Business as usual

In the long view, it was nothing big: it's just that the muffler fell off. Nor, in the end, did it much matter that we were 700 miles from home, or that we were driving a borrowed twenty-six-foot-long motor home built on a truck chassis , or even that it was late on a Friday afternoon. No, what mattered were David and Ralph.

David you might have predicted, though not by a quick glance at the Gulf station he ran in the seacoast town of Baddeck, Nova Scotia. On the outside, it looked entirely ordinary: the usual gas pumps islanded on the usual oil-slicked cement pavement, with the usual oil-slicked attendant staring out from under his cap as we thundered up toward him. To be sure, the larger-than-usual gravel lot beside the garage, filled with bright red tractors and hay bailers, seemed promising, but we hadn't picked it for its specialty. When your muffler falls off, it's a case (as the sailors would say) of any port in a storm. It was nearest.

And, as it turned out, best - though I could not have known that when, stepping into a repair bay strewn with tires, disemboweled tractors, and sundry chunks of lawn mower, I met David. For a moment I thought he had blundered straight into a Gulf ad. His startlingly blue eyes looked out of a handsome, youthful face, under a blow-dried shock of blond hair. His shirt (it was the end of a muggy, warm day) was impeccably pressed, his cool blue trousers unspotted. On his feet, unacquainted with lubricating grease and still as clean as the day they were sent for, was a pair of brown leather boots. One expected him to pick up a silver wrench, turn his profile to camera, and wave to a Lincoln convertible disappearing into the sunset.

But he didn't. He listened patiently as I explained the need for something - even some wire - that might help correct our unmuffled state. Then he politely asked if he could see to another customer who had been waiting, told me to bring the van around into the garage through the tall back door, and turned to an employee. ''Ralph,'' he said, ''could you see if you might wire up this gentleman's muffler?'' It was the height of courtesy, an almost textbook case of how to satisfy your customer.

As I say, you might have predicted David; but Ralph you never could have foreseen. He, too, was young, probably not long out of trade school, and of the same modest stature as his boss. There the physical resemblance ended. Ralph's shirt was a veritable impasto of grease splotches, and his trousers of some indefinable color midway between soot and old boiled beans. As he directed my efforts to squeeze our vehicle into the service bay, his hair bounced helplessly and sprawled across his sweaty forehead.

I climbed down and leaned against a nearby workbench, and Ralph took a creeper - one of those wooden trays on low wheels - and slid under the chassis. In a moment he was back, looking a bit puzzled. There was nothing, apparently, to attach wires to, no way to hang the muffler back into position.

Now, I don't wish to cast rude aspersions on urban mechanics, nor to compare them unfavorably with their rural counterparts. But the fact is that some of Ralph's big-city brothers in grease would have called it a day at that point. It was hot. They would have been tired. And the problem would have seemed so unusual as to justify capitulation.

Not Ralph. He was as dogged in work as he was dirty in fingernail. It was not , apparently, that his professional ego was at stake, either: his unassuming manner bordered on shyness, of the sort that stops in mid-sentence if it sees that you might be about to interrupt. No, he simply had a job to do, a customer waiting.

Five o'clock came and went, and David reappeared. A brief huddle, a decision to replace the muffler, a search of the shelves for a suitable candidate. There was nothing just right; and I couldn't help thinking that again they had another excuse to abandon the project. But it was simply not in their natures to do so: you don't work on farm vehicles, five days by mail from the nearest major parts depot, without learning to make do. So in ways their city cousins seem to have forgotten, they settled on a muffler that was close enough. That didn't bother them: they never doubted that they could adapt it if they had to.

And then it was Ralph, black-goggled, cutting loose the old bolts with an acetylene torch; Ralph, sorting through his box of tools for the proper hammer; Ralph, sliding back down under the vehicle with the ease of a scuba diver entering the water; Ralph up, Ralph down, and Ralph all around the problem. But it was David, in the end, who surprised me most. He had honored me, his customer and source of revenue, with great courtesy. But he was equally kind to his help. His gentility, which permeated to the core of his most commonplace language, obviously characterized all the interrelationships in his business. I see him still, bending over Ralph's emergent legs, and saying with a turn of phrase bordering on the elegant, ''Is there anything I can do to help you, Ralph?'' To which Ralph replied, with characteristic deference, ''Well, if you wouldn't mind , you might hand me that bar over there.''

Which he did, and more. For in the end, Ralph could not quite pry the new muffler into place. He needed an extra hand. And David the Boss, David the Immaculate, David the Unspotted, never hesitated. He grabbed up another creeper, flopped down on his back, and rolled under the chassis. For ten minutes, among the rust cakes and road dirt of that well-traveled underbody, they shoved and tugged with awkward motions. And in the end David said, very simply, ''There.'' And Ralph added, ''B'gosh, looks like it was made to fit.''

And so it was. Ralph had been fooled by a layer of rust. He had not gotten quite the right measurement. What he thought wouldn't fit finally slid solidly into place without any slack. He put on the new bolts and lowered the jack. I started it up; it purred like a sewing machine.

And the price? Never mind that in most cases you toss the car up onto the lift, stand underneath it, and finish the job in a few minutes. Never mind that an hour had passed, or that Ralph's shirt was partly unbuttoned and his hair plastered to his forehead. And never mind that on David's sleeve, as he filled out the bill up in the front office, I noticed a distinct streak of grease. When he got to the line marked, ''Labor,'' he skipped right past it. It seems that in Baddeck, Nova Scotia, the price of the muffler includes the labor to install it. To them, it was nothing big.

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