was no CD player, no tape player no radio, no nothing. It did have a frame hitch installed and what looked like a standard trailer light harness. I was in luck! It was sitting in holes under the tires where it must have sat all winter. I knocked on the office door. A woman answered. I asked about the truck. It must have been a sore spot with her, because twenty minutes later I gave her a check for eight hundred bucks, as is. She agreed to help me get it to town. She got on a coat and boots, found the keys in a desk drawer and took a ride out to the road with me. A jump got it going. It was a little doggy, probably because it had sat with that fuel in it all winter. Still, it ran. I followed her to town where we got it parked in front of Walmart and behind an automotive battery and parts place. I drove her back to the farm and shook her hand. She was smiling fit to beat the band. She must have REALLY wanted to get rid of that thing.

I drove back to town and tried the keys in the truck. Click. The battery was a crap. I paid a hundred and a half for a new one, installed. It had less than a quarter tank of gas. I hit Walmart for a can of Stabile gas treatment, wiper blades, wiper fluid, plugs, plug wires and a fresh tank of fuel. I also picked up a little pocket notebook and a pen--I'd be changing addresses and accounts furiously for the next week or so. I went home for a deep-well socket set, installed the plugs and wires and put on the wiper blades. It seemed to drive okay. The tires had tread, the brakes worked and all the lights did too. The front end didn't shimmy any that I could detect. It got a cheap oil change and filter. I had a road warrior. Not bad for a morning's work!

I registered the title at the DMV. The lady didn't want to believe me until I hauled out the receipt. She called the place and talked to the woman I'd delt with. Yup, eight hundred bucks. When she stuck her nose out the window and looked at my bondo baby she didn't argue any more. I got my plates and title for ninety bucks.

I found my Jeep's title and headed back to Walmart. I emptied the Jeep into the pickup then drove it to "Lou's Jeep and Eagle". I showed him the receipts for the work I'd had done, some three thousand bucks worth. He gave me eleven hundred for it, as is. I cadged a ride back to where the Ford sat waiting.

I had a week until my rent was past due. A week after that and the lawyers would start with the paperwork. I had to be out of town before that. I intended to be out much faster than that.

I went to the bank to deposit Lou's check. (well, the owner's check.) Next I hit a Mailboxes Express/UPS store to get a service address. I had a few thousand bucks available on my credit card. It was time to buy a place to stay.

Down near South Chicago Heights was a storage yard that IDOT (Illinois Department of Transportation--the tollway authority) hauled all the stuff involved in collisions on Illinois tollways from the Indiana border to the Wisconsin state line. I had an idea that I might find a trailer there. I'd seen camping trailers at junk yards before. I took a little trip, hoping that I'd led the good life and lady luck was feeling generous.

There were cars on one side, trucks in the middle and trailers on the other side. The stuff went back for years. There were a lot of burned out wrecks and some had police tape on them. I found a flat bed trailer full of small campers. I went to work at the office reading through the various files giving the dispositions and availability of the various lots. The paperwork said the trailer and contents that I was after had been sold for the insurance value. A wholesaler had been contracted to recover and sell off any remaining assets. That had been almost a year ago. It looked like the wholesaler had folded and the claim on the shipment got lost. I looked at the guy behind the counter. He looked like he might deal. "Two hundred for one of the campers. Cash."

He smiled and held his hand out. I gave him a Miami handshake. "Got anyway to get it off the trailer?"

"Sure. Fifty bucks. Fork lift."

"Sold." More cash changed hands. I was hooked up in two hours. The keys were with the paperwork. I opened the door to my new home and almost got knocked over by the smell. Jesus! All the foam rubber and the mattress had gone to hell while in storage. I pulled out all the crappy foam and the mattress. It got left on the flat bed. It had a queen-sized bed frame. I had a queen-sized bed at home. It sounded like a match made in heaven. There were tags and booklets everywhere. It was brand new. Why the hell did it have a dish washer but not an oven? It had a heater, air conditioner, mini-tub and a two-burner gas stove. A microwave was mounted above the stove. There were two 12-volt batteries in a lockable low bay accessible from outside. A twenty-pound propane tank was mounted at the front, protected by the frame that extended forward to form the hitch. What a deal! I was the proud owner of a Coleman camper, vintage 2012.

I headed back to Walmart where I picked up a bag of shop towels, a few gallon jugs of water, a bucket and a bottle of Pine-Sol. There was a water inlet for a small tank but no hose. I bought a food-grade water hose from the camping goods department, and a few rolls of biodegradable toilet paper. While I was there I thought that the little blue packets of holding tank deodorizer were a damned good idea. I sat around with the trailer windows open airing the place out while I read all the pamphlets that came with the place. Figuring out how the gray and black water dumps worked was easy. I found out that there was a little bitty hot water heater under the bathroom sink. I wiped everything down with water and Pine-Sol, then dashed the contents of my bucket over the asphalt at the edge of the lot. I didn't flush any waste water that I didn't have to.

I went into the store to find a manager, or at least someone that could say 'yes' or 'no'. I showed him my receipts and asked if I could stay in his lot overnight a few days. He gave me the okay, and signed a form for me to leave in my truck window. I was golden. I bought a stack of dish-washing pans and headed back to my apartment, trailer in tow. I parked it on the street because I wasn't about to get into navigating it around their parking lots.

The trailer's maximum cargo weight was just over seven hundred pounds. Hell, I had more than that in food alone. A lot got put into the dish-washing pans and loaded into the truck's back seat. I threw my mattress off balcony to the living room floor below, then wrestled it out into the camper and onto the frame. I was seeing spots after that. I wasn't used to hard work. Once I recovered I picked out a couple pots, a couple pans, some dishes, cups and mixing bowls. If it was made of cast iron I kept it. I had some very nice Calphalon lidded pots and pans. Those I kept. I moved towels, clothing, bedding and shoes. There wasn't much room for coats. I had a little eight-inch pry bar and a hammer that I used to destroy the camper's dinette. I could easily cover the hole in the floor with some stick-down carpeting squares and a rug. The holes in the wall were negligible. I owned an Adirondack chair that was pretty damned comfortable. That took the place of the dinette. I moved my tubs of cleaning supplies from under the kitchen sink out to the trailer. My tool bags and power tools went in the foot-wells of the truck's back seat. They were pretty heavy so I let the truck's suspension bear their weight. Next went the firearms, wrapped in a blanket. I had a couple of electric fans, one with a heating element. I filled all my empty water jugs, took a little propane camping lantern and a twenty-pound tank mostly full of propane (that the landlord didn't know about. If he knew about it I'd have been kicked out in a New York minute.). I planned to swap the currently empty tank with my old one so that I'd have heat overnight. After all, it was almost March around Chicago. Lots of funky white stuff was all over the ground and more was due. The weather was uneasy. Spring was still coming.

Before locking up and leaving I stopped and almost kicked myself. I took my camping packs, ready-to-run suitcase, computer and my widescreen flat-panel monitor/TV. I didn't want to leave anything behind that I'd hate to lose. It looked like I was moving out and several people had seen me moving shit around. I closed the drapes, locked the door and headed back to America's Playground. (Wal-Mart? Wally World? Come on, now. I thought everyone had seen "Summer Vacation".)

Before I filled the gas lines with potentially explosive propane for the first time, I wanted to put in a tee, valve and fitting for the oven behind the cabinet where the dishwasher was. The stove I was anticipating replacing it with would need the gas. This promised to be a long night.

Walmart was still open. They had copper tubing, a pipe cutter, tees, valves and compression fittings. I had solder, a torch, MAP gas and an asbestos pad. I cut in the place for the tee and sweat-soldered it in place. Then I soldered a flared pigtail to the tee and attached a shutoff valve. From there I fed the line down behind the counter to a springy loop behind the dishwasher and finished the end with a ring and compression fitting. It was ready to go. Hell, it only took an hour and a half! I made sure that my new valve was turned off. I swapped tanks, opened the master valve on the tank and once inside, sniffed for the smell of gas. Nothing. I lit a burner on the stove. Poof. I had heat. Next I got the furnace lit and set the temperature to sixty degrees. I cleared all the shit off the bed, made it up with my bedding and crashed hard. What a hell of a day!

Well, I woke up in the morning and wasn't scattered all over the parking lot. That was a good sign. It was still pretty early so I brewed up a cup of tea to go with a little bread and jam. Then I made some choices with my canned goods. Everything in glass came inside to keep from freezing. I arranged the cooking ware, dining ware, plates, cups, glasses and bowls to my satisfaction. I had a little radio that I always carried in my suitcase. It came out to give me some background music. My running back and forth had charged the trailer's batteries enough to run the 12-volt lights. I should have pulled the electrical feed from the truck to the trailer the night before in case the battery charging circuit had no under-voltage protection. I could have pulled the truck's battery to near-zero overnight. I had gotten lucky. I checked out the refrigerator. It was a floor-to-ceiling unit, maybe seven cubic feet. The top third was a freezer. It was designed to work on either 110 volts or propane. I patted it fondly. It certainly beat the little dorm-sized refrigerators found in most small campers.

I found a place in the trailer's external storage bays to hold the jacks and a lot more such as lawn chairs and the water hose. The city power tap had a breaker box next to it, and a heavy coiled-up power cable. There was a pigtail back there to convert the cable's NEMA TT-30 termination to U.S. 125-volt NEMA 5-15R. (What you see on the wall in the United States.) The septic hose was stored in a hollow bumper with a hinged end cover.

When the store opened I purchased a pay-as-you-go cellphone and a 30-minute card. Back at the apartment I looked up the bank's number and checked my balance to see if the check had cleared from Lou's. Not yet. I did a second run-through of the apartment, looking for things that I'd miss or have to re-purchase. I kept screws, batteries and little stuff in a two-sided compartmentalized case that I bought at a hardware store. I made sure to pick that up, as well as my big square sleeping bag. It made a wonderful quilt. I decided to get my spare propane tank filled then took a trip out to "Holiday Hour Camper Service and Supply". The guy that owned the place was an avaricious little bastard, but that was a known property. I could play off of that.

I walked back into the parts department to see if I could deal. I had a brand new low-flow camping dishwasher with the full documentation package. I wanted a modular gas oven. I had wandered through the sales floor and found some comparable prices. I knew that even trading straight up he would be getting a very good deal. I spent a while bargaining with the guy and finally got what I wanted, their best oven that would fit in the recess along with a five dollar PVC cap and a swab of PVC glue to seal off the dishwasher's vent to the grey water tank. The stove slid right in as if it were made for the hole. I screwed in the gas fitting and plugged it in. I was golden.

I then triggered the next part of my nefarious plan...

I let him know that I had three more trailers just like mine available. They were legal, paid off by an insurance claim and forgotten in the system. I offered to get him three for seven thousand dollars each, as found I let him know that the foam cushions were shot, right up front. He hemmed and hawed, but I knew that I had a fish on the line. I slowly reeled him in. "Coleman campers. What do they sell for new? seventeen thou? Fifteen thou at cost? How often do you make over a hundred percent on a large ticket sale? Buy some advertising and low-ball 'em to get a crowd in here. What else can you sell in a spring sale? People are bored to tears waiting for spring. Think of the walk-in traffic!"

He bit. I dropped off my trailer and headed into DeKalb, where I picked up the Interstate to go south-east. By six that night I was twenty-one thousand bucks richer minus seven fifty my cost. As he handed me the check he said, "All right, you got your money. Now put me out of my misery. Where the hell did you find them?"

I smiled. "IDOT recovery yard, South Chicago Heights." He looked at me for a minute, then grinned. "Damn. That's brilliant. There's always something to go around when insurance claims come through."

Now for the final part of my plan.

"How would you like a twenty-four hour guard on this place?"

"Whaddaya mean?"

"I just got fired from my office job yesterday morning. I bought this truck, cleaned it up, bought my trailer and just about cleaned out my apartment yesterday. I'm at loose ends and need a place to stay. Whaddaya say we work out a deal where I get a place live in my trailer while you get a night guard. Put in a remote gate alarm to run a 'ding-dong' and nobody gets in."

"What about sewer, water and electric? You payin'?"

"Let's figure it out. Lot rent, four hundred a month. Electric, less than fifty. Water, negligible. Same with the sewer. You already have insurance for stock and employees. It should actually drop your insurance if you talk fast enough. Now what's a security guard worth to you?"

He gave me the hairy eyeball. "You're good. You hit a man where he lives. I'll pay whatever the insurance goes down by. Sound good?"

I held out my hand to shake his. "Sounds amazingly good. I can live on that and my retirement." He had a couple concrete pads out back. I got to use one of 'em. The place needed one hell of a clean-up, but what else did I have to do? I put the trailer up on jacks and got it hooked up to sewer, water and electric. He had cable TV on the sales floor. I'd have no problem hooking into that. I'd just have to wait until the ice melted to dig a little trench. I slept that night in my new home. It was bewteen a corn field and a highway, but hell, I was getting paid to live there!

The next morning I went back into town to strip everything I wanted out of the apartment. I took my saw-horses then emptied the refrigerator and the freezer. The chest freezer was full and I didn't have a place for the damned thing. I had five thirty-seven quart storage boxes, mostly empty. I filled them with all the food and put them in the back of the truck under a white canvas tarp to stay cold. I had room for a few more kitchen tools and I took the measuring cups. I made sure I had all the bathroom stuff packed, then took a look at my books. Cookbooks, electronics, programming, all that. I'd need something to read. I took all the computer crap that made any sense to keep. Oh, shit! I almost forgot the crock pot! I'd be eating out of that crock pot until I got the frozen food situation under control. Since I had an oven now, I could get some bread pans and frozen bread dough. Bread and stew would go over very well, and I could change it up enough to not quickly get tired of it.

A lot of stuff was left over. I went knocking on doors, letting the neighbors know that it was open season on whatever was left. One little Mexican woman damned near picked up that chest freezer by herself and toted it off. All the glass cooking ware went, the casseroles and the rest of the pots and pans. I kept one lidded white glass 9x9 pan for enchiladas and brownies. Two guys hauled out the futon couch, and another family must have really needed a dresser badly because that thing flew out of there, each kid carrying a drawer.

The back bedroom had a whole wall of shelves where I'd stored stuff, and there was some heavy furniture up there. All the little pieces and parts for an electronics lab were stored in boxes and drawers. A heavy case of hand tools for electronics and half a dozen meters was up there too. I had no idea what to do with it all, and it was such a shame to let the maintenance guys throw all of it in the dumpster.

I called the number in the phone book for the Fox Valley Amateur Radio League that was in the phone book. I actually got a live person! I told the guy on the other end what I had. He was quiet for a minute, then asked me how long I'd be there. He said he had to get there from Aurora. I said "Bring a bucket of Popeye's spicy chicken and a batch of onion rings. I'll be here till midnight."

I heard a laugh at the other end and he hung up. I knew he'd be a while. I started down to the bank to deposit my check for the campers. Then I had a thought. I wanted to close that account. I wanted to get AT&T off my ass for internet. The only way I could see to do it was to close the account that they were leeching off of. I turned around with that check still in my pocket.

Tom showed up with two guys and a panel van a couple hours later. They brought pizza, chicken, onion rings and Pepsi. Good thing I'd left a few rolls of paper towels behind.

These guys were builders. They saw the cores, the spools of magnet wire, the drawers full of caps, the voltage regulators, the op-amps and oh-my-god, the transistors! One guy looked at me like I was nuts. "You'ge GIVING all this away?"

I shrugged. "I got fired. No room. I'm moving into a nineteen foot long house trailer Where the hell am I gonna keep it? Tell you what. You got an old 2-meter that you're not using and a copy of last-years ARRL handbook and we'll be Jake."

"You sure that's all? There's well over two grand in parts sitting here." I thought about it. I remembered my old loft apartment. "I used to have an old dinosaur of a short wave receiver that I ran on a long-wire antenna. It had a band select, a frequency scale control and a fine tuning control. That was it. I used to have one hell of a good time with that thing. I left it on the high concrete step back by the dumpster in Wasco when I moved out. It was gone the next morning." I watched two of the guys quickly glance at each other. I had a good idea who snatched my old radio.

"Do you remember the label on it?"

"Umm, Hallicrafter? Allied? I don't really remember. I don't think it used tubes because it didn't produce a lot of heat, and it only took but a minute to warm up. It did drift for twenty minutes or so after startup, if I recall correctly. It had a six-band selector switch."

It was good to get all that stuff to a good home. I gave them my new address for the handbook, and maybe a 2-meter. They waved and left. I looked around the place. There wasn't much left. I shrugged, locked the door and left. I dropped the key off in the overnight slot. I went to my old job site to let the accounting department know my new address (the box at the commercial outlet). I didn't want any of those IMRF checks to get side-tracked.

I still had time, so I went back to DeKalb to open a new bank account. I picked Castle bank because they were local and there hand't been a peep of any irregularity attached to their name. I put in my check for twenty-odd grand, ordered my checks to go to the cut-out address and got a debit card right off the bat. They had internet banking so I could check my balance occasionally.

I thought that I might cadge a few hours of work in the shop so I bought a couple pair of dark blue coveralls and a pair of work boots with grease-proof soles. Farm and Fleet is a big store that supplies everything from snow blowers to vetrinary medicine and injectors to household goods to shoes and clothing. It put me out about eighty bucks. I used my credit card for it.

Back at the trailer I packed the freezer with the best of the meats, leaving the cheaper stuff in the shipping crates that I kept under the trailer. I started a crock-pot full of pork and frozen orange juice, then cleaned up a little around the back of the lot. I hooked up my wide-screen and put it on the shelf provided for a TV. I plugged in my computer to the little flat screen that I had absconded with. It was an older HP triple core that I'd bought off of Amazon as a refurb. It had never given me a moment's trouble. It had more porn on it than you could shake a stick at, plus a couple big story archives that I'd downloaded over the years. I didn't have any TV, internet or any other connectivity yet.

The weather was packing in. I stepped outside my warm, comfortable trailer into a good twenty-five mile an hour wind coming off the frozen snow on the corn field behind me. I instantly tucked my head into my collar and bent over a little. I squinted to keep the wind from making my eyes tear up. It wasn't twenty paces before my ears started to hurt from the cold. It made me realize how close I was to being homeless and desperately scrounging for shelter.

I wandered over to the shop, trying to spot the cable TV feed without looking obvious about it. I shut the heavy door behind me, instantly warming up. I felt the higher humidity lick my skin and smelled the acrid odor of a brazing torch in use. I heard "SHIT! FUCK! GODDAMIT!" out of an open door. A big camper was in the service bay. I stuck my head in the door to see a pair of legs sticking out of the cabinet beneath the kitchen sink. I innocently asked, "What's wrong?"

"This motherfucking plumbing just scalded me with motherfucking boiling water while I was trying to patch a motherfucking burst water line. That's what's wrong!"

I was glad he couldn't see my face. Been there, done that. You don't patch that shit, you replace it. That was just common sense. "You want some help? I've done more than my fair share of fixing freeze-damaged copper." He pulled his head out of the cabinet and squinted at me. "You shittin' me?"

"Nope. Come on over to look at the gas feed I patched into my stove supply line." Sure enough, he got up and followed me out. I handed him a flashlight and pulled the stove half-out. "Nice job. Whadja use?"

"MAP gas and a regular torch. Silver solder because that's what I had. I've got a heatproof pad to put behind the work when bringing it up to temp."

He looked impressed besides himself. "Fucking MAP gas is a bitch. It keeps sputtering and going out."

"Everything's got a trick. It doesn't like to work at room temp. Gotta heat it up to about 110, 120. Then it's rock solid."

"Okay, smart-ass. How do I keep from getting steam scalds?" He was starting to grin.

"Easy. Drain the fresh water tank. Open the fill cock. Open the final tap. Shove an air hose against it using your curled up fist as a gasket and blow all the water back into the tank. Give it a few more spurts to dry the line, then go for it."

"I guess you have done this before. Want a job? I'm up to my ass in electrical faults."

"Sure. Deal!" I shook his hand. "I suppose it's too late to ask what I get paid?"

He snorted. "Base is ten an hour, on the time clock."

"Insurance?" I hoped, I hoped, I hoped...

"Yeah. Gotta have it in a shop." Great!

I got my overalls and boots on, then punched in. I went to find him working with a meter and a rubber mallet. "You want cheap and fast or bill the bejesus out of 'em?"

"Just get it done." I nodded. "Good. I'll need a roll of 3/8 inch copper tube and a handful of compression fittings. I'm not gonna fuck with splits and splices. I'm gonna replace the runs." He grinned.

I had six runs replaced within four hours, re-plumbing the entire trailer. I didn't even have to light the torch once. I pressurized the system and left it on the gauge. If the pressure held until morning then the job was done.

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Story tagged with:
Slow / Transformation /