The Buck Stops Here: Stories of favorite customers have a familiar ring

Most writers shy away from rereading a piece once it’s been submitted for publication, and I am no exception to this rule. There are a number of reasons for this, primarily because of our “inner critic,” for it is a rare scribe who can peruse their printed words and not cringe at a sentence, word choice or phrase without some angst. That being said, I recently scanned the titles of my previous columns and noticed a common theme – I gripe a lot. So I promise to make this article different.

I decided to write about some of my favorite clients, but this proved more arduous than originally planned. Some are regulars who I thank the heavens for every night because they ensure our livelihood. Others are just plain fun, and, who over the years, have become more friend than customer. Then there are a few more who stand out for other reasons.

One such client and notable event happened two summers ago. A couple came in who had obviously been together a while, and because of their ages, I assumed their relationship was a second go-round for both of them. They had no interest in our Civil War memorabilia but made a beeline for the jewelry cases. I smelled a diamond ring sale.

After trying on just about every diamond in stock, they settled on one. It was obvious to me that they had discussed making this purchase before walking into the store, taking away any element of surprise.

After swiping the credit card, I handed the ring, now sitting in the appropriate black velvet box, to the woman because she had used her card to make the purchase. The boyfriend took the box out of her hand, however, saying he’d hold on to it. We continued to casually chat while the boyfriend started to visibly sweat. Moisture dripped down his temples as if he’d just run a marathon. Oh no, I thought, he’s having second thoughts about the ring purchase.

All of a sudden, sweaty Eddie dropped down on one knee, held the box out in the palm of his hand and asked his beloved to marry him, right in front of me and about a dozen onlookers. I’m not sure who was more shocked, the future bride or the poor guy teetering on one knee, but she burst into tears, he slipped the ring on her finger and bystanders broke out in applause.
I’ll remember that forever.

Then there was the couple who came in this past spring. While they were browsing, her cell phone rang and she stepped outside to continue her conversation.

He looked around at all the historical military memorabilia, which got him reminiscing about his 20 years in the Air Force. After leaving the service, he shared with me that he didn’t have a purpose and fell on hard times, drinking too much and working too little. He credited his wonderful woman with bringing him back from the brink of self-destruction.

She entered the store just then and perused the jewelry, falling in love with one of my best pieces, an emerald and ruby ring hallmarked 1860, a true Civil War-dated engagement ring. He watched while she admired the ring and then hand it back to me, claiming there was no way she could ever afford it.

He then excused himself saying he needed to retrieve his cell phone from the car. With love shining from her eyes, she started talking about him, about what a true hero he was. Thinking she was referring to an event that happened during his time in the Air Force, she immediately corrected me.

“No,” she said. “He saved two boys from a fire when he was only 15 years old, sustaining burns over 80 percent of his body.” She shared how he almost lost his leg to gangrene, how he endured more than 40 skin grafts to repair the burn damage and other horrific details. She explained what a dear price he paid for that split-second decision, one that he told her he never regretted because those two toddlers grew up to be happy and healthy men.

But that one moment in time cost him suffering not just from the burns and subsequent surgeries, but by falling behind in school, failing to earn his high school diploma, losing touch with his friends and other life events normal teenagers enjoy. He joined the service and eventually earned his GED. On and on she went, all the time infusing her story with phrases like, “he’s always so kind and patient with everyone,” and “he’s been such a blessing to me.”

As soon as he returned with his cell phone, however, she ceased talking about him. After a few minutes, they took our business card and left, holding hands.

Two hours later, he called and said, “Look, I really want to get her that ring. I’ve never seen her want something so much before. Can you help me out? I could manage monthly payments if you’ll do layaway.”

Of course we do layaway, I responded. When I worked up the figure, however, I could tell he was squeezed by the monthly payment. I then extended the layaway time frame, making the dollar amount more affordable. He’s still making those installments, on time like clockwork.

For someone who throws his body between two toddlers and a raging, out-of-control bonfire, yes, I’ll do an extended layaway.
But as they say, I saved the best for last.

September is a quiet time in Gettysburg because the children are back in school and the autumn foliage hasn’t turned yet, keeping the “peepers,” home. Peepers, for those who don’t know, are tourists who come out for long weekends to enjoy the fall colors.

The year was 2010 and a young family came in – mom, dad and baby. What made this couple stand out was the husband, who was very tall, extremely thin, with long, jet black hair and a full beard to match. They were soft spoken with each other and studious, she eyeballing the jewelry, he holding the baby and glancing around at the weapons. The wife asked to try on a couple of rings and he urged her to pick one out, but she couldn’t decide.

He then handed over the baby and asked his wife to step outside and wait for him on our porch. He told me he wanted to get her something for Christmas, and I commented about him being an unusual man, because most men don’t think about Christmas shopping until December 23rd. He said he was “shipping out” in a couple of weeks and he wouldn’t be home for the holidays.

Because he used the term “shipping out,” I assumed he was in the military and asked him what branch of the service he was in. Admittedly, I was a bit confused by his physical appearance because it’s not every day someone with a big, bushy beard claims to be active military.

He stepped back from the counter and said almost in a whisper, though we were the only two people in the store, “Look at me. What do I look like? I speak fluent Arabic and Farsi. I’m 6 feet, 9 inches tall and weigh only 164 pounds. Who do I remind you of and who would you guess I work for?”

I sat there stunned as his words soaked in. Remember the time frame, folks. This was early autumn of 2010 and the manhunt for Osama Bin Laden was intense. America wanted this guy badly, as did I, having lost a friend on 9/11.

He continued, “I’m gone for six months, then home for six. Then gone again. That’s how we work, so I won’t be home for Christmas. And no matter what happens, I need to know she’ll have something from me under the tree.”

His voice was calm and his attitude matter-of-fact. This man was going off to some Godforsaken place to endure who knows what. We looked at each other for about five long seconds, then I got to work.

“This is the ring she liked the most,” I showed him. “It fit her perfectly, but she saw the price and put it back.”
He winced after reading the tag, but didn’t try to chew me down. He inquired about payment options, and I went into my spiel about layaway and promised to wrap and ship it to her in time for Christmas. While he deliberated, I excused myself and headed for the office, where the inventory records are kept. I wanted to know what I had paid for the piece.

Armed with this information, I found him holding the ring and a credit card. I put it in a red velvet box and wrapped it up in gold foil with a red bow. Then I rang him up, at my cost. About to sign the credit card receipt, he paused when he read the amount.

“What’s this?” he asked.
“My gift to you, for what you do. I have no other way to thank you.” He tried to argue with me, but I stood firm. Reluctantly, he signed the charge slip.

Less than eight months later, Osama Bin Laden was dead. And while our country celebrated, I wondered how much his role had influenced the outcome of that mission and if he had made it home OK. I truly hope so, because he will always be my favorite.

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