Public Finance — Two on One: a John Dunn story

Like Dickens’ “Tale of Two Cities” the tale of two Charlies of Almonte echoes “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct, the other way.” When the curtain lifted in Almonte, there, on the stage were Charlie Baker and Charlie Finner and, unseen behind a screen with “Ontario Hydro” on it, a dark lady.  Heaven protect us!

Charlie Baker had won election to the office of Mayor of the Corporation, chairman and leader of the town Council.  Council, however, wasn’t the only elected body in town.  The Public Utilities Commission comprised elected commissioners too. Commission and Council operated in their own distinctively separate spheres.  The PUC handled electricity.  That’s all.  All other problem areas belonged to the Mayor and Council of the Corporation of the Municipality of the Town of Almonte, to give it its full pedigree.

The Mayor, however, never could conceal his affection for Almonte; its every little wrinkle, including the PUC, held the Mayor’s attention.  Born and brought up on “The Island”, even as a little tad the mysterious PUC power house was his next-door neighbour; he knew its exterior and interior, its workmen, all its exterior wrinkles, but nothing of its inner doings.

A few months after the election, that interest drew Charlie to attend the regular monthly meeting of the PUC, as a visitor.

He had been in the Air Force during the war, in Ceylon, surrounded by the wreckage of war and scrubbed by the Indian Ocean.  Out of the wastage of war he went into civilian life and became a master of recyclable metals.  His services were greatly in demand at Findlay Foundries of Carleton Place, Beach Industries in Smiths Falls, and by several enterprises in the city who had barrels and barrels of lathe turnings they wanted disposed of.  So, his appearance at a PUC meeting got classified as holiday time.

Four Commissioners, all locals, born and raised in Almonte, sat at the table: Jim Newton, lawyer, not yet elevated to the bench, Charlie Finner, Jack Virgin, Bill Gomme.  Anchored alongside the ship of state’s electric boardroom were Johnny Lyons, operations manager, and Delmer Johnston, office superintendent.  Everyone present and correct, sir!

Meeting opened with Item l on the agenda, the financial report. Bank statement shows we have $1100.00   Whew!  Collectively, as if the aircraft they were flying in had run smack into a violent downdraft, the Commissioners’ jaws dropped wide open, and they gulped air.

Holy cow! $1100.00!

For two years Johnny Lyons had been urging the need for a line truck with hoist to elevate line crew in a bucket to overhead wires, a truck that had neat little compartments to hold special tools that linemen use, insulated gloves, rubber boots and that sort of thing.  He pointed out that Honey (that’s Frank Honeyborne), was no longer that stalwart young defenceman whose name rang the chimes on the great Almonte hockey team that won the championship of the Upper Ottawa Valley Hockey League in 1931 and 32.  Honey couldn’t go on forever climbing poles in leg-irons, with strap-on crampons.  Perhaps you don’t know it because you don’t see it, but it’s a fact that occasionally one of those grippers slips, and look out!  Down the pole your lineman tumbles, dragging safety harness and belt, while forty thousand nails, brads, thumb tacks and staples from old Auction Sale signs go tearing and ripping , ripping and tearing at his vitals.  Holy cow, you just try that!

Holy cow, indeed.  Commissioners had hoped, somehow, to accumulate money to buy a truck.  But look, with a bank balance of $1100.00 you don’t need a chartered accountant to tell you that your line truck is just out of reach.  Of course if you want to be quick about bankrupting the PUC, go for a debenture.  Anyway, as the Mayor knows, the corporation would have to back the debenture, and Council ain’t likely to do that for the PUC when they’ve probably got a dozen other priorities to wrassle with.

“How much for one of them, what you call, ‘line trucks’?”

“With hoist, chains, radio and running gear, you’re lookin’ at $30,000.”

“And I suppose Ontario Hydro is right up to date, they use that kind of rig for linemen?”

“That’s right.”

“As you can see from the financial report, the PUC’s in some big pickle.”

“So what do we do?  Raise the rates for kilowatts?”

“Can’t do that.  We generate half of our power needs and we buy the rest each month from Hydro.  They set the rates.  We got no authority over rates — we got to take the rates they tell us: that’s part of Hydro’s grip on Ontario.”

“Any corporation the size of Ontario Hydro would work from a corporate plan, — the lawyer tongue spoke — and they’d  turn over their line trucks every four or five years and buy new equipment. Wouldn’t they?”

“That’s right, they do.”  So saith the line superintendent cum operations manager, Johnny Lyons.

“Then, what do they do with the old ones?”

Johnny continued. “They’ve got a storage yard, west of Toronto.  A place called Islington, if I’m right.  Someone told me he’d seen as many as 200 line trucks there, some of them used very little, just sittin’ in storage, ‘cause, well, they turn ‘em over every five years.”

“How could we get our hands on one of them?”

“That’s our mystery question.  You all know our bank statement: we’ve got $1100.   Holy cow!  But, if there’s one person in the Province of Ontario with an answer to that query, it’s our Mayor. Charlie, you’ve heard the discussion, you see the difficulty we’re in.  I wonder if you’d have any reason to go to Toronto, and if so, if you take a few hours, find your way to Islington, using your good judgment, and enquire about how one could get one of these line trucks out of Hydro’s storage.”

The question loosened the string of the Mayor’s tongue. “I’ve no immediate call to go near the big TO, and I didn’t expect to get involved in your PUC affairs.  But…,”  the Mayor’s head lowered, and he paused, thinking hard, of every little thing about Almonte, and the danger that its people might have to sit freezing in the dark.

“Explore the possibilities,” the notion ballooned out, “Who knows, times being what they are, we might be in for a stroke of good fortune.  Besides, one of the commissioners might be able to shake free for a day to go along with you and lend a hand if you should discover something.”

Charlie Finner allowed as how the sawing machine was in storage. He could get away, if the Mayor had wheels.

The second Charlie underlined local content in the captain and first mate team shaping up for the expedition.  Charlie Finner, one of the blacksmith shop family, had become loader for Roy Nontell’s sawing machine.  The sleigh carried a one-lung gasoline engine with an eight-inch wide belt transmitting power to the cradle for the whirling razor-sharp teeth of the circular saw.

Music lay in the Finner family too.  Everyone had it.  It came out, natural as breathing, rhythm in the fiddle, chords on the piano, “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”, and “The Arkansas Traveler” and even exploratory fingering on that new contraption, the saxophone.  Rhythm sprang out of the cradle of the sawing machine, from the hammer on the anvil, and clip-clop of horses’ iron-shod hooves carrying the melody of life on Almonte streets. Charlie Finner got started on the fiddle, until one day, when the third finger of his left hand strayed one degree off course, and behold, emptiness appeared in place of middle digit.  Charlie looked down at the fingering hand for the fiddle, the middle digit suddenly missing in action.

He didn’t blame the sawing machine.  He did, though, wrestle with the critical adjustment that had just loomed up in his music.  He abandoned bowing and scraping on catgut.  He became caller for squares!  He’d take a day off too if, out of good will towards the PUC, the other Charlie could look to the wheels.

They reached Belleville on Friday morning and stopped at a restaurant for coffee.  There, by the banks of the Moira river the twa’ Charlies realized that they were about to invade territory where the name Hydro was uttered in awe of the monster.   Like Julius Caesar on the bank of the Rubicon, they trembled at the prospect, but, fortified with coffee they listened to a news broadcast on the restaurant’s radio.  The announcer’s script fell on the ears of the Twa Charlies like the consolation of the last rites to the dying: Ontario Hydro, the announcer declared, had accumulated a debt that now reached the staggering sum of eleven billion dollars!

“Aren’t those figures wonderful!  Hydro must be near belly-up in the water, bankrupt all the way through?” observed Charlie, the Mayor.

“Holy cow!” uttered Charlie the caller, “And our PUC’s in some pickle, with only eleven hundred in the bank.  It don’t seem just right, us worrying about eleven hundred, and them happy as clams with a debt of eleven billion.”

Press on, they did however.  The Two Charlies entered territory that could prove hostile any moment, and in the latter half of the afternoon they came unto the gates of the big TO.  An unsuspecting clerk in the information office of the monster revealed to them the secret hiding place of line trucks, two hundred in number, in a village with a sign that said Islington.

At Islington they discovered another gate, already open, and, on passing through, they found themselves on a pathway that led to an office structure through lane after lane with neatly-parked vehicles with dual wheels on the rear, radiators in front, hoists neatly subdued for safety’s sake, compartments on the sides for the special tools that linemen use, and air in the tires.

They stopped at the office and ventured in.

A scowl from behind a desk invited them to retreat, but PUC urgency grabbed at their ankles and held on.

As if by instinct whenever he found himself in a crowd of two or more, words came sprinkling from the Mayor’s tongue which he liked to use to work up a lather on the inside air.  Confucius would have recognized in him ‘The Superior Man’.  “Ah, sir,” the Mayor addressed the scowl, “My friend and I have come here from a little town in the Far East, a friendly little community named Almonte. We’re wonderin’ if any of those line trucks in your yard might be for sale.”

“Everythin’s for sale — if the price is right,” declared hard-nosed Hydro.

“Ah, well,” continued the Mayor, “Perhaps I should tell you that our little town is not in the international money markets that seem to be the haunt of latter-day Oliver Mowats of Ontario Hydro.”

His caution made no dent, nor even a scratch on the flintstone in the chair.  Charlie resolved to keep his tinder dry, however, for a later assault.  “Everything’s for sale,” repeated the mayor. “Would you mind if we had a look at whatever line trucks might fall into that category?”

“Harvey”, Flintstone called out peremptorily and a body appeared from behind the curtain.

“Take these gents out to look at trucks.”

With the Hydro slave in the lead, the Two Charlies followed until the guide stopped before a line truck, the same as a hundred and ninety-nine others in the lot.  The Mayor held back.  The PUC asserted itself.  Charlie Finner walked in front of a flat-nosed radiator, went to the rear, looked at a hoist with all its running gear and no rust, crept along the other side, kicked the dual wheels and found them airtight, climbed up on the running board and looked inside the cab.  Everything fitted the description of “line truck, linesmen, for the use of…”

“Sound in wind and limb”, came an assessment from the son of the blacksmith.

“No heaves, spavined joints, no hoof and mouth disease?”

“None.  Is this the only one that’s for sale?”

“No,” broke in the Hydro slave, “There’s another one six down this lane.”

The same assessment came the second time from Charlie the caller, except that he kicked all tires, front and rear, and found no heaves, no spavined joints, no rust in the hoist, and a perfectly clear look in the eyes, like the unclouded look in a black bass taken below the falls in the river.

Value on wheels, fully up to Johnny Lyons’ expectations, and ready to go to work.

They thanked Hydro’s herald and returned to the office.  Realizing that this next half-hour would bring the nut to the cracker, the rubber to the asphalt, the negotiating to a climax, Charlie, the caller, ventured that he would be speechless in this mode, and present only to back-up the Mayor.

“Thanks for the chance to look at the vehicles.” the Mayor opened before Flintstone, noticing that the hour on the wall clock behind the man’s desk said 4.00 p.m.  The man would shortly be packing up to return home, thought the Mayor.  Got to be careful not to antagonize the creature more than he is by nature.

“Am I right that these vehicles we’ve looked at are for sale?”

“They are.”

“Have you fixed a price for them?”

“Market value.” growled Hydro.

“Yeah,” said the Mayor.  “We’re from a little town in the Far East, you know, we don’t play with big bucks.”

Flintstone didn’t even look up from his desk.  He wasn’t interested in benevolence, decided Charles the Mayor.  Mr. Mayor reverted to his natural role of recycled metals master; his calculating mind went into overdrive; he saw two hundred line trucks in the yard as hulks, waiting for the breakers to come in and smash them to pieces.

“Could I put a figure in front of you for consideration?” asked the Mayor.

Charlie Finner froze in his boots.  The stone face behind the desk, thought Charlie, must have been left in the freezer too long: it was showing signs of freezer burn.

“What’s your figure?” demanded stone face.

“Well, looking at the vehicle from our point of view, it would mean, as you can see, paying good money for merchandise, like, buying a pig in a poke, as they say in the Ottawa Valley.”

“That’s no business with Hydro,” said Flintstone.

“Well, if you could see your way to considering an offer of, say, well, since the vehicles are sitting out in all this Toronto smog, and not being taken out for a walk the way a spaniel needs, well, say if I offered, say, four hundred….”  Charlie paused to get a glimmer of interest from the man, then he continued “I mean, four hundred and fifty dollars.”

Charlie Finner gasped.  Holy cow!   Could the Mayor be serious? Or could he have slipped off the trolley?  Four hundred and fifty bucks for a line truck!  That vehicle ain’t a piece of junk.

A moment comes in all negotiations involving higher finance when you must calculate your offer’s effect on the other party.  No need for the Twa’ Charlies to examine the entrails of a chicken to get a sign from fate.  The signs in front of them boded little good for Almonte: Flintstone turned purple with apoplexy; he clenched his fists; he exhaled vigorously, as if about to chew off the end of his desk.  “Stay right there!” he growled, and made as if to get up, nursing his anger, to go behind the curtain.

Seeing apoplexy mounting, and knowing there’s nothing like apoplexy to bring seething water to a boil, Charlie cranked the dial, gave it one more twist: “ Oh, by the way,” says he, “That’s four hundred and fifty for the two.  The two vehicles we looked at.”

Flintstone, grimacing, disappeared behind the curtain presumably to speak with a dark lady.   There’s always a dark lady in negotiations of higher finance: like in basketball, the situation’s called two on one.  The Two Charlies waited, counting sheep in Islington for two and one-half minutes.   Flintstone returned.

“Gimme your cheque,” he blurted.  “But don’t you gents come back here with the nerve of a plough horse and ask for our men to start those trucks, crank engines, or even show you the way to the men’s room.  You bring your own crew, and that’s that.  Now get outa here.  I’m puttin’ a lock on that gate before the real thieves walk in.”

On Monday two of the PUC men arrived at the Islington gate, accepted the keys to two line trucks and drove them, uneventfully, to Almonte.

To the surprise of onlookers on local happenings at the pool-room corner — specialists in that line of work — two line trucks appeared on Mill Street, the first ever seen in Almonte, and the sight roused instant speculation amongst the artists of cue and ballistics.  “PUC’s come up to the minute: a brand new line truck, even got a hoist on it.”

“Heh!  You crazy?  They ain’t got just one: they broke the piggy bank, they got two!  Holy cow!  Business must be good in the electrics these days.”

John Dunn
12 Jan 02