Friday, February 23, 2007

Along For The Ride

The summer immediately following my leaving the farm to share a rental trailer with a friend fresh out of the Navy was a time of seemingly unlimited free time and opportunity. School was out, I was working the night shift 8:00 P.M. to 8:00 A.M. Monday through Thursday at the lumber mill, and part time afternoons in one of two local gas stations. My share of the rent and other bills was a small part of my pay and the work, even with two jobs, proved to be far less time-consuming and considerably more lucrative than farm work. I still helped out on occasion when Uncle R had a big project or it was haying time, et cetera. Since I had from Friday morning until Monday evening off most weeks, I found myself involved in various activities for earning money of just for fun. One of these activities resulted, on several occasions, in strange undertakings. Please pardon the phrase in light of the following story.
My trailer-mate, N, had a friend who was the brother of his girlfriend at the time. This friend, M, was an "older man" in my eyes as he was all of a mature 26 and married with two children. I'm not sure just how it started, in all likelihood it was just a case of a casual conversation going astray, but somehow I ended up as M's assistant delivery man on weekends. The previous year, M had taken out a loan and, combined with his savings, purchased a "step van" style large delivery truck similar to the one shown above. His purpose was to enable him to qualify for a new job he'd heard was about to be created. It seems the big bakery in the city 100 miles away was about to expand its sales territory into our remote area and would be sub-contracting out the delivery services. M had thought this through very well and was accepted as the sole delivery contractor for a large area. This had quickly blossomed into a thriving one-man business.
The one drawback to M's business was that he had very little time off. This is where I came in with my insatiable urge to be busy and make even more money to add to my rapidly growing bank balance. We discussed things at length and after three intensive training runs with M, I was officially on his payroll as relief delivery driver. This entailed leaving on Friday night and Sunday night to drive the 100+ miles to the bakery and pick up the goods for the Saturday and Monday deliveries and visiting all the stores on his route restocking the shelves on Saturday and and Monday. This was much easier than it sounds and involved mostly driving time. The pay was good and the work simple and light. It also left Sunday pretty much free until late evening for me. It wasn't long, however, before M found a little side-line business he could make some extra money doing with minimal physical labor, but one which would require two men.
It seems the local funeral homes, strangely situated across the street from each other, strange in that they were the ONLY two funeral homes around, were having problems in a portion of their business. Whenever a local resident died while out of town or a former resident passed away and desired to be interred in the family plot somebody had to go and retrieve the embalmed body. This is where their trouble arose. It seems that the constant trips on weekends, which was when retrievals were done, were wearing out both their small staffs and fleets of vehicles. They combined efforts, but were woefully understaffed still, and the transport vehicles, which were used as flower carriers at funerals, were deteriorating more quickly than desired. M to the rescue. He sized up the situation and made a bid to perform the weekend pick-ups using his own vehicle and helper, namely myself and the bakery delivery van. He informed me as to my part in this joint venture only after securing a contract from the two funeral homes.
This set the stage for one of the oddest jobs I've ever had, body retrieval assistant. Most pick-ups were in distant parts of the state or occasionally in neighboring states. We would depart as soon as the last delivery Saturday was completed and generally return late Sunday afternoon. This system usually worked very well and we split the retrieval fees 60/40 and shared the driving and lifting. We seldom had more than one or two pick-ups per week and life was easy. On several occasions though, we were forced to adapt our procedures to a new reality brought about by a long distance pick-up on three trips, and multiple (3) pick-ups on two other trips. Although our methods raised some eyebrows at the bakery and caused some alarm along with looks of disbelief from some of M's delivery customers, they were efficient.
When we picked up the dearly departed, they were embalmed and in heavy-duty "transport" coffins which were re-used after delivery. We'd simply secure the cargo in the back of the van between the shelves for the trip. This was made easier by the coffins being designed to stack three high. We then simply drove back home and delivered them to the funeral home designated for the services. On the occasions we had to change procedures though, we were running late and decided to combine tasks. As we had to travel through the city where the bakery was located and the van shelves were empty and accessible, we decided to pick up the next day's bakery deliveries on our way through. We'd call ahead and have M's wife explain Monday morning that we were delayed and would be delivering the expected cargo the following afternoon, late in the day. We'd then go to the bakery and load up, continue home and make the Monday deliveries as per normal.
The first inkling we had of possible problems was the initial time we did things this way. We had finished loading the van and were getting sodas and snacks for the trip home from the small store across from the bakery when we heard a scream coming from the direction of the van. It seems the bakery invoice lady, having a question, had gone looking for us and climbed into the van. I guess she was a bit upset at seeing three coffins piled in the back of the van, but what set her off was one of the jokesters from the bakery who knew of our load and snuck up behind her and suddenly let out a whoop. It took them almost a full half-hour to calm the poor lady down and she never treated us quite the same afterward. We also found ourselves "treating" the former residents to one last tour around the county as we made the day's deliveries. At a couple stops we got pointed questions put to us as to why we had coffins in the van. M's standard answer was, "it was the deceased's last wish to tour the area one last time before being put to rest." He always delivered this line with a straight face and even offered "literature" describing our "last tour" services. This left more than one poor soul more confused than before they'd asked. Most just gave us funny looks and walked off shaking their heads.
Until next time, take care. Now I think I'll add a "last tour" request to my will. (hehehe)