On most Saturday mornings in the Savemart parking lot in Merced, you might find a man selling birdhouses and dog houses from the back of his pick-up truck.
Meet Ben Franco, a retired truck driver who has turned his spare time into productive work.
He builds birdhouses that are now in dozens of backyards throughout Merced.
When Ben retired, he traded in his trucker’s log book for a workbench.
He spends many hours every week designing, building and selling bird and dog houses. “It gets me out of the house,” Ben says about his pastime.
Ben has a lot of stories to tell about his birdhouses. He says the folks at Savemart know he’s out in their parking lot and he says they don’t seem to mind.
“This keeps me busy,” he says.
As well as keeping himself occupied, Ben experiences the joy of knowing a customer is buying a well build birdhouse.
One of those customers is Keith Visher of Merced. I came across Keith and Ben on the Saturday before Mother’s Day. Keith was looking over the selection before picking out the perfect birdhouse for his mom.
“Mom had two birdhouses,” Keith told me. “Summer weather destroyed the one in the backyard, and the one in the front had seen better days.” Keith paid Ben twenty dollars, and was on his way.
Before working as a truck driver, Ben was in the military and stationed in Germany in 1957 and ‘58. When I asked him about his time in Germany, he took a few moments to tell me a couple of stories.
“One day when we were off duty, a friend suggested we fly to Spain. We did and when we landed, we were questioned by the French police because we were in uniform. The police officer asked me my name and I told him ‘Franco’. He got real serious with us because of General Francisco Franco.”
General Franco was the Spanish dictator at the time. After a few tense moments with the French policeman, Ben and his friend were on their way.
Another interesting story from his service days that came to Ben’s mind was when he and his buddies recognized actor Jack Palance. Ben says the actor was not pleasant to the soldiers. Palance at first refused to pose with the uniformed soldiers for a photograph.
“He was there with his wife,” Ben said. “She pulled him aside and after she talked to him, he came back to us and said he’d stand next to us for picture.” Ben laughs, “We told him never mind, we don’t want a picture anymore.”
Ben says it takes him a little over an hour to assemble each birdhouse.
Dog houses are larger and require a little more time. He uses pieces of lumber and other building material he has acquired over the years.
For Ben, building and selling birdhouses gives his retirement greater meaning. He enjoys seeing a satisfied customer.
He’s a happy man, even if he is doing it in part to get away from his spouse’s honey-do list.
“My wife will find me something to do around the house if I’m not busy,” he says.
Steve Newvine lives in Merced.
His latest book, Stand-by, Camera One is available on Lulu.com .