I was out of town, supposedly relaxing in comfort, but that wasn’t the case.
My home away from home had been sweltering for two days. A broken air conditioner is no fun in South Georgia, even in a relatively mild spring. Calls for repair had been met with vague promises of “maybe later today” at best — and that was two days earlier.
A friend offered a name and phone number. Prompt response. Reliable service, she said. The call was made.
Two hours later, a young man who looked about 17 pulled up in his truck. Neat and crisp in his work uniform with his name, Joey, and the company logo on the breast, he reached for his toolbox and quickly set to work. I exhausted my expertise after pointing to the silent heat pump hidden behind some shrubs, then stood idly by as the cheerful young man attached his gauges and diagnosed the problem.
As he worked, he talked.
Pride in his job was obvious. Joey described the age of the decaying air conditioner, compared it favorably to other brands, and then said that “another year or two” would be all that could reasonably be expected from the obsolete apparatus. “The newer models are a lot more efficient,” he stated, reeling off numbers representing how much easier a 2007 heat pump can cool your indoors. “But all we need here today,” he said with something of a flourish and a soothing tone, “is to replace this little capacitor.” Five minutes later the job was done, the air conditioner was roaring away and sweet, cool air was again flowing.
As we stood inside, the genial and polite young man answered my questions. No, he hadn’t gone to school to learn this trade. He’d started working with a family friend at the age of 13. Today, in his mid-20s, he’s proficient in his calling and eager to please.
Joey’s personality and manners serve him well. That, and relief at the thought of sleeping without sweat, made me accepting of the fact that a ten minute repair with a five dollar part was “only” going to cost about $80 once the minimum service fee is added.
Everyone has to make a profit.
He busied himself next with filling out the job ticket and the requisite bill. I was just about to ask this young man if he had plans to start his own company? Was he making plans to take his expertise and obvious talent in dealing with the public, and becoming the next example of the American success story?
Then he paused and got a funny look on his face.
“I’ve got to go back to my truck for a minute,” Joey said with a frown. “I forgot to bring in my calculator.”
No problem, I quickly replied. I have one here somewhere.
As I rummaged through a drawer, it dawned on me why he needed a calculator. Gently, I asked the question.
“Well, I can’t seem to find it right now. What are you needing to figure on the calculator?”
“I have to be sure to include the sales tax and it’s six percent on five dollars.”
It was then I understood. This otherwise bright and personable young man, loaded with talent and years of on-the-job training, didn’t have enough education to multiply .06 times five dollars to come up with 30 cents in sales tax.
When had it happened? Was it at home, as a toddler, where his parents didn’t take time to read to him as a child? Did Joey’s failure to learn come later as he was distracted by teen hormones and other influences? Did he make the mistake of thinking that just learning a trade, being able to repair an air conditioner would be enough to move him successfully through life?
I don’t know any of those answers.
I just know that here in South Georgia, somewhere in a crisp work shirt and a pickup truck, rides a young man who, but for lack of a basic education, has all the potential for success in life.
I’m hoping he can overcome what he doesn’t have.
And I wish it didn’t have to be that way.
Robert M. Williams Jr. is an Effingham County native and publishes newspapers in Blackshear, Alma, Ocilla and McRae. His commentaries can also be heard on Georgia Public Radio.