(Excerpt from Hoofbeats)
The bishop asked me to teach early morning seminary, and since I was the elders quorum president, we tried another Halloween party that fall. I promised Sharon I’d behave myself—no scary stories and walks in the woods. I could chat with the guests, bob for apples, keep an eye on the boys, and nothing else. Sharon dressed up like a witch, dyeing her face and hair green with food coloring. She was the most beautiful witch I had ever seen.
I was in the kitchen behaving myself when I heard a strange noise out front. It was kind of a clanking, clickety sound. I remember standing by the kitchen sink wondering what could make a noise like that.
We had a pet goat named Gadianton. We had raised him from a kid. He was a frisky little fellow who would run into the house if we gave him half a chance. If we left a car or truck door open, he would jump right in, and one time he did that right after Sharon had placed a cake on the front seat. He had his nose and both front feet in the cake before she could get him out of the car. Normally he just munched on flowers and nibbled the bark off our fruit trees.
As the noise out front continued, I decided to check it out. Our guests had parked bumper to bumper along the street in front of the house, and little Gadianton had discovered what great fun it was jumping from hood to trunk as he journeyed back and forth along the tops of the cars. It was too dark to see if any damage had been done, but I quickly got a rope on his neck and tied him out back. Eventually the happy guests went home, and none ever reported any dents on their hoods and trunk lids. Finally, we had pulled off a Halloween party without serious mishap.
The second winter in Montana, I bought a two-wheeled cutter or chariot that was designed to be pulled by a team of horses. We sponsored chariot races at the fairgrounds. Syd and I caught a seven-year-old bay mare that had been running wild since birth on a place Syd bought, and we hitched her to the chariot with Sundance. Fortunately, the first time we let them run was at the fairgrounds, so when they ran away with me, all they could do was run around the track, I believe eight times before I finally got them stopped.
About a dozen other teams showed up on Saturday afternoons to participate in the races, and lots of people came to watch. I had Dodge signs all over the place. We sold Coke products and hot dogs.
To help our races appeal to more people, I started announcing special competitive events during the breaks between races. One week we had pie jousting. Business people from the community, armed with cream pies, would gallop horses toward each other and try to hit their opponent with the pie as they galloped past—a takeoff from medieval jousting, using pastry instead of wooden poles.
Then I mounted a plywood buffalo on the side of a truck that was driven around the track. As it came to the straightaway leading to the grandstand, a mounted rider with bow and arrows would gallop alongside. The objective was to shoot as many arrows as possible into the buffalo before reaching the finish line. Four was the best anyone ever did, which was achieved by a local pharmacist.
One week we offered fifty dollars and a hundred pounds of dog food to the fastest dog in the Bitterroot Valley. Two people—a holder and a master—accompanied each dog. The holders held their dogs among the fifty or so other dogs at the starting line at one end of the grandstand, while the masters walked to the finish line at the other end of the grandstand. The masters started calling their dogs. That’s when the gun went off, the signal for the holders to let go.
Confusion reigned. Maybe the starting gun was too loud. Dogs ran in every direction. Some just stood still and cowered. A fight broke out. Some disappeared under the grandstand. One little lap dog about a foot tall trotted to his master and won the prize.
One week we announced we were going to do an experiment to determine if Levi Strauss, the largest jean manufacturer in the world, was guilty of false advertising. Back in those days, cowboys and farmers for the most part wore Levis instead of Wrangler jeans. Between the belt loops on the back of every pair of Levis was a leather patch showing two men with whips trying to get two horses or mules, one hitched to each side of a pair of Levi jeans, to pull the trousers in two, implying that Levis are so tough that not even horses can rip them apart. By sewing that patch on every new pair of jeans, the company was claiming such a thing couldn’t be done.
Darrel Cozad agreed to bring a pair of small draft horses to the fairgrounds, and a local clothing store gave me a brand new pair of Levi jeans. On Saturday afternoon a record crowd showed up to watch. We took our time securing the horses to the trousers. Some spectators were absolutely sure no pair of jeans in the world could withstand the pull of two strong horses. Others were equally confident that a large, reputable company like Levi Strauss would not sew a lie on the back of every pair of its jeans, if indeed it could be done. Those on the side of the company thought the jeans would be like a thick rope and the horses would not be able to rip them apart. I could see a lot of people placing bets.
Finally, with a horse hitched to each pant leg, Darrel was ready to give it a try. I nodded for him to proceed. With a big grin on his face, he clucked to his horses. The Levi jeans ripped in two like they were made of tissue paper. It seemed the horses didn’t even have to lean into their collars.
Some of the losers were bad sports, insisting that the jeans had not been properly attached to the horses. There had not been an even amount of pull from belt line to crotch as depicted in the drawing on the leather patch. I thought they had a valid point, so I announced we would do it again the next week.
Darrel was more than happy to bring his horses again, but the store owner would not give me another pair of Levis. He was probably afraid that if I kept doing this, people would stop buying his best-selling jean product. So I had to buy the second pair of jeans.
The next week we ran a wooden fence post through each pant leg and attached a horse’s harness to both ends of a corresponding fence post. The critics agreed this was a fair way to do it since the pull would be uniform from belt line to crotch. As Darrel hitched up the horses, I could tell the amount of betting was greatly reduced. Few people wanted to bet against the horses two weeks in a row. Their work had been too easy the previous week.
For the second time the jeans easily ripped in two. The critics disappeared. We had proved beyond any reasonable doubt that Levi Strauss was guilty of false advertising. I sent them a letter suggesting they might want to change their logo before the whole world knew about their lie. The company never responded to my letter. I thought the folks at Wrangler might send me a box of their jeans, but that didn’t happen either.
Not long after that, the entire cowboy community nationwide began switching from Levis to Wranglers. Wranglers were more cowboy-friendly in that they had a thinner inside seam that wasn’t as likely to rub sores on your legs on long horseback rides. The hip pockets were deeper and sewn tighter across the top to keep a wallet in place while riding a horse, but any kind of aggressive riding in Levis, like roping or cutting, tended to work a wallet out of the pocket. I like to think that maybe my little experiment in false advertising had something to do with cowboys switching from the deceptively advertised Levis to a more honest kind of jeans like Wranglers.
Our cutter races were held in the winter and were so popular that when summer rolled around we sponsored Friday night match races with only two horses involved. It was a double elimination series, with the finals taking place at the county fair in August. Lots of people who thought their horses were fast had to eat humble pie. The fun part for me was watching the kids and women on their pet horses beating the millionaire horse breeders. Some people, hoping to compete, entered Arabian or Morgan horses, but quarter horses and thoroughbreds won all the races. The only weight requirement was that every horse had to carry a western stock saddle.
By this time Sharon and I had moved out of the rented house east of town. I traded two new vehicles for sixteen acres south of town. The property was located up on the bench and had a lot of ponderosa pine trees and a little stream running through it. It was a great place to ride horses and a favorite wintering area for deer and elk. I borrowed money from the bank to pay for the two vehicles and took out a construction loan to build our first home.
We were selling a lot of cars and trucks, but Syd and Mindy weren’t happy with the bottom line or the profit picture. We didn’t have anyone with experience to guide us. It was a case of the blind leading the blind, even though by this time I was pretty good at selling cars and trucks. The sales rep from Dodge came by about once a month to help with the paper work and give advice, but he wasn’t much older than I was and had never actually operated a dealership.
Syd and Mindy figured we needed more product. They rented a lot on the highway and brought in a bunch of Circle J horse trailers and a line of campers and camp trailers. I could sell a horse trailer once in a while but was lost when it came to campers. I’d never owned one and didn’t know the first thing about them. Someone would ask me about winterizing a certain unit, and I didn’t even know what they were talking about, at least not at first. Overnight our overhead doubled—more rent, more insurance, more interest, and more maintenance costs. Then, for the first time, we started losing money. Syd decided to sell out, and I landed a job as used car manager at the Chevy dealership, my former competitor.
As soon as I started working there, I cornered the general sales manager, Jim Porch. I wanted to know how he had beat me so many times on truck deals when I was with Dodge, selling trucks to people who paid cash with no trade-ins. There were times when I had wanted a deal so bad that I had shaved the margin to two hundred dollars and the customer still ended up buying a Chevy from Jim instead. Now that I worked with Jim, I wanted to know how he beat me so many times.
He just laughed and turned around and pulled open a file drawer containing invoices on all the new pickups. He pulled out an invoice on a truck that the dealership had paid about four thousand dollars for. He rustled through the invoices again until he found one for a truck that the dealership had paid about eight hundred dollars more for. He folded under the bottom of the first invoice so one could not see the total cost of the vehicle and then laid that invoice on top of the more expensive one. Then very carefully he laid both invoices on the glass top of the copy machine. The copy that came out showed all the features with prices on the less expensive truck, the one the customer wanted to buy, but the bottom line showed the total amount to be eight hundred dollars higher than it was supposed to be.
“This copy is what I show the customer,” Jim said. “I tell him he can have the truck for $50 over invoice. Because of the phony bottom line, the customer thinks we are making $50 when we are actually making $850.”
“What would happen if someone added everything up and discovered the total was wrong?” I asked.
“They never do,” he said confidently.
This guy is really a shyster, I thought, but there was more. One day we were out in the little shack in the middle of the used car lot, the place where we waited to pounce on used car customers.
Jim was explaining why it was so important to win a customer’s trust before trying to sell them something. We noticed a young couple looking at a bright red Pontiac Firebird. Jim quietly opened the shack’s back window so I could hear what he was saying to the couple, and then he headed out the door to show me how to win trust.
He walked up to the couple and looked around like he was making sure no one else could hear what he was saying.
“You don’t want this car,” he said. The young man looked back at him in surprise.
“The transmission is about to go, and that’s why it’s priced so low. It’s a lemon. You’ll have nothing but problems.”
The young man and woman stared at him in amazement.
Jim continued, “They’d fire me if they knew I was telling you this. But come over here. Let me show you a really good car . . .”
After the happy couple drove away in their new purchase, Jim returned to the shack.
“I didn’t know the Firebird had a bad transmission,” I said.
“It doesn’t,” he said. “I just told them that to win their trust.”
I decided I had learned enough from Jim. I did well enough without using his techniques. My best month there I sold nineteen vehicles.
Then one day I was presented with what many people would consider the business opportunity of a lifetime. The Dodge sales rep, the one that used to come by and help me with the paperwork, stopped in and took me to lunch. He explained that the owner of the Dodge-Chrysler agency in Dillon, Montana, a hundred or so miles east of Hamilton, was getting ready to retire, and there was no one to take over the business. The sales rep said Dodge-Chrysler would sponsor me if I wanted to be the dealer in Dillon. They would provide financing for my new vehicle inventory, and I was already approved. All I had to do was come up with a down payment for the real estate and a line of credit for used cars. Wow, I had enough equity in my house to do that. Dillon was larger than Hamilton, had a college, and was on Interstate 15 just above the Idaho border. I had an MBA, car selling experience, had worked for Ford at the corporate level, had the startup capital, and the backing of the mother company. It was a perfect opportunity. I’d probably never have a business opportunity like this again as long as I lived. It was being handed to me on a silver platter. All I had to do was reach out and take it.
I believed I would enjoy selling cars in Dillon and be successful. But deep in my heart I felt uneasy. If I accepted the offer and moved to Dillon, I would probably be locked into that wonderful business opportunity for a long time.
Deep down I wanted to be a writer. According to the blessing from the German patriarch, I would find success in life through my words, not by selling cars.