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An Important Man   copyright 1998, Rick Kamen based on stories by Jack Kamen

   
Only important men had telephones in the 1910s. Even though my father didn't want it at first, he had one in his harness shop.

"Why do I need a phone?" he asked Mr. Miller, the foundation contractor. "I have plenty of work as it is."

"Every time a harness breaks I have to send a worker to get you," complained Mr. Miller. "He makes twenty cents an hour. It would be cheaper for me to pay for your telephone."

Mr. Miller's company dug a lot of foundations, and broke a lot of harness*. His two-horse teams strained as they pulled heavily loaded carts up steep dirt ramps. It was expensive when a harness broke because workers were idled. My father was the only harnessmaker Mr. Miller allowed to repair his harness.

When my father repaired a harness, it never broke in the same spot again. But more important, it remained soft and flexible so it wouldn't hurt the horses. How did he do it? No one knows. If you wanted the best harness or repair, you had to go to my father.

My father thought Mr. Miller was joking when he threatened to pay for our phone. But two weeks later, a New York Telephone truck arrived. Although my father allowed the workman to install the phone, he didn't let Mr. Miller pay for it.

At that time, we had the only phone in the neighborhood. Why? Because my father was an important man.

Most companies had replaced their horses with trucks by the late 1930s. My father kept the same customers, but switched from harness to canvas products. It was such a good business that I left my job as a pharmacist to work with him...for most of the year.

I spent the winters in Miami. Doctor's orders. Before antibiotics, the best treatment for my chronic sinus infection was a warm climate. I miss that old-time medicine.

During my first winter in Miami, I met J.L. Simon, a real estate developer. When a company planned to build a factory, J.L. knew workers would be looking for housing soon. So he bought land nearby and built hundreds of homes to sell or rent to them.

J.L. had a big Dodge and liked the way I drove. He asked me to drive him back north in March of 1936. As we approached Washington, J.L. said "Let's go to the White House."

So I got off the highway and drove towards the President's mansion. When we got close, J.L. said "Now drive around back." Then "O.K., park and follow me."

As we walked into the White House, he waved at the guards. They greeted him by name. I knew J.L. was involved in politics, but I had no idea he was friends with the President. We went to the oval office, but F.D.R. was out.

J.L. motioned to the desk and said "Why don't you sit in his chair?" So I did. I sat in the chair of the most powerful man on earth.

The most surprising thing about sitting in the President's chair was that I wasn't impressed. The sky didn't open, the earth didn't shake, and there was no thunder. This was just a chair and F.D.R. was just a man.

But my father, he was an important man.

 

* We used the word "harness" as its own plural. The dictionary doesn't agree with us, but who are you going to believe? The Harnessmaker's Son knows what he's talking about.

 

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