My six-year-old grandboy, Brendan, was in the vestibule of the diner when the bubblegum machine caught his attention. It was one of those spiral models that appeared in t...
Hello, old friend. I’m writing today to say thanks, and to say farewell. This will be my last column. I’ve been talking with you since 1987, through Plumbing & Mechanical and many other fine magazines throughout the U.S. and Canada. Thirty-six years is a long time and we have been to many places together.
I’m retiring because The Lovely Marianne, my wife of 50 years, went to Heaven last year and my thoughts are now constantly of her and all that we did together. And there are daughters, and their good husbands, and my grandkids here in Maryland, where I moved when Marianne left us. There is love here in Maryland, and that is what I need right now.
In 1988, she and I realized that our four daughters would all be in college together in 2000, if life went the way we hoped it would go. Marianne had not had a paying job since Kelly, our eldest, was born in 1978. I was working for a manufacturers’ rep then, and not making the sort of money we would need to educate those young women.
We had a mortgage and four daughters in Catholic school. Our savings account held just $5,000. That’s it. Perhaps you know what that’s like.
“What would you do if you were in my position?” I asked the man who owned the company. “I want for my family what you wanted for yours.”
“I’d quit,” he said. “Nothing is going to happen for you unless you’re willing to take a chance, Dan.”
“Suppose I quit my job,” I said to Marianne that evening.
“And do what?”
“I can write, and I can give talks.”
“Okay,” she said, just like that. “I’ll take care of the finances. You go tell stories. I believe in us.”
Can you see why I loved her so much?
We needed to buy a used van so I could do seminars. We also had to buy a van-load of A/V equipment, a Leading Edge computer, a printer, and a fax machine. All of that cost $6,000. We tapped out our bank account and my father lent us the $1,000 difference. We were scared, but also exhilarated. Anything seemed possible that day, and in all the days that followed.
“What will you write?” Marianne asked.
“The magazine columns, of course,” I said. “My dear reader (that’s you) will be there for us, and I want to write books. The first one will be about steam. I’m calling it The Lost Art of Steam Heating."
“That’s a nice title,” she said. “How long will it take to write that book?”
“Probably about six months,” I said. “I’ll dedicate it to you.”
There’s a photo of her at the front end of that book. She’s dressed like a Victorian lady. We had that photo taken on a perfect day in Cape May and she was beautiful. The caption reads, "For The Lovely Marianne."
So I began to research and write and go down the rabbit hole that steam was before the internet arrived. My six-month prediction stretched into three years, and you were there for every bit of that time.
More than a thousand columns and dozens of books ago, when I sat down at my manual typewriter, to tell those first stories, I looked up and saw you sitting there on the other side of my desk. We smiled at each other and I began to type. I talked only to you because it was always just you and me in that room. Just us.
I wanted to tell you what I had learned from a Dead Man in an old, yellowed book, or the funny thing that happened on that job I visited with a contractor last week, or last year. Time didn’t matter. All that mattered was that you were there, and always willing to listen. You are my dear reader, and the reader is more important than the writer. I’ve known that from the start. The writer already knows what he or she is writing about. The reader is the one that is going to retell the writer’s stories, and in that way the stories will live on.
You were a young man back then at the start, just like me, but you had the power to put on years instantly. You could become one of the Dead Men from my old books, carefully paying attention to what I was typing because getting it right mattered. You taught me that. You made me appreciate that others were going to read my words when I, too, was a Dead Man. I had to get it right.
On some days, when I sat at my desk and looked toward your chair I saw you had become a woman working in the trades. Or you were the wife of a tradesmen, handling the books for your business, as Marianne was doing for ours. Your husband got the magazine and he showed you a column I wrote about my wife, or my children, or about what his life was like when he was out working hard, with you always on his mind. He thought you would like the stories I was telling. And you did!
Your shape-shifting delighted and amazed me over the years, and as I considered your life and your needs I found myself becoming kinder and more patient because we all have to begin somewhere, and we are all so fragile.
Seasons came and went like dealt cards; and because you kept showing up at my desk as I wrote column after column, book after book, people far and wide began to invite me to their cities and towns to speak about hydronics, and the people who make hydronics happen. And in that way, The Lovely Marianne and I made a living, and we put those four girls through college.
Marianne got to travel with me to many of those places, as far away as Hawaii and as fancy as France, and we made new friends everywhere we went because she was always the best part of me. She knew how to love everyone.
I was working on the book I called How Come? It was a Q&A book about older hydronic systems. It was to be my tribute to those who wrote the early Audel books and R.M. Starbuck himself. Those books offered straightforward answers to direct questions asked and answered a hundred years ago.
Marianne opened the mail one day and said, “This guy sent a check for $20 for your book, Pumping Away. Did you write a book called Pumping Away that I don’t know about?"
“No, I didn’t,” I said. “But if I ever do, I’m going to use that title. It sings!”
“You’d better write it fast,” she said. “We need this twenty bucks and I’m not sending this guy’s check back.”
So here’s what I did: I took part of the evolving How Come? book - the part that had to do with the location of circulators and compression tanks - and I rewrote it in prose, rather than as a Q&A. I added some stories to flesh it out and took it to our printer.
“Can you make a book of this?” I said. “I need it in a hurry.”
He looked at my file and said it was going to be a mighty skinny book.
“What can you do to help?” I said. “Well, I can bump up the size of the font and enlarge the drawings. That should get us there.”
That book paid for our four daughters' weddings, and then some. And my favorite part happened when people told me they loved that book because it was so easy to read. “My eyes aren’t that good,” they’d say. “I just love that large font!”
Isn’t that a delicious story?
She is gone. I ache for her, but I am joyful for what we had, and for what we accomplished together. My work is done now, old friend, so farewell, and thanks. I will love you forever.
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