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Pilgrim Monument, line drawing by Ewa Nogiec

Christine Frisco talks with Bob Meads

Bob Meads, Sr. is waiting for me at the back of his plumbing warehouse, with a portable phone in his lap. This is grand central for Meads Brothers, I realize, as he quietly fields calls during my visit. The Plumbing Czar, with his rugged build, full head of white hair and beard, looks like a milder version of Ernest Hemingway. He is sitting comfortably in a dark blue armchair, his mid-calf black boots placed firmly on the concrete floor. Everything is in order: the concrete floor swept clean and the inventory of plumbing parts stacked neatly on the towering shelves.

Bob has done it all—carpentry, masonry, electrical work, heating, and, of course, plumbing—in almost every house in town. The father of 4; the son of a fisherman, the soldier in the Korean War admits, “I’ve had an exciting life,” nodding, “I’m almost 70 years old, I guess I’ll die here. But not my ashes, my ashes go to Maine.” “Why?” I ask “Because the people are so nice there, although in a hundred years it will probably be like Provincetown.”

We talk about the beginnings of the business: “My brother, Francis, and I started it in 1972 with only $400 between us, and not an ounce of brains to be afraid! We worked 7 days a week, 16 hours a day, the two of us, until Francis’s daughter died 7 years ago and he sold out. Her death broke his heart. My son, Robert, and I have been running it alone since then. Robert is the second best plumber in this town and he’s sassy. He doesn’t believe me when I tell him that, in 45 years, Francis and I never raised our voices to each other.”

Bob, Francis and 25 friends built the warehouse nights after work, staying up until 2 a.m. Later, when they could, they gave each of the 25 a free heating system or bathroom as a thank-you.

His daughter recently thanked him for passing on his work ethic. His grandson, when he was a sophomore in high school, made the mistake of asking Bob, what he would give him as a graduation present. “I told him I already had it, and presented him with a 12 year-old, well-used shovel. I told him, if he didn’t get smart at school, he was gonna have to use it!” He laughs and adds, “I always say, if you work with your hands, you make a living, but if you work with your head, you make money.”

Although Francis, still married, lives in town, they don’t see each other much except for occasional visits, but it’s not like the old days. Bob does seem to miss the old days.

His wife died 12 years ago. She came from Alaska and a different culture. “It’s the only sad thing in my life, that she was unhappy,” Bob reflects. “I asked her one time why her mother didn’t like me and she said it was because I was a Catholic (my wife was Russian Orthodox). I told her there were 27 reasons not to like me, but being Catholic wasn’t one of them!” And with that we were laughing again.
“My father had 3 sons and he taught us to drink and to work hard, but he never taught us how to take care of our wives. Now that I’ve mingled with others, I realize they just want the same things we do,” he says a bit sadly. “I feel blessed. I have lots of memories. I have four children who never went to jail, and only complain once in a while. I just wish my wife was still around to see it all.”

He smiles. “I had an 86-year-old lady kiss me the other day because I didn’t charge her for a $72 job. I think of money as manure that I spread around to allow the flowers to grow.”

He reminisces about when the National Seashore took over some of the beaches and dunes. “We used to go to Wood End every Sunday, and they were taking it away from us. I was so angry, I even threatened the guy in charge, Mr. Olsen. I told him I came back from Korea only to find he is my enemy, and if I had a gun I would blow his head off! Oh, how we fought them!” He chuckles and shakes his head, “But now it’s a good thing after all. That land might have been developed, but now it’s protected.”

As I rise to leave, he tells me he took all the photos behind me and developed them himself in his own dark room. Most are of men with big striped bass, smiling broadly next to their bounty. One is of his Labrador dog. (“We raised labs here too.”), another the kitchen of his Maine cabin with his family at the dinner table. He takes me into another room and points to a framed close-up photo of a sunflower. “I won 3rd prize for this one,” he says proudly.

Bob is stepping down as owner of Meads Brothers, selling the business to his son. “What will you do then?” “Oh, I’ll stay on. Somebody has to answer the phone!”

[April 2002]

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