The small loan business is particularly nasty. Most of the customers who became indebted to the lender, even at the low maximum of $600 as limited by VA law at that time (now almost unlimited) were not the smartest consumers. They usually were at the bottom of the economic ladder, working at minimum wage jobs that were not always steady. Construction, manufacturing, agriculture, low-end sales jobs were the norm. A few, and only a few, were earning wages above minimum. That is when minimum hourly wages were less than $1.oo per hour. It seems they are still not smart with title loans, pay-day loans, and furniture financing deals.
One of the toughest groups were the pulpwood cutters, who made a hard scrabble living by cutting scrub pine logs and trucking them to the paper mill in Covington. It was dangerous, hard and dirty work for little money, and not always having a market for their logs. Their income was marginal at best, usually making $8 or $15 a day for their labor when the mill was buying. In off season, they cut firewood to heat their cabins, and scraped up a few bucks for food. Welfare was scarce, and they were not eligible for unemployment compensation. Workers comp didn’t apply, either, so an accident was usually fatal.
When I say “tough” I mean both physical and hard to deal with. First, they were hard to find out in the nether woods. They usually got the owner’s permission to harvest the trees, but not always, and some of their trees came from the national forests. They were always on the lookout for the Rangers, so finding them was not the simple task of a phone call. And negotiating with them was dicey.
I learned that I was most effective if I came on slowly, with no threats, and a genuine offer to help them deal with the office manager. I usually got them to share a few dollars of their meager take home pay to apply to their balance. What had they borrowed the money for? A broken down truck to fix up, or to get a chain saw out of hock. Pillar to post.
One story that I have shared only rarely, and with MR only after 25 years of marriage, happened soon after I went to work with the company. I was working out of the Williamson Road office, and was assigned a “dead file” account that had been shelved a long time ago because it was deemed uncollectable. The first day, I located the house, but no one was there. The family lived in an old farm house on the west side of Route 11, a few miles past Buchannan, up a long narrow road, and about a mile from the pavement. A neighbor told me that the family had moved the day before, to another house near Livia, which is on the other side of Buchannan. By the time I located that house, they had already moved again. They moved two more times that week, with me just one day behind.
On that Friday, I went to the truck stop on Rt. 11 across from the first road, and asked if they had seen those folks. They had just seen them, driving a flat bed truck. Sitting next to me at the counter was a state trooper. He asked why I was looking for them, when I told him the story, he nodded and got quiet. As I was leaving, he said he was taking a break, and would be there for another half-hour. I was to come back and see him when I got through. An omen of things to follow.
The road into the farm house was rutted dirt, and muddy from the rains. I could see the tracks the truck had made. As I neared the house, I saw the folks walking from the truck to the house. He was carrying two bags of groceries, she was climbing the front steps, with a baby in arms and a bag of groceries. They stopped when I pulled up behind the truck and got out. (Hello, I’m from Piedmont, and I want to talk with you a minute.)
At that, she dropped the groceries, tossed the baby to her husband, who had to drop the groceries he had to catch the baby. Cans and bottles, baby diapers, and a bag of beans scattered everywhere. She ran into the house, through the hall to the back. I could see down the hall way through the screen door, as she took down a rifle from over the back door, and came running back, racking a round into the rifle chamber as she ran.
The first shot came through the screen door, and I was on my way to the car. The second shot went over my head and shattered the truck windshield, I heard a third shot, but by then I was moving. You may have seen movies where the driver does a 180 in reverse and gets away. I performed that move perfectly. I was not waiting around to see if she had better aim, and I was moving down that dirt road at a fast pace, just as that trooper met me coming in. He got off the road a I passed.
Back in the office, I related my experience to the office staff. The two men almost died laughing. I wanted to sock them when the manager said the man and woman had promised to kill the next person they sent out, which is why they had dead-filed the account. This was a test.
Just before closing time, about quarter to six, the man from Buchannan walked in, came up to the counter asking for me. I was more than a bit nervous as I met him a the counter. The rest of the office staff retired to the back room. He looked mad as hell, and I really thought he was going to attack when he pulled out his wallet and peeled off $600, slammed it down on the counter and demanded a receipt.
That trooper gets the credit for collecting that debt. My baptism by fire.