Every day he stops in for a tuneup

Wednesday, October 14, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

All day, people drive up to Rob Pate and beef about their cars. As a service adviser at Lincoln-Mercury of Kings Auto Mall, he notes their complaints and hangs a work-order number from the sick car's rear-view mirror.

When lunch time arrives, Rob heads home. "It's only 2.3 miles," he said as he slipped his car into traffic. I was riding shotgun, tagging along for this week's "Lunch with Cliff."

The trip from the Warren County dealership's service desk to the front porch of Rob's Loveland home took seven minutes. "On a bad day it'll take me 10 minutes," he said as he knocked on the front door and peered through the window for signs of his wife, Penelope.

\ Rob wouldn't mind if the drive took two, three, four times that long. The peace he finds having lunch at home makes it all worthwhile.

At home, shop talk is banned. Penelope won't hear the gory details of cars leaking bodily fluids. Or the story about the rude van driver who threw his keys at Rob.

"This is my decompression chamber," Rob said softly. His voice could barely be heard as he unwrapped his sub sandwich and turned to look at his backyard patio through the dining room's sliding glass doors.

"For one blessed hour," he said, "I completely put everything about work out of my mind."

Instead of talking car repairs and customers, he sits in a quiet, sun-lit dining room and talks about family matters with his wife. He calls her Penny. She calls him Bear.

They discuss home-schooling their 17-year-old son. His name is Cameron, but his parents call him Mouse.

Mouse was out of the house the afternoon we had lunch. His school -- Rod named it Toad Hall High School "after all the toads that lived here when we moved in" -- was closed for Columbus Day.

"Mouse was the new kid at Loveland High School," Penny said. "And he was feeling out of place."

Because Penny has 25 years' experience teaching in public schools, she and Rob decided to home-school their son with Penny as his teacher. While Penny enjoys teaching her son, both Rob and Penny love being with each other. Each day, they know they are lucky to share something countless couples can't.

"We are happy," Penny said. "People look at us like we're strange when we say that -- what with all the divorce and unhappiness in the world. But we have had 28 years of true happiness."

To Rob, coming home for lunch is true bliss.

"I'm very lucky," he said. "Not everybody can come home in the middle of the day to be with the one they love dearly."

Penny patted Rob's hand. Her knowing nod and the look of assurance on her face told me these were words she had heard before.

"I look forward to him coming home every day for lunch," she said. "We are each other's biggest fans."

They laugh at each other's jokes until they cry. When tempers flare, they sing the "I'm Sorry" song.

Rob stood for a solo rendition. Swaying back and forth, he crooned:

"I'mmmmm sorry, ohhhh sooooo very sorry."

"That song may be goofy, but it sure gets you over your mad real fast," he said, as Penny wiped tears of laughter from her eyes.

Rob's lunch hour was almost over. The couple had just enough time for their ritual midday goodbye: a mention of what they had for lunch between quick kisses. As he pulled away, they said "I love you" in sign language. After that exchange, Rob was quiet for a block or two.

"I love coming home to have lunch with her," he finally said.

On rare days, he told me, he'll come home to an empty house. Penny will be on a field trip with her student. Rob will eat lunch and read a book. But it's just not the same.

"It can be the hottest day of the year," Rob said. "But when she's not home for lunch, the house is cold."

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.