We were short of help because I had always done a lot of the horse work and I had just opened the tack shop over my garage. It was getting hard to do everything as the store got busier, so I had signed us up with one of those services that find horse help and they had sent a pleasant couple to interview that day. They had just left and I had returned to the house to shake off the snow and warm up when the phone rang.
" High Brook" I answered.
"Is this the tack shop?"
"Close enough! "I said "Can I help you?"
"I hope so. I need eight sets of harness bells. Would you have them in stock?"
I am sure there was a dead silence before I started to laugh.
"That's funny! Who is this?" I was still laughing. "You almost got me!"
"No, ma'am. I am not joking. I really need eight sets of harness bells. We're here filming a Budweiser commercial and we need bells for the horses. We don't seem to have any or maybe they got left behind. Anyway, we are filming on Monday morning at 9AM. Can you help us?"
I had been in business for about 2 minutes and I still believed I could do anything but this seemed on the verge of impossible.
"OK, assuming you are for real and I am not talking to someone playing a very elaborate practical joke, here's the problem: First of all, hardly anyone up here stocks harness bells. Second, those who do, might have a set or two but eight sets is very unlikely. Third, even if, by some miracle, someone had eight sets of bells the chances that they would match or even fit a Clydesdale are pretty darn slim. I think the only way I can help you is if someone can make them for you."
"Well... that would be fine. Can you have them ready for Monday morning?"
"I don't think you understand. I don't think there are enough loose bells in Vermont to make those so it would have to be done in Amish country, Pennsylvania, and even that would be iffy. It's Thursday afternoon and you need them by Monday morning."
"Yes... We would be happy to pay for whatever it costs. Can you arrange for it?"
I was really new at this. I knew that the first rule was never to turn away business so, with enormous trepidation, I said I would see what I could do. I hung up the phone and took a deep breath. And just at that moment the couple we had interviewed earlier arrived at my door.
"Sorry to bother you but we got our car stuck toward the bottom of your driveway and the snow is piling up so fast I don't think we can drive home anyway. Can you call a wrecker for us? And is there a hotel nearby?"
This is Vermont. People get stuck in the snow a lot. We had a tractor and an extra room. It was our fault they were here so I called my cousin and asked him to dig them out and take them and their little Jack Russell Terrier to the farmhouse for the night since he was the only one living there at the time. Then I got down to business.
A call to Moses Smucker in Pennsylvania was met with only a small amount of incredulity.
"I don't have enough bells to make that many sets that big! I'll have to see if I can get the bells. I'll call you back."
About then I got a little nervous. What if this really was a hoax? I called the number the voice on the phone had given me. An office at Anheuser-Busch in Saint Louis answered and confirmed that, indeed, they had authorized the production company to purchase appropriate bells for the filming. If this was a hoax someone really hated me!
Moses called back.
"There is a company in California that can still ship enough bells for this job overnight if I order them in the next few minutes. We can cut the strap tonight and get it ready for the bells. They should arrive about noon tomorrow and that will give us about 24 hours to put them on the straps and finish them. Will that work for you?"
"How much will it cost?" I figured I'd better ask. He named an astronomical figure that amounted to more money than I had made in the two months since I had opened the business.
"And how do we get them here?" I asked. His turn for dead silence.
"I guess you'll have to pick them up." He said.
Assured that there was something I could do I called my contact back. He was very happy to hear from me and didn't even blink at the amount of money involved. But another question arose.
"How do the bells attach to the harnesses?" He asked innocently. I realized I had no idea. Back to the phones.
After several calls to Moses and a few more to various parties involved with the horses it was determined that what they wanted simply did not exist. They wanted bells that flowed gracefully down each side of the horse with graduated tones and tapered straps. They didn't have any idea how big around the horses were so there was no possibility of fastening them like a girth. The bells had to hang over the backpads and be fastened on each side. The only thing to fasten them to was the water hook in the center of the "saddle" and no one really knew how we could do that. However, we were pretty sure, Moses and me, that we could figure that one out so he ordered the bells and we were "in for a penny, in for a pound"
After a lot of discussion we came up with a design that we thought would work. The weight of the bells, 22 to the side, was so great that we were pretty sure they would hang well. If we fastened them with wide, buckled straps on either side of the water hook we figured we could give them what they wanted, maximum jingle and maximum shine. So I went off to tend to my horses and Moses went off to explain the project to his people and begin to cut the strap.
On Friday at noon the phone rang again and Moses had the bells in his hands. Things were going well. But another problem had come up. The bells would not be ready until sometime around midnight on Saturday night and they could not deliver them or even take our money on Sunday. They would have to be picked up on Monday morning and transported back in time for a 9AM call for filming. By this time I really was starting to believe anything was possible. Without blinking an eye I simply asked where I had to be and when. Then it dawned on me. The only way to meet the schedule was to fly.
Friday afternoon was spent discovering that the weight of the bells was too much for local puddle jumpers to carry and the only flights that could take them would have to be out of Boston. The cost was, again, astronomical on short notice. I called my contact again and he simply asked how much to make the check out for. I booked the flights, arranged to rent a huge station wagon in Philadelphia and planned to drive my truck to Boston on Sunday night, fly to Philadelphia that night and drive out to Churchtown to pick them up at about 2AM on Monday morning, That would leave me plenty of time to drive back to Philadelphia, fly them back to Boston and drive them back to Woodstock before 9AM. I was really young! But it seemed very doable and I had some other things to take care of.
Earlier that week there had been a death in my family. A very elderly and much beloved aunt had passed away in Woodstock and her funeral was to be on Saturday. We had gotten plowed out from the storm and I was dressing for the funeral on Saturday morning when the phone rang again.
"Is this Laura Gordon?"
"Yes. May I help you?"
"Yes, ma'am. I am from the New Jersey State Police Department. Is there a couple staying with you, about 40 years old driving a station wagon?"
The description matched the couple who had interviewed on Thursday. But they had left... hadn't they?
I explained to the woman on the phone that I thought perhaps the couple had been here but I believed they had left on Friday. She explained that she had already spoken to my cousin and been told they were still there. Could I keep them there until she could arrange... extradition? I must have heard that wrong. No. I heard that right.
Two hours later I had missed Aunt Fan's funeral. My cousin had built a snow bank across the farm driveway so they could not get out and the Vermont State Police had confirmed that they were wanted in five states.
Building eight sets of matched harness bells in 3 days was beginning to look like a piece of cake.
Sometime that afternoon the police arrived and took the couple, their car and the Jack Russell Terrier away. I changed my clothes and drove to Boston to catch my flight and wondered if it was not all just a bit surreal. Once in the air I had a moment to reflect on just how much could have gone wrong in this picture and... so far so good.
I arrived at Moses Smucker's shop at 1AM on Monday morning. He was a big, jovial, bearded man, typically Amish and genuinely kind and funny. He insisted on giving me a tour of his shop and his stables and then helped me load over 700 pounds of matched harness bells into the back of the rented station wagon for the return trip. I should have known things were going too well.
When you drive toward Philadelphia there is a stretch of road called the Schuylkill Expressway and I had to take it to get back to the airport. Unbeknownst to me that very morning they were shutting it down to all traffic for repairs. It took me 2 hours to find and take the recommended detour and I arrived at the airport with less than an hour to return the car, check the boxed bells into baggage and board my flight.
After the rental agency drove me to the gate to check in I was informed that the bells would arrive in Boston the following day!
In 1985 domestic air travel was pretty easy but even then there were limits. It had never occurred to me that they might not just load my bells on the plane for me. Apparently I was just a bit over the weight limit... for the entire plane.
I have no idea what I said to those people. The magic word seemed to be Budweiser and somehow we, the bells and I, got on that flight and back to Boston where a very kind porter loaded the boxes onto a cart and brought them to my truck. For a very large fee and an enormous tip.
The trip back to Woodstock was blessedly uneventful and the bells were on the horses by the old stone arch bridge in South Woodstock right on schedule. I have pictures to prove it.
The commercial was a huge success and still runs at Christmas from time to time. I got paid. Though I didn't really make a profit, the bragging rights have been worth something and the lesson I learned about how to estimate costs was truly invaluable. The couple from New Jersey were eventually sent back there and went to jail. The employment agency was terribly apologetic.
A couple of days later my cousin got a call from the jail and the couple asked if he would take care of the Jack Russell Terrier for them "until they got everything straightened out." He said yes and went to pick it up.
He had that dog for fifteen years! LHS