Laughter as Medicine: Third-place essay, 'Strained Measurement'

Feb. 4, 2013 at 7:01 p.m.
Updated Feb. 4, 2013 at 8:05 p.m.

Bob Zumwalt

Bob Zumwalt

During my high-school years, I spent Saturdays and summer vacations working at the Pavlu Hardware store, situated just off Hallettsville's then-bustling Courthouse Square.

Victor Pavlu, the owner, was an affable, stocky fellow of Czech ancestry, whose slightly rounded face flashed a big, warm grin at the slightest opportunity.

This was a Norman Rockwell-type of hardware store. We sold nails by the pound from large wooden kegs. Rolls of fencing and chicken wire sat outside the plate-glass show windows. Shipping boxes crammed with merchandise were stacked haphazardly throughout the store.

Although Vic's first language was Czech, he spoke English very well, with the slightly clipped Czech accent typical of many Lavaca County residents of that time. Many customers of Czech heritage still preferred that language - frustrating me when I tried to serve them. Some Czech speakers would only talk to Vic. They brushed past me and went straight to him, even if he were serving another customer.

This frustrated me until I finally understood what was going on. They usually wanted something simple and could have asked me in English. This was not the quick-turnaround commerce of today; these customers wanted more than some pieces of hardware. They wanted to share a few pleasantries, talk about the weather, engage in a little human discourse - to break the isolation of living on the farm and dealing with farm animals. This was best done in their mother tongue.

One little old lady often rebuffed my attempts to serve her. This short, small-framed woman wore narrow, metal-rimmed eyeglasses. Her hair was beginning to gray. Once, the indomitable lady came in during Vic's noon-time dinner break. She looked all around the store before realizing that, this time, she had to deal with me.

I approached and inquired, "Could I help you, ma'am?"

She stared at me suspiciously, and then stated in perfectly understandable English, "I need chicken wire. Three feet high."

I asked her to clarify, "Do you want 2-inch mesh or 1-inch mesh?"

She pondered my question, then wisely said, "Show me!"

I escorted her to the fencing outside and showed her the two mesh sizes.

She pointed to the 1-inch mesh, "That's what I want! I need 30 feet."

I placed the free end of the roll carefully at the edge of the sidewalk in front of the store. I unrolled the wire for the entire length of our sidewalk - exactly 25 feet and 2 inches - and extended the wire onto the next merchant's sidewalk for an estimated five feet more. I added an extra two feet for lagniappe and cut the wire.

"Wait!" the lady called, "You didn't even measure that. Where's your yardstick?"

I carefully explained how I measured the wire, relative to the length of the sidewalk. Completely unsatisfied, she demanded, "I need exactly 30 feet. Get a yardstick and measure it!"

Exasperated, I painstakingly measured the unrolled chicken wire with a yardstick, making sure she could see what I was doing. When the yardstick came to the 30 feet demanded, I cut off about 20 inches of excess wire - the lagniappe.

The lady was speechless, but she knew she was getting the exact amount of wire for which she paid.

About two weeks later, she came in when Vic had gone to the bank. Again, she said to me, "I need some more chicken wire - 60 feet."

Guided by the sidewalk, I rolled out her 60 feet, added two feet of lagniappe, and cut the wire. She didn't say a word. When we completed the transaction, she smiled and said, "Thanks!"

She knew she was getting something extra, and that was important to her.

Both of us had learned to respect each other. I had gained more of an understanding about the way she was thinking, and she had learned she could trust me. This little lady came into the store many times after that. She went to Vic when he was not busy, but she readily let me serve her when he was.

Amazingly, I even succeeded in making a little small talk with her. She was happy to talk with me after I inquired about her chickens.



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