It was a friend who noticed my car was clean. The silver exterior shone like a new nickel. The little Ford Focus had never been washed, except by rain, since I drove it off the lot two years ago.
Earlier in the day, I had driven to the closest town with a service station to get my oil changed. Not only did family-owned Dieker Oil in Cottonwood Falls change the oil, they found and removed a nail from a tire — even though I hadn’t mentioned that one tire kept losing air — and repaired the hole, all for less than I pay for an oil change in Kansas City.
But happiness turned to embarrassment that I hadn’t thanked the mechanic — whom I had met at a nearby roadhouse where he plays drums in a local rock-’n’-roll band — for washing the car when I thanked him for fixing the tire. When I called Dieker to rectify the situation, the woman at the counter sounded mystified. “We do that with any service as a courtesy.”
I shouldn’t have been surprised; Dieker still pumps gas the old-fashioned way, too. I’m happy to pay a few cents more per gallon to be able to stay in my car on frigid days and not get gas smell on my clothes.
That was only the most recent in a string of pleasant surprises with service in small-town America.
The first time I went to the hardware store, Clark’s Farm & Home in Strong City, I piled up nearly $200 worth of copper plumbing fittings and parts on the worn wooden counter. The owner recorded each item in cursive on an old-fashioned carbon-paper receipt book and offered to put the total on my “account” without asking me for ID or a phone number.
Startled, I told him I preferred to pay cash. “We take that, too,” he said. “But sometimes you get into a project that takes more money than you have lying in the drawer.”
I’ve learned to carry cash because most businesses in the small towns near me don’t take credit cards. They all take checks, though, even restaurants. Once at Reyer’s Country Store in Strong City, where I buy bird seed and barn-cat food in bulk, I realized I forgot my checkbook; they let me leave with $50 worth of feed and a promise to drop a check by later.
At Strong City Grocery Store, the teenage clerks start carrying sacks of groceries out to my car before the cashier is even done ringing them up. The first time, the girl returned with a puzzled look to tell me my car was locked — a city-slicker mistake. It took several times of trying to tip the kids who loaded the sacks into my car to learn that they would not take the money. They were polite but firm in turning it down. “We do that for everyone,” one girl said. Another time a young man said, “Thanks, but I don’t need that.”
I have always found, in the city and the country, that mom-and-pop businesses are much more competitive in price than you might think, especially when you throw in the no-charge extras.
S & S Oil and Propane is a larger company out of Emporia that also goes the extra mile. The first time they came to fill my tank, they noticed the blocks it was sitting on had sunk, leaving the bottom of the tank resting on the ground. They brought out a big truck, lifted the tank up and set it on new blocks for free, even though they aren’t responsible for it.
Unlike in Kansas City, I know the UPS guy in my town by name. We have an agreement that if I’m expecting a package and not home, I leave the kitchen door unlocked and he puts my stuff inside.
My one-man lawn care service has a name that wins the prize for truth in advertising: Better Late Than Never. You never know for sure when he’s going to show up, but just when the grass starts tickling your ankles, his truck and trailer come rumbling down the road.
Another great thing about living in a farming/ranching community is your neighbors have all kinds of big-boy machines and will help with excavating, grading and deep snow clearing for a modest sum and a glass of cold tea.
There are also a few teens in town who happily and competently do odd jobs. When word got out that I needed eight large, deep holes dug for planting fruit trees, a 15-year-old from down the street came driving up in his pickup truck with a rifle on the front seat, asked me to show him where I wanted the holes, and set to digging. He was done two hours later and asked for $14, but I gave him more.
But of all the great old-fashioned service experiences I’ve encountered in my corner of rural Kansas, my favorite is a couple in their late 80s and early 90s who still farm and keep a refrigerator full of fresh eggs in their unlocked detached garage. You drive out to their farm just past the cemetery on the outskirts of town, let yourself into the garage, take your cartons of eggs and drop the money ($1.50 per dozen) in a rusty coffee can. They reuse egg cartons that customers bring back, so it’s a zero-waste operation as well as the best orange-yolked farm eggs around.