An End-Of-The-Millennium Christmas Tale.
By Jeff Smith
DECEMBER 28, 1998:
"He was a stranger, and I took him in."
ANYBODY WHO doubts the power of faith, the surpassing truth of the eternal mystery, the sheer resonance of The Greatest Story Ever Told, or the inspirational force of "coincidence" simply hasn't been paying attention in the checkout line.
Every year around this time the tabloids are full of contemporary variations on Biblical themes, tales remarkable in symetry and similarity to the story of the first Christmas, and you don't even have to pay the three bucks to have your heart warmed: a quick scan will net the essentials before the clerk rings up your TicTacs and Milky Way: a gift of the Magi from Lantana, Florida.
Atheists may scoff that these are cynical ploys to boost circulation, but the faithful recognize a Christmas miracle when they see one. I have become something of a foxhole convert.
It began with a message on my answering machine--three actually, the guy seemed to be having some trouble with the apparatus on the other end of the line. But the burden of the story was that he'd taken a screwing on a camper for his pickup. I jotted down his number and hit the reset button: up to this point the parallels to the saga of Mary and Joseph had not yet dawned. I was choking down a grilled-cheese sandwich and watching Monday Night Football when the phone rang again. It was him.
"Are you familiar with the rate of exchange between Canadian dollars and American?" he asked me. I said no. He said five hundred bucks U.S. is worth better than $800 where he comes from, which is about halfway from here to the North Pole. Hmm, I said. The Packers were down 13-3 in the second quarter. Green Bay is not as far north as Thunder Bay, where my caller said he came from. Tampa Bay, which was thumping Green Bay, is far enough south that it never gets below freezing.
"I'm a tree surgeon," he said. "I don't have a lot of money. My wife and I just got married and we decided to travel for a couple of months in our pickup truck. It has a Topper on it. We're sleeping in the back. Back home we make a comfortable living, but with the money from the wedding gifts from our parents and all, we still have only about $2,000 to last us until we get back home."
There was something in my caller's voice that made me pay closer heed. Anyway, it was halftime.
Following their star, he and his bride had made their way through a country much like the Holy Land and arrived in Tucson with nowhere to stay but the back of their '88 Ford half-ton. Seeking better shelter they found themselves, not at a stable, but an RV dealer. Two thousand years have brought the mobile housing industry quite some distance. The donkey and bed of loose straw have given way to the cabover camper with kitchenette and chemical toilet.
Pedata RV Sales, 2640 N. Stone Ave., had just such a unit--a used El Dorado--for $550. Your basic smokin' deal. Carla and David Shchepanik, our latter-day Mary and Joseph, traded in their Topper and signed the papers. It consumed the better part of an eight-hour day to make the swap. Their new manger was comfortable and commodious and "had many features I particularly liked," David said. David talks that way: direct, guileless. He sounds like a man with good posture. It was that tone that got my attention away from the football game. David continued with his tale:
"When we left the lot I was a bit concerned because the shocks bottomed-out. Your streets are pretty smooth here, but the back end was sagging. The springs weren't completely flat, but the shocks were bottoming. We were afraid to take it out on the highway."
David and Carla drove to a park outside town and stopped for the night. David jacked up the back of the camper to level everything, and reported that he and his bride spent a restful night, but that the following day when they let the jack down and headed down the road, clearly they were in dire straits. The ass-end of the Ford was sagging, the camper was swaying, and they could see a large cut of their small nut--$550 U.S., which at current rates of exchange equals something on the order of $900 Canadian, or nearly half their honeymoon budget--down the loo.
They were very upset, David said, and not a little outraged. A licensed dealer in recreational vehicles should have informed them beforehand that their truck might not have the GVW rating to accommodate a camper of this size and weight, said David. Did you ask? I said.
"Yes, and the salesman showed me this piece of paper that was a cheap photocopy and said, 'Requirement--half-ton truck or larger.' But I don't think the salesman was very intelligent." David sounded like a man who might say something like that, right to the salesman's face, and not think a thing of it.
"We decided to return the camper and get our money and our Topper back," David said. My mind raced back to the part where the boys at Pedata RV had spent a day lifting big old sweaty things and barking their knuckles with crescent wrenches. The story was taking an ugly turn.
"They refused," David said. He sounded surprised. He sounded like one whose sense of justice had been offended.
He sounded like someone from a country with national health insurance.
That was the subtle tone I'd heard at the outset of our conversation--something like English, but not quite, something to one side of normal--something "Canadian."
So anyhow, here's this tree surgeon from Thunder Bay matter-of-factly reading the gospel to this used-RV dealer from just shy of the Mexican border, and his pale young bride is in the waiting room, crying her eyes out--the honeymoon of her girlhood dreams fluttering away on the wings of vultures, her dowry pissed away down a chemical potty--and a crowd is beginning to gather at Pedata RV Sales.
David is explaining to Gerard the owner and Al the manager how this simply will not do, but that he's willing to pay the salesman's commission and let it go at that. Those of you who have experience in the pre-owned retail market may appreciate the rich ironies so prominent in this vignette. Maybe it's a cultural thing. Maybe they strictly regulate such commerce in Canada. Whatever.
Pedata offers David a buck. That's one hundred, U.S. By this time the assembled mob, presumably including some of the staff, have at David's insistence, removed the camper from the back of his Ford. The tears are still flowing in the waiting room, and a kindly gentleman proffers a business card to the Mrs. and whispers, "Call this guy." This is how they come to ring me up during the Green-and-Tampa Bay game.
By the time David gets me on the horn, the combination of his northwoods doggedness and his wife's grief have got the refund up to $200 and--I'm just guessing here--given the boys at Pedata RV a case of the red-ass. David and Carla leave, just not certain whether they're going to take this.
Which brings us just about up to the present.
I, of course, being the sentimental and spiritual guy I am, can barely keep from cackling over the phone. Are these tears coursing down my cheeks sadness at the plight of two poor strangers in a strange land, or simple hilarity?
Maybe there's a heart-warming Christmas parable in this, I tell David. I'll call Pedata and get back to you.
Which I do, and talk to the owner. Hey, these poor pilgrims are determined to go to Mexico for Lord's sake, I tell him: Why not let's give them their money back, warm everybody's heart this holiday season, and be a hero? Once they cross that border, nobody will ever hear from them again.
Pedata says, Well, it's not the money, but the guy's attitude.
I can relate. He's Canadian, I say, you've got to make allowances.
Pedata says all right.
So everybody's happy now, except for the lost day's work for the boys who had to wrestle that heavy sonofabitch on and off the back of David and Carla's truck. And the aggravation of people from two different worlds, perhaps never understanding the rules of the game and how they are played on opposite sides of the border. And the salesman whose intellect has been brought into question. Or for that matter, the dealer whose ethics were unfairly impugned. And I don't guess David and Carla will ever entirely trust Yanks. Maybe nobody's happy but me. For an ugly mess, I think it still makes a ripping yarn for Christmas Eve.
Perhaps we could establish a fund to help defray labor costs and sales commissions, and help the pilgrims on their pathway toward Tierra Incognita. I'll mull that over.
Meanwhile, you all have a Merry Christmas--and pray that Carla Shchepanik is not mysteriously with child.
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