Mel and I reached an understanding

I met Mel at the end of my first long winter in Fairbanks. I'd just graduated from college and was working at a cabinetmaking shop in the woods north of town. It doesn't snow that much so close to the Arctic Circle. Only the main roads are plowed, and they don't bother salting them. Snow storms are usually small, a few inches, so most folks don't bother plowing smaller roads or parking lots all winter. It snows a bit, you pack it down; it snows, gets packed down, and so on.

You call Mel in the spring. But call him before the sun gets warm enough to thaw the surface; it will refreeze at night. His front-end loader can pop off the packed snow in big chunks; but once it gets icy, it's tough to break loose.

It's a spectacular event. The woods, the roads, your driveway - everything has been white for six months at least. Then Mel comes and turns things to spring; dirt, gravel, and pavement in just a few minutes. The songbirds love it. It's the first time they've been able to peck the ground since September.

Once Mel found out I was a "good wrench," we became fast friends. We worked together for the next 14 years, until I left.

Mel used to get me for cheap, but as the years went by I got my own shop. My rates started to climb, and he couldn't harass me. "Get back to work!" he used to yell. "I'm not paying you to wipe your hands, I'm paying you to work, gosh darn it!" (The last few words are not actually his, but this is a family newspaper.)

In the winter Mel restored old cars at his place, hiring me only when something was beyond his ability. (But he never said it like that.) In the spring I took care of the loader so it was ready to go. Summertime, Mel built driveways and building sites. He was in the dump truck and hired me to do the 'dozer work.

Then the King brothers passed him. I'd never seen Mel so upset. He had the nicest-looking dump truck in town: a '69 International. That was the last year of the body style with the split windshield, before they got big and boxy. The Kings had gotten themselves two new trucks with big Cat engines. Mel's nice old International had the GMC 6-71 in it. You'd recognize the sound: It's what most city buses have in them, the "screamin' Jimmy."

Jimmys are cheap, dependable, powerful for their weight, and consume amazing quantities of fuel and motor oil. But a 6-71 is no match for a big V-8 like the Cat. So Mel picked up an 8V-92. (The first number indicates how many cylinders; the V means they are laid out in two banks; the last number is the cubic-inch displacement per cylinder.)

Then there was the matter of installing the new engine. This was before I had my own shop. Mel asked me to bid on the job.

I surveyed the twice-as-big beast that I was to stuff under the hood and guessed at a price. "Twelve hundred bucks?" Mel said. "Why I've never heard such a thing! Golly darn, my goodness, merciful heavens!" And he chased me off.

When I got home I told my daughters that Mel would be by shortly with some candy for them. That's what he always did when he yelled at me real good.

But he didn't show. So I ventured a visit about a week later. The old six-cylinder was out of the truck, and pieces of it were spread from one end of the shop to the other. He gosh-darned me some more and said he'd found three soldiers who needed the work more than I did, weren't so proud as I was, and all that. I shrugged and went home.

Two weeks later, Mel gave each of my girls a Butterfinger and asked when I could please stop by. I dropped what I was doing - the only acceptable response - and followed him back to his place. I surveyed the scene. Nothing had changed in the weeks since, and he asked how much I'd charge to finish up. (Silly, darn soldiers!) I pretended to stew for a while, then told him I wouldn't charge him any more than my original bid. That wasn't what he'd wanted to hear, seeing as he'd prepaid the soldiers and they'd done some of the work. Blast you, rats, gee whiz, son of a gun! And he chased me off again.

Two hours later he came back to my house, no candy, but asking why I hadn't started yet.

Mel and I got that one worked out, and dozens more. I ran his outfit when he went to Seattle for four months. He takes candy to my nephews now that we've moved away. Pushing 100 and still clearing snow, hauling gravel, and raising ... havoc.

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