November 28, 2012, morning: I'm sitting at my desk working. Along about 11:30, I hear the front gate click, and onto the property walks a man. Instant assessment: not a Jehovah's Witness, not a Mormon, not a process server, not a Fuller Brush Man, not a cop. If I'd been expecting anyone, I would not have still been in my bathrobe; self-employment means being dressed and ready for viewing is optional. But you see, I wasn't expecting anyone, and I was working, had been for a couple of hours. I have most of my friends trained to not drop in unannounced, especially before noon. It irritated the crap out of me to see some guy approaching my open door. He waved. Not eager to be seen by this intruder in my state of dèshabille, I stayed in my chair behind my desk, spoke in a who-are-you-and-what-do-you-want-and-keep-your-damned-distance voice.
Yes? said I. He came as far as the door and stopped.
I'm from Kemgas, said he. I'm here to check the propane tank.
Checking the tank wasn't all he was going to do. Kemgas was going to take the tank, he said. Huh? Why? Because we weren't buying enough propane.
I'd have appreciated a little warning, I said.
Oh, I'm not going to take the tank today, he said.
I pay my yearly rental fee without fail, I said. I just paid it a few days ago.
We've made our decision, he said.
I don't like this at all, I said. You can write me a letter.
We will, he said. And he left.
Later, I listened to the messages on the answering machine: He'd called at 8:30 that morning. I'd missed it. His name was Craig. The message said nothing about taking the tank, our propane-purchasing habits, or that he'd be dropping by, it just said call me back.
Two days later, along with a copy of the last contract I'd signed with them almost two years before, the letter arrived, saying that while they did “value” our business, they were “unable” to keep our account open due to “low propane usage,” and that while it was “unfortunate,” they could no longer let their tank “sit under used,” and so they'd “have to” remove it. Pro forma niceties delivered, the tone got stern in the next paragraph: We had ten days to decide how we wanted to “proceed from here,” but they were coming for their tank when those ten days were up. Eight days, actually; the ten days had started the day the letter was written, which was the same day Craig made his surprise visit. If we had questions, we could call or e-mail. The letter was signed by David Thompson.
Ten days! Not even ten “business” days, just ten days! That's what you give riff-raff, recidivists, miscreants, and ne'er-do-wells after every civilized avenue has been exhausted. The outlaw tenant who hasn't paid rent in months, the deadbeat who's been billed over and over, the chronic truant who's been warned repeatedly to shape up: Okay, that's it, we've tried to work with you, now you get ten days. Ten days was the bum’s rush. Plainly, we were riff-raff in the eyes of Kemgas, under-purchasers of propane for years and years, 11:30 AM bathrobe-wearers, now not being fully and 100% cooperative after Craig's little commando raid! No doubt my attitude had been reported back at the office: We've got some troublemakers up there on Wheeler St.
We looked at the contract that came with the letter. Parts of it were yellow-highlighted. Yep, there it was in fine print, that unless we bought such-and-such an amount of propane per year then Kemgas could, if it wished, terminate the arrangement. And Kemgas could, in such an event, provide us with a smaller tank. If they wished. And ten days was the minimum notice they were obliged to give.
I wrote back. I thought maybe a little publicity wouldn't hurt, so I sent a copy to the AVA, told Kemgas I'd done it. Here's an excerpt:
In the more than twelve years we've had your tank, there was never, not once, the slightest peep out of Kemgas that there was a problem — no hint, nothing, until last Wednesday, when violation, verdict and sentence were delivered all at once. And now the deadline is a scant week from now. For you, this is a contractual technicality. For us, it's a major, major upheaval, expense and inconvenience, a mad scramble thrust upon us without warning and in an unfriendly way, like a game of Gotcha… After a dozen years, what, may I ask, is the big rush?
I also had the fun of finding a complaint against them on ripoffreport.com, saying their billing was dishonest and their customer service was rude and lousy, and I quoted from the online rebuttal by “Kemgas Employee:”
“We realize that there can be misunderstandings when it comes to dealing business, and when this happens, we are more than willing to work with the customer to rectify whatever problems there may be.”
Their attitude improved a little after my letter appeared. An e-mail from David says, Oh, that ten days is just a formality! As long as we know you're working to find a solution, and keep us informed!
How about renting us a smaller tank?
We don't exercise that option anymore. But we'll sell you a 50-gallon tank cheap, for $300.
Not even Mitt Romney would think that was cheap, said I. Thanks, but no thanks.
So, I keep them informed as I look for a used tank. There are plenty of them for sale cheap on Craigslist — in Mississippi and Illinois. Around here, not so cheap. The usual.
On Dec. 13, five days later than the last day of that mere-formality ten-day deadline, and about two weeks after Craig materialized at my door, I have, apparently, tried the patience of Kemgas to the limit. David e-mails me that that's it, time's up, they're coming for the tank on the 21st.
"We have given you the only option we have to offer, and you have decided against it.” And he gets tough: “At this point that option is no longer available, either.” In other words, we wouldn't sell you a tank now if you begged! Do we care if we leave you tankless and heatless in December? Hell, no!
I protest. Hey, hey, hey! Four days before Christmas? In the winter? I have visitors coming! It's cold! I'm looking for a damned tank! Make it the 28th, I say. That'll be 30 days from the day you first dropped the bomb on us.
Okay, he says. The 28th.
And no early morning raid, please, I say, picturing them arriving at dawn, like a SWAT team, which I'm sure they're slavering to do. Because they can. Meanwhile, we find a small tank for sale by some nice folks in Fort Bragg. The price is right. We snag it. We take it to one of Kemgas' competitors to get it filled. We mention to the owner that Kemgas is taking our tank because we don't buy enough propane. “You're the second ones today,” says he. We ask him if he's friends with Kemgas owner Charles Kemppe. He doesn't answer: he snorts and makes a face. On Dec. 24th, late morning, a Kemgas truck appears. This time, I'm dressed and presentable, on my way out of town, am right there when the truck pulls up. We're here for the tank, says a guy who's already out of the truck and opening the gate.
No, you're not, says I. Our date is the 28th.
They leave. So do I.
Mitch calls Kemgas, speaks to David. I'm not here to witness the call, but Mitch says it went badly, quickly devolved into a shouting match. After that, Mitch says, he called Charles Kemppe. Sometimes going directly to the boss gets results. Good idea, eh? Not! Here's how that went, in Mitch's own words:
"When Kemgas committed Offense No. 2 by ignoring the agreed-on timetable, I called them and talked with Dave; I called them and quarreled with Dave; I called them and shouted my frustration at Dave. Then I called Chuck Kemppe. He immediately set me straight: I was wrong and he was right. He out-shouted me. We were wrong and his employees were right, period. I had a hard time suggesting otherwise. Mr. Kemppe is quite aggressive on the telephone. I got in a couple of shots, but that was all. A fight was not what I called for. I've found lots of times that the boss is more devoted to 'the customer is always right' than his or her boorish employees are. Not Chuck. He led. My call cemented the dominant mood: hostility. Too bad. I hoped for a good-cop-bad-cop approach, with Eleanor being the softer-spoken one, but it didn't matter. I underestimated Kemgas. They were enjoying this.”
Others have tried going to Boss Kemppe himself, apparently, and similarly bonked their heads. Back on ripoffreport.com, I found this in a January, 2011 complaint posted by “kevinforesthill:”
"The owner of the company was absolutely rude and was not willing to try to resolve the complaint or even listen to the complaint...”
Okay. So. In my good-cop mode, I manage to smooth some feathers. I e-mail David the day after Christmas, two days before the 28th, say I wasn't present for the phone call, but that I “regret” how it turned out. To his credit, David writes back and apologizes for being “confrontational.” He and I exchange a couple of civil e-mails, discussing pro-rating the tank rental refund and how exactly they'd determine the amount we'll get back for the propane still in the tank.
The shouted phone calls of the 24th, though, still rang in Mitch's ears. Early on the morning of D-Day, he rose with purpose. In his words:
"So came the day when they would come to claim their tank. I would not have their boots on my land again. The tank was in a hard-to-reach corner, made worse by the then-eternal-seeming rains. It sat on ground that was more than an inch underwater and not accessible by anything big because two buildings were in the way. I rigged a rope-and-pulley system and hauled the tank through the mud and out into the open, pulling with my pickup. I pulled it so the valve and other projections on top would not be damaged, and they weren't. I was not concerned about mud. It was a propane tank. It had sat there for maybe twenty years and would need a facelift before it could be rented out to some other valued customer. From there I dragged it 120 more feet to the road. They could now pick it up with ease. They need not show us their faces. The tank was of heavy steel. The mud and scratches spoke my contempt. They would be erased with a quick spray of paint, necessary anyway because of the tank's long weathering at this address.”
You'd think that the propane tank was flesh and blood and had suffered hideous pain. David wrote:
"The entire bottom of our tank is completely destroyed. The tank could have simply been set aside to await pickup. Because we now have to refurbish the tank before it can be re-used, we must have it grinded (sic) down evenly, re-coated with zinc, and re-painted. For this, we will be charging for 2 hours of labor. We are also going to charge for the missing regulator, which was ours, the tank blocks and the pigtail, which were also ours. Our labor is $90.00/hour, for a total of $180.00. The paint and primer comes to $50.00, and the missing parts are as follows:
Blocks — $8 + Tax each
Regulator — $77.69 + Tax
Pigtail — $9.50 + Tax
Should these parts be returned, in working condition, they will be removed from the total. We will send the bill out Monday. Our terms are net 20 days.”
That came to about $333, not including tax. No mention of deducting from this “bill” the tank rental refund, nor the propane refund. Never mind that they'd saved at least an hour of labor by merely picking up the tank from the road and not having to battle it out of the muddy inaccessible thicket, at $90/per, times two guys, which would come to.....$180.00. Never mind.
But wait a minute: I remembered the yellow-highlighted contract they'd sent with their ten-day-notice letter. I got it out and looked at it, found the “Equipment rental” section. The “Tank” section was filled in. The “Tank Blocks,” “Regulator(s),” and “Pigtail(s)” sections were blank.
Mark this petty little fact well, reader, because soon it will grow into robust significance. The bill arrived. Total, with tax: $359.40.
Sigh. So, I put together a letter to Kemgas. I included a copy of the contract. I pointed out that the only “equipment” shown as rented to us was the tank. I pointed out that the tank would have to have been repainted anyway under the “normal wear and tear” clause of the contract after sitting outside in coastal weather for over a dozen years at the very least — we'd moved to this house in 1999, and the tank was already here, had been for God knows how long already. I reminded them that they had $72.97 of our money from the recent tank rental payment. I didn't mention the leftover propane; I figured that was collateral damage. Jan. 7: I send the letter off.
A month of silence. We think maybe that's it. Until one morning a lady process-server calls, says she's on her way up with court papers: Kemgas is taking us to Small Claims. The date is set for two weeks hence: Feb. 21. We countersue, serve papers on them at their office: The contract says nothing about pigtails nor regulators. You terminated the contract with neither party in breach. You owe us the tank rental refund. See you in court.
On the 21st, Mitch, suited up in coat and tie, goes to court. David, Craig, and Kemgas office employee Judy Horstman are there. Mitch says they're pretty much yucking it up, as if they're accustomed to these court dates, aren't the least bit worried about what direction things might take. The judge, Clay Brennan, does not do the usual Small Claims opening procedure, which is to invite the parties to step into the hall and take a shot at working it out. The Kemgas crew have brought lurid pictures of the scratched-up tank, taken from all angles, like coroners' photos, including heartrending close-ups. The photos are a big topic of discussion. Then comes the question of the equipment. Judy Horstman presents the judge with a copy of the contract. “May I see that?” says Mitch. He looks at it. It's the same contract that I signed, the same one they sent with their letter, but...it's been altered. The spaces next to “Tank Blocks,” “Regulator(s)” and “Pigtail(s)” are now filled in. Mitch hands his copy of the contract to the judge, brings the filled-in spaces to His Honor's attention. The Kemgas crowd gets sort of quiet, Mitch says, during the very brief moment when Brennan holds the two contracts side by side. The judge murmurs a faint acknowledgment, but is, Mitch says, already in wrap-it-up mode and not overly interested in the fact that altered evidence, however small the potatoes, has been presented in his court. “I find for the plaintiff,” he says. “What about our countersuit?” says Mitch. “Oh, right,” says the judge, and tells Kemgas they have to refund our prorated tank rental. He awards them the amount of the original post-tank-dragging bill, minus the refund, plus court costs — filing fee, process server fee. DING! Almost $400. Jeez. Guess I should have just bought their $300 tank…
A few days later, I write to David, ask him for a copy of the contract they presented in court. Amazingly enough, he e-mails it to me. I look at it. It's absolutely the same one I signed in February 2011. There's my signature. But the formerly-blank spaces in question now have numbers in them. You'd scarcely have to be a handwriting forensics expert to see that a different person filled in those spaces than whoever filled in the rest two years ago. The bogus numbers have an entirely different slant than the other handwritten numbers and letters on the page, are done with a darker pen with a thicker line, and have a guilty twice-traced look to them. It's a really clumsy job. I would have done it much better.
I write to David: “Why did you add the numbers to the vacant lines after “EQUIPMENT” on the copy of the Feb. 2011 contract you submitted to the judge?” We're kind of hoping to sort of maybe trick him into saying, “I didn't do it! So-and-so did it!”
But he doesn't answer. Which means, of course, that he doesn't deny that the contract got diddled with. And that he knows it. This is, by the way, the only time he has not answered an e-mail from me.
So: Do we appeal? When you do, you get a different judge. But it also means that this time, lawyers can be involved, which they can’t in Small Claims. It's not at all hard to imagine the depth of the Kemppe-Kemgas pockets, and worse, the depth of their contempt and arrogance. I recall Mitch's words after his conversation with Kemppe: They were enjoying this. If they were willing to tamper with evidence in Small Claims, they'd no doubt be ever so willing to lawyer up, at considerable expense, go to Big Boy court, mow us down Genghis Khan-like, our feeble bleats about tank blocks, regulators and falsified evidence lost beneath the din of marching wingtips, and then relish the deep, deep pleasure of being awarded court costs, to the tune of thousands and thousands of dollars, the deeper pleasure of the sight of our ruined, furious, defeated faces.
Yes. I think that's exactly what they'd do, and exactly what would happen.
On the other hand, wouldn't it be exquisite to get justice? Like in the movies. Bring our plucky little case to court, against all sane advice, against all odds, but with the courage of our righteousness in our plucky little hearts! Your Honor, we have established that they have no compunction about altering a legally binding document, that their credibility is severely compromised. Why, then, should we believe it when they say it took them two hours to repaint their tank?
As Steve Martin would say: Nah.
Post Script: On the last possible day, we pay the judgment. For the last couple of days before that, we’ve finally had the attention of somebody in law enforcement, Sheriff Allman, who took the time to read a letter we sent him about Kemgas’ evidence-tampering. He did a little research, and did find some statutes pertaining to such hanky-panky. We’d already tried the DA and the Fort Bragg police, both of whom did their best to encourage us to just go away. Who can blame them? It’s not exactly the crime of the century. But it’s petty stuff just like this that chronically besmirches “justice” at a certain social level. So: Police report? Maybe. Just maybe.