Episode 26 From Hubbard, Wisconsin. “Ralph the Trailer Skirter”

Ralph Harnack is now 58 years old. He’s worked at the Hubbard Foundry for nearly 35 years and he and Betty have resided in their modest, yet well-maintained home on Hubbard’s east side for 33 years. Sometimes when Betty writes a check to pay for merchandise at local stores a young clerk will say, “Is all of the information on your check current?” Betty loves to reply, “Yes, Dear, since before you were born!” The Harnacks have raised their two sons on the east end and their work ethic and dependability have allowed them to live a good life. They’re not rich, but they don’t want for the necessities of life. They don’t have any debt or financial worries. This is a far cry from the first four years of their marriage when he and Betty resided in a beat-up mobile home at the Hubbard trailer park.

These were the days before Ralph got his job at the foundry. He worked as a delivery man at the local furniture store making a whopping $2.05 per hour. His wife Betty made the minimum wage of $1.25 per hour working as a sales clerk in the cosmetics department at Hubbard Rexall Drugs. Sometimes the lipstick company would authorize the stores to discard dated merchandise and the boss would give unused lipsticks to Betty. She would sell them to the women that lived in the trailer court for fifty-cents a piece and she and Ralph would splurge on dinner and a movie. Ralph picked up extra cash skirting mobile homes at the park. For those of you who are not well-versed in mobile home terminology, skirting is the metal that goes between the bottom of the trailer and the ground, keeping wind and creatures out! Whenever a new trailer was hauled into the park, Ralph would bang on the door and ask the owner if he needed someone to skirt the home. Because he charged only $120, complete with materials and labor, Ralph usually got the job. It was when Ralph was in this strange side-business of skirting mobile homes that he first met Vaughn Campbell.

Vaughn and his wife had recently purchased a mobile home which was blocked and leveled when Ralph knocked on the door. After a brief discussion Vaughn and Ralph agreed on a price to skirt the home. The next day was a Saturday and Ralph told Vaughn he would begin at first light and have Vaughn’s trailer skirted by sundown. Vaughn had just been accepted to graduate school at Hubbard State University, pursuing a Ph.D. in biochemistry. However, as a condition of his admittance he was taking a series of three difficult exams to give the university a “baseline” of his accumulated chemistry knowledge. The next day, when Vaughn’s last exam was completed and graded, his professors told him that he had some “substantial knowledge gaps” that would have to be compensated for, should he “choose to go through with the Ph.D. program” in biochemistry. Vaughn was tremendously discouraged, even distraught. As he headed back to the trailer park he decided not to proceed with his Ph.D. program. He would go back to the lot where had purchased his mobile home and figure out a way to get his money back.

There was only one problem. By the time Vaughn pulled his car into the parking space next to his mobile home, there appeared Ralph Harnack from around the corner with a big smile on his face. “How do you like the job, Vaughn? Ralph said. “Ain’t it beautiful?” “No”, said Vaughn. “I’ve got to take this thing back to the dealer.” That’s when Ralph said to Vaughn, “Heck, Vaughn, you can’t take it back now. It’s skirted to the ground. It’s kind of a permanent structure now. You’re stuck now; the dealer won’t take it back now that it’s skirted in.” Vaughn was at the end of his rope. He didn’t know what to do. He had secured a loan for the mobile home and had paid his lot rent already; then there was this grubby Ralph Harnack guy who had bolted the damn thing to the ground! After stewing about his predicament over the weekend Vaughn decided to give it a try and stay in the Ph.D. program after all. “I’d be out of here if that Harnack guy had waited another day to skirt the trailer”, he thought.

Six months after Vaughn’s trailer had been skirted Ralph and Betty bought their little home on the east side of town and left the trailer park for good. Vaughn and his wife lived in their mobile home for the next four years and he was awarded his Ph.D. in biochemistry from Hubbard State University. Soon afterwards Vaughn and his wife moved to New York where he began his career doing research on new genetic variations of food crops. Over the next thirty years both men went their separate ways; Ralph labored as a common foundry worker while Vaughn became internationally famous as one of the world’s outstanding biochemists. As Ralph walked home on snowy winter evenings, lunchbox in hand, covered with foundry grime, Vaughn presented his brilliant research findings in places like Rome and London as he developed new plant varieties that literally saved millions from starvation. While Vaughn never informed Ralph about the specifics of his job, strangely both men exchanged Christmas cards over the years, keeping track of the births of their children and other important family matters.

Two months ago Ralph and Betty received a wedding invitation from New York. Vaughn’s youngest daughter was getting married and Ralph and Betty were invited. Tucked into the invitation were two round-trip airplane tickets from Madison to New York. “Gosh, I guess Vaughn really wants us to be there!” said Betty. They attended the wedding. Despite the fact that nearly everyone in attendance was some sort of famous scientist or research expert, Vaughn and his wife went out of the way to make Betty and Ralph feel at home. During the reception Vaughn and his wife sat and talked with Ralph and Betty nearly the entire evening. After arriving back in Hubbard Betty and Ralph pondered why an important guy like Vaughn would even invite them to the wedding, let alone spend so much time with them. As Vaughn retired for the evening after witnessing the marriage of his daughter, he reflected on his long and fruitful career. He thought about his wonderful family, and he was genuinely honored that Betty and Ralph came to the wedding. Vaughn had come to realize what few people ever know; that in the huge continuum of time and space the lives of two people can cross but for an instant and that can make all the difference! After all, thought Vaughn, if that common foundry worker in Hubbard, Wisconsin hadn’t skirted in that trailer on exactly that particular day, thousands may have starved. The world would indeed have been a different place.

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