Don Newbury mug

In the hubbub of health care issues, high unemployment and a whimpering economy, coffee klatches and water cooler confabs are way too brief for in-depth discussions of multiple brow-creasing problems.

For about 750,000 Oncor customers whose kilowatts now are measured by “smart meters,” add still another front-burner concern.

Howls are becoming choruses as sharp billing spikes seemingly coincide with installation of the new meters.

PR people at Oncor probably yearn for the good old days, when their efforts kept the company in the news but off the front page.


My daddy was in the energy business around 1940.

He was a front-line PR person who also looked after the gas wells, fixed leaks and fetched pipe with a truck that couldn’t have been as big as I remember.

He also collected monthly bill payments that customers left at grocery store collection points in May and Blanket, two Brown County towns with populations of a few hundred.

The monthly charge was $2 for residences and $4 for businesses, with the rate doubled during four winter months.

Each grocer had a cigar box with cash and checks stacked high.

As a 4-year-old, I was bug-eyed at the sight of so much loot.

Some paid with coins, knotted carefully in handkerchiefs.

Others wrote notes about payment shortages, with promises to “catch up next month.”

Some left mournful pleas to avoid cessation of gas service.

That’s when Dad did his “PR-ing.”

He’d huddle with the grocer to learn what financial hurdles some folks faced. Gas service was rarely terminated in the good old days before, as my Uncle Mort put it, “they started metering us to death.”


The allegations that the smart meters are running short on accuracy reminded my 97-year-old uncle of a post-World War II story.

Meters of all kinds were popping up, including, of course, for utility services.

“Oncor customers are howling now, but folks back then were many times more upset,” Uncle Mort laughed. “They squealed like a thousand pigs stuck under gates.”

Meter-readers were easy targets of customers’ wrath.

But one of Mort’s friends took on the job for the electric company and even boosted the economy.


A veteran of World War II, the friend had dodged death many times.

What irony, he thought, to risk death by boredom in his monotonous peacetime job.

He vowed to be on the lookout for ways to introduce fun to his daily treks.

He carefully recorded kilowatt usage but was chafed when close personal friends— by their estimation, not his — begged him to share the secret to lowering electric bills.

His mind spinning as fast as the meters, he concocted a two-pronged scheme — one to get them off track and the other to get his laughs on track.


One customer, a bona-fide, major-league gossip, hammered daily for a share of the secret.

“There is a way,” the meter-reader finally confided, “but if I tell you, you’ll spill the beans to the whole community, and that’ll never work.”

The customer did the “cross my heart with hopes to die” pledge if he ever shared the secret with any other human being.


As serious as a funeral, the company guy insisted on a hand-on-the-Bible vow before whispering the meter fix.

“You must buy a new red brick,” he instructed. “Don’t try to get by with a used one, or one that is chipped, or of another color. Place it on top of the meter in a vertical position. If you lay it horizontally, it won’t work. Within three months, your bills should start going down. Remember, you must not tell a single soul.”

The customer nodded, adding that he hoped to be struck down by lightning if such occurred.


Sure enough, when the next reading was taken, a new red brick, centered vertically, topped the confidant’s meter. As he proceeded down the block, and the other blocks on the route, new red bricks topped all meters.

Brick sales spiked, clearly a stimulus for the economy.

Some three months later, the meter reader resigned his position, deciding to further his education on the GI Bill.

He chose to study sociology, believing that he had a head start on understanding human nature.

Smiling about profits from investment in the local brick company, he thought about the magical world of secrets — the ones hushed around town and others that were either not worth keeping or were too good to keep.

He remembered Charlie Chan’s old line, probably heard at a long-ago Saturday movie matinee: “Necessity, mother of invention, also, stepmother of deception.”

Don Newbury is a speaker and writer in the Metroplex.  E-mail him at, call

817-447-3872, or visit

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