Sunday, August 22, 2004


I have been touring the Excel plant (Peterson Industries) which sits at the north edge of Smith Center along Highway 36. My tour guide is Dave Rorabaugh, the company's western sales rep. We've been walking through the plant so I can see how Excel's travel trailers get put together.

We have stepped off into another area to look at couches when Rachel comes over to ask if Dave told me about "the fire."

There was a day in 1983 when the plant burned to the ground. Everything was lost.

Rachel said she asked Vaughn "What are we going to do?"

"Well, you're going to come to work tomorrow," Vaughn replied.

The company re-built and has expanded every few years since.

A lot of the specialized equipment needed in the plant was designed and built in the plant. One such piece is the device that compresses cushions so that buttons can be put on them. The machine will compress a set of three cushions for the back of a sofa; a needle is poked through the center of the compressed area; the needle has a hook at the end of it; the hook pulls a piece of thick thread back through the cushion. The button is attached to the cushion with that piece of thread.

Joetta Wright, who has been with Excel for nine years and who had experience with other companies as well, is showing me how the buttons get attached. She says "Somebody told me this machine was designed by Vaughn. You can't order it from a catalog." She tells me about another machine they use to suck the air out of foam so it can be inserted into fabric.

Then Joetta is showing how the buttons are made. Scrap fabric is layered several times and a machine cuts circles of the material. A circle is placed in a machine with a metal top, the fabric gets folded around the top, and a plastic bottom is added to hold everything in place. When Joetta attaches the buttons to the cushions, she selects those that best match the fabric at that point. If it's a dark spot in the cushion, she'll choose a button with like, dark fabric.

"The denser the foam, the longer a cushion will last," Joetta says.

Dave adds that "Vaughn doesn't like to build things that have problems in a few years."

He also says that Excel will soon start padding the chairs in-house for the Limited Edition models, instead of having them brought in.

Then we step into a Limited Edition model that's near the end of the production line. Some women are adding the finishing touches and doing a final clean-up. I feel like an intruder in someone else's dream. The trailer has a fireplace, a TV, five surround-sound speakers, a computer desk. Oh my.

We leave the women to their work tidying up and enter the service department. Steve Ellenberger runs Excel's service. Dave introduces me to him. Steve tells me about taking care of customer needs - "I have a lot of customers who are 'two-way' customers," he says. "They stop in going south; they stop in going back north." Steve tries to make them happy "because a happy customer is your best advertising. Customer service is what builds customer loyalty."

And then with our typical middle western modesty, he shares the credit: "I'm just building on what my predecessors created."

Steve's family had originally staked a claim in the Kirwin area back in homestead days, Steve says. His father worked for the government and Steve lived all over the country. After his parents divorced, Steve came back to Kirwin to visit his mother, he met his wife, "and I never left. I'm a true flatlander now."

Steve schedules service for about seven customers a week during the summer months. "We also have some drive-ins we try to get to," he adds. "Some we just can't get to, and they go to their dealers for service when they get home."

"We have customers who bought Excel trailers specifically because other customers told them about our service," Steve says. "They couldn't get that kind of service from their other manufacturer."

Where did this push for quality, service, and excellence originate? Steve and Dave think it started with Vaughn. "He wants things done right, so there aren't problems."

I say good-bye to Steve. Dave and I stop in the counter lounge for a moment and Dave shows me the end of the video of the 2003 gathering of Excel customers. At the end of the get-together, the whole bunch of visitors line up their vehicles and head down Main Street Smith Center honking and banging pots and pans and everything imaginable. This is block after block of mostly retired folks making an awful lot of noise. It's the Noise Parade - old folks getting to act like kids again.

To be continued....


AUGUST 21, 1998

I saw a sky last night that makes me want to live forever. A sunset with clouds and color and a patch of sky like eyes that are window to the soul.

It was not just the light, the sky. The air was so heavy the wind had to crawl on its belly. The incipient evening dew - God's sign how much he loves the world. The thick vegetable aromas - the smell of swamp for miles along Highway E last night, the smell of matter transforming itself, of matter transformed.

The light, but more the stories the light shines on, illuminates. Sometimes I want so much to know the stories of all of us. I could taste that, last night.

This morning, a cool, grey mist around us, softening the edges of things. The quiet murmur of a day getting started. Our old friend the sun on the other, the eastern horizon. Grace is a gift; and this morning is grace.

Sometimes we argue overmuch when what we should do is shut up. Take it, don't rate it. Shut up and live.

A squirrel on the lawn. Moisture on the windshield. The neighbor's pick-up in the backyard with a trailer. He has been hauling in dirt for a flower bed. Each day is an adventure.

In some places in the country this morning the fog is serious business. Elsewhere, the day, she picks up her skirt and runs; she is wearing smooth, blue panties, the color of sky. The sight of it, or the heavy air, makes it hard to breathe.

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