Granted, doing business online is convenient but I like old fashioned service; I prefer to deal with people one-on-one, in-person when possible. It’s just more fun that way. For example, when I have an insurance premium due, instead of mailing the payment I’d rather take a check to the agent’s office working directly with their staff. One such company is in a town in which I no longer live – so each month I call the agency’s office to make my payment over the phone, always working with the same person.
The other day I called their office asking to speak to Denise. Whoever answers the phone will always inquire, “May I ask who’s calling please?” When Denise came to the phone, she already knew who was on the other end of the line. I was laughing. Mischievous thoughts ran through my head while I was on hold.
“Oh my gosh. What did you do?” She asked with concern, knowing my love of pranks.
Proclaiming my innocence I swore, “I didn’t do anything…this time…yet. “But whoever answers the phone always inquires, ‘May I ask who’s calling?’ Well next time I’m going to smugly answer, ‘I’d rather not say.’”
Denise chuckled nervously. With skepticism she asked, “Why would you do that?”
“I’m going to tell them, ‘I’d rather not say because I don’t want to compromise her true identity – you know, the sanctity of the witness protection program must be respected.’” Denise and I shared a good laugh about that. “Then I’m going to tell them, ‘I’ve probably said too much already, but I will tell you this: she is an undercover spy and Denise isn’t her real name - it’s Dennis… …and she’s a guy!’” We were both rolling with laughter.
I knew Denise was blushing over the absurdity of it all. When she exclaimed, “Oh my Lord!” I wondered what her co-workers must think when she’s in her office, on the phone, cracking up laughing – surely, she can’t really be working! Trying to contain her laughter, Denise attempted to stear us back on track. Focusing on the actual purpose of this call, she asked, “Did you want to give me your account number to make a payment?”
Denise has provided me top notch service for many, many years. She’s a big part of the reason I continue to do business with their company, even though I have since moved. Besides, I can’t imagine having this kind of fun buying insurance online from a green lizard. I like working with real people.
Interacting with our listeners and advertisers was always one of my favorite parts of being in the radio broadcasting business. I enjoyed visiting clients, taking them little gifts like coffee mugs, T-shirts, caps, note pads, calendars and other such promotional items bearing the station call letters. I wanted to take them something different – something unique that no other radio station would take them, but I didn’t know what. I got an idea.
In the early 90’s I decided to plant a garden. I chose an area behind a second garage that was in my backyard. I carefully removed the sod, saving it for use elsewhere. I tilled the soil until I had a bed of loose, rich, black dirt. I measured off and pounded in stakes on each side then pulled strings taught between them making straight lines spanning the plot.
I dug little channels, carefully dropped my seeds, then gently covered them with dirt. I put in a few rows of green beans, peas, carrots, radishes and green and yellow bell peppers. I tried growing lettuce - that didn’t work too well for me, although the rabbits loved it. I avoided the sprawling vine plants like pumpkins, squash and cucumbers – I like them, but they take up too much space.
When I was done planting, I looked with pride at my garden. It was beautiful. Each stake had an empty seed package stapled to it so that I would know what was in that row. I smiled dreaming of the bountiful harvest I would enjoy through the late summer and fall. I sighed realizing I forgot the sweet corn, then smiled, there’s always next year. Oh, and I also put in 125 tomato plants.
John Denver recorded a cover song written by Guy Clark: Home Grown Tomatoes. My favorite line was, “Only two things that money can't buy, that's true love and homegrown tomatoes.” With a garden full, I could give them to all my clients and no other radio station was going to take them such a gift. I thought it was a good idea and people would appreciate tomatoes more than a note pad they were going to lose anyway.
The weeks ahead were challenging. I didn’t know a garden would be so much work. My plants grew almost as fast as the weeds. My friend, John Ohlinger told me to bag my grass clippings and lay them in the rows and between the tomato plants. That helped, but still – the work!
I suppose it was early July when my gardening friends said they were harvesting nice tomatoes. My 125 plants were growing well but only produced small to medium size, rock hard green tomatoes. The weeds got away from me; some were as tall as the plants, others were bigger.
I stood looking over the mess that was supposed to be my garden. The colorful little packages had either sun-bleached to white, withered scraps of paper or deteriorated completely leaving small rusty staples in the wooden stakes. Defeated, I shook my head and said, “I should have just left the lawn alone.”
What went wrong? Maybe I planted too late. Maybe I didn’t water the garden enough. Maybe I didn’t till the soil deep enough. Maybe my soil didn’t have the right biological makeup for gardening. Maybe it was the weeds. Yes, it was the weeds fault, they ruined my garden.
I was getting ready to take my family out of town for a couple weeks. When I returned, I would mow down the lot of plants and weeds with the John Deere, till the soil and replace the sod. I walked away in despair.
When I got back in town, I started the lawn tractor and drove to the garden. The back garage shielded the hideous growth from the house. I stopped at the edge and looked at the mess. I would have to remove the wire tomato cages, pull the stakes and gather the strings from the garden before I could mow it down. It was so tall, I wondered if the mower was going to be able to knock it down. Something was weird.
My jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Among the weeds were 125 tomato plants loaded with big, bright red, ripe tomatoes. It looked like there were millions of them! Possibly billions! They certainly outnumbered the stars in the night sky.
I jumped off the tractor, waded into the jungle, picked a tomato, rubbed it against my shirt, then took a big bite. Juice squirted from the tomato, ricocheted off my finger and splashed back onto my face. I could have easily lost an eye, but I didn’t care. I took another bite. Tomato juice and seeds were running down my arm, dripping off the end of my elbow onto my pants. That was the best tomato I ever tasted in my life! I ate the whole thing, dropped the stem and picked another.
Over the next couple weeks, I harvested a steady stream of tomatoes. I was filling paper bags and taking them to all my clients. I gave more to listeners and friends. I stewed and canned tomatoes and juice until I could can no more. I took more tomatoes to clients – some begged me not to bring them anymore tomatoes, asking, “Do you have a note pad or something else I could have?” Just when I thought I had picked them all, more green tomatoes turned red. I couldn’t stop them from growing and I couldn’t give them away fast enough.
Carol Collins ran a restaurant downtown, called the Koffee Kup Café. One day when I stopped in for lunch, Carol asked me about the tomatoes. “I’ve heard they’re really good. Do you have anymore I could buy. I’d like to serve them to my customers.”
“Buy them?” I questioned sarcastically. “No, you cannot buy any. I will GIVE them to you. How many bushels would you like to take off my hands?” We shared a good laugh about that. I took her a heaping bushel basket of tomatoes. She would serve some at the café, and can the rest.
One of Carol’s regular customers was a man named Dennis. Dennis worked for my brother at his gas station, Danny’s Amoco, at the corner of Pennsylvania and Jefferson. It was the only gas station left in town where you could get full service at the pumps. They’d check your oil and wash your windshield plus, they had a two-car garage for repairing tires, doing oil changes and light automotive work. Dennis was the mechanic.
He was a good mechanic; he was also a one-upper, if you know what I mean – as was I. When two men have that same personality trait, things can get competitive. We became rivals when it came to one-upping.
Dennis always liked my dog, Harry, a beautiful collie. “It’s a good thing you have Harry.” He told me often, as he scratched my dog’s ears, “He’s so handsome he can even make someone as ugly as you look good when you stand next to him.” Or, “Harry is so smart, he distracts people so they don’t really know how dumb you are.” It was all in fun, and trust me, I got in more than my share of jabs back at my nemesis.
Frequently Dennis and I were both at a big round table of guys having lunch at the Koffee Kup Café. One day Dennis ordered the lunch special: a hot beef sandwich with mashed potatoes, smothered with beef gravy. “For my two sides why don’t you bring me some cottage cheese and a plate of those sliced homegrown tomatoes.” It was the exact same thing I was having. I looked at Dennis and smiled. Assuming I was about to say something, he made sure he beat me to the punch.
“Your mom stopped into the station today.” He took a bite of food then said, “Her car was a quart low on oil. She said you just checked it yesterday and told her it was fine.” He waved his fork with a piece of tomato on the end of it, “I told her you weren’t smart enough to know which end of the dip stick to look at. But she already knew that.” He put the fork in his mouth and relished the moment as he got a good laugh about that from all the guys around the table. Well, all except me.
Dennis was on a roll. “You know Palen, you’re pretty good at blowing a lot of hot air on the radio, but you should leave difficult jobs like checking the oil on a car, up to someone smarter; a professional like me.” He chewed his food and grinned with satisfaction, drawing yet another round of laughter from everyone, except me.
When Carol walked by Dennis asked her, “Say, would you have anymore of those tomatoes. I swear those were the best tomatoes I’ve ever tasted.” I just smiled at him. Carol went to the kitchen and returned with another serving of bright red tomato slices. She had a hard time keeping a straight face when she handed him the plate. Carol knew of our rivalry. Dennis ate them, rubbed his full belly and said, “Man those are good.” I smiled, then started laughing. He looked at me and asked “What are you laughing about, ya darn fool? Have you got a feather in your underpants or something?”
“I grew those tomatoes, Dennis. They’re from my garden.” I told him. He didn’t believe me.
“There’s no way you grew these, you can’t even grow a moustache. Is that dirt over your lip?” He asked, laughing while reaching for me with his napkin, “Here, let me wipe that smudge off your face.” Everyone laughed about that, except me.
Carol returned to our table handing each person a ticket. She smiled, “I’ve got your lunch today, Tom.” Dennis told Carol, if she had any extra, he’d like to buy a few of those tomatoes to go. Carol said, “Why don’t you ask Tom, they came from his garden.” The whole table shared a good laugh about that…well, except Dennis – he scowled and I smirked with satisfaction. Remember, Dennis is a one-upper and he wasn’t about to upstaged.
“When I used to put in my garden, I grew tomatoes that were a lot bigger than yours.” He said, then shared his secret. “I’d take some cow manure from my pasture and till it into my garden. My tomatoes were so big Palen, they made yours look like cherry tomatoes.” The men all laughed except me. Dennis declared, “and my tomatoes tasted a lot better.”
I interrupted him. “It’s too late Dennis. We all heard you say it.” I began mimicking him, “These are the best tomatoes I’ve ever tasted. Man, these are good. The best I’ve ever had. Oh Carol, could I please get some of these tomatoes to go?” We all laughed, except Dennis. This time I had him and he knew it!
Dennis tried to change the subject. Knowing my dad always had milk cows, he asked if I got manure for my garden from my parents. After Dad had passed away, Mom sold off the cows. “Dennis, I don’t have to go looking for manure, I get all the manure I can handle every time you open your mouth and start talking.” We all shared a good laugh over that, except Dennis.
I was on a roll. “You know Dennis, you might know which end of a dip stick to look at, but when it comes to difficult jobs, like growing tomatoes, or, one-upping someone who is obviously smarter than you, you should leave that to a professional like me. Someone who knows how to blow hot air on the radio.” We all shared a good laugh over that – well everyone except Dennis.
Dennis mumbled something about me not knowing the simple basics of agriculture. “Even Harry knows you gotta fertilize a garden with manure, but your dog has always been smarter than you – better looking too.” He said, drawing another round of laughter from the all the guys, except me.
“Dennis…” I squinted my eyes and leaned in as I addressed him. He and the guys were waiting to hear what was coming next, but I honestly forgot what I was going to say so I said softly, “My dog pee’d in that garden every day – right by the tomato plants.” All the guys laughed, even Dennis – he always did like Harry.
I miss Dennis; the rivalry and the fun we had trying to one-up each other. I’ve never met a man named Dennis, that I didn’t like – even one who is an undercover spy, who isn’t really a spy and whose real name isn’t Dennis, it’s Denise – and he’s a girl.
a broadcaster, pilot, writer, and our Guest Columnist!