Above: Some of the “junk” Alan hopes will find a new home. Interested?
It’s a sad thing to watch, an old man sorting through the stuff he’s acquired over a lifetime, deciding what little he can take to his next place and what he has to toss out. Those given to the Swamp Yankee persuasion, born into it or an acquired taste by being immersed in it, are probably prime examples for this sort of exercise. I watched it last when my old friend John B. had to “get smaller” and had to move out of the house he’s lived in most of his 90 years. I only watched because that is a family thing and I wasn’t family. Besides, I got plenty after his family had gone back north.
I do recognize that this is a thing of the past. People today move more often and as a result, they have less time to accumulate stuff. And they toss it out faster too. You can always tell a Swamper because he’s the one out front picking up something you put out for the rubbish. One of my ex-girlfriends could not get by a pile of stuff along the side of the road to save her soul. It was embarrassing! The last report I heard about her was she was seen trying to get a heavy railroad tie into the back of her station wagon. People like her know the value of things better than most, never having had much in their youth. “Getting by!” was a common greeting in days past. Unsaid is the word “Just…” but it’s there. Days gone by now. Not a lot is worth hanging on to and not all the room for it anyway.
My grandfather was already 64 when I met him, or he met me, actually. He’d been a lot of things in his days but in the last of them, he was sharpening lawnmowers, hand saws, ice skates, and fixing small appliances in a shop on Main Street. He was forever a tinker and a good one too. He designed and built a machine that he could mount a reel lawnmower (remember them?) onto it, flip a switch, and a grinding wheel would sing its way up one blade, rotate the reel, and sing back down the next one, until the lawnmower was all neatly honed and ready to cut lawns. His brother-in-law saw the possibility of manufacturing and selling the machines and he berated Grandpa for not making more than one for himself and for not patenting the design. Uncle and Grandpa were two different types of people.
Grandpa had collected a lot of well-worn tools in his day and when Grandma passed away and Grandpa had to consolidate out of the house across from Quidnessett church, it was a week-long event for my father and to a lesser degree, me. I actually witnessed the event and was probably more of a pain than anything else. I was enough like Grandpa that I wanted to keep everything, take it home with me. I remember picking through a box of old ice skates they’d just closed up and Grandpa snapped “get out of that box, A! We just folded it shut!” (He always called me “A”.)
Sure, I took umbrage at that but in thinking about it later on, he”d been in a mood all week because we were tearing his heart out… one tool or gadget at a time. That awful week, just two weeks after burying Grandma, it must have been really hard for him. My father was upset too because he had to get it done and he was incredulous at all the stuff Grandpa had accumulated. For example, he used triangular files to sharpen saw blades. He used to send me out the Benny’s on the corner of Queen Street to get three files on credit from a Mr. Duffy. Well, Grandpa never threw out the worn files at all. He had them all in cigar boxes in the cellar. Seven or eight boxes full of worn-out files. Even I wouldn’t have saved them. Well, a few maybe.
When he saw what he had to do for his father, Dad must have decided to not accumulate so much stuff himself. I was away in the military when they moved out of Vine Street to a new house on Cedar Avenue. Everything that wasn’t transferred to Cedar Avenue went straight to the town dump, including my massive baseball card and comic book collections. Probably worth hundreds of thousands of dollars if I had them today. Now they are all turned to powder under the manicured lawns of Howard Johnson Dog Park, down the end of the Cove.
So sure, I was away and not witness to the tossing out of the family “good stuff.” The women in the family were good at that sneaky way of tossing out stuff. Not my father. My mother… Boss Mama had no Yankee in her. She was Swedish. Swedes are a different breed. They don’t collect stuff, they get rid of stuff. One time we went on a vacation trip up north and when we got home, one of the big backyard sheds was gone, along with all the good stuff that was in it too. Did they tell me? No. It was a big yard. She didn’t have to do that. We only had one shed left.
I was there years later when they moved out of Cedar Avenue and I got some good stuff at that time for my house. It wasn’t a lot, Mostly a few things of mine that didn’t get tossed out in the earlier move. But there was enough stuff to seed my own collection. My other grandfather’s old Masonic ceremonial swords, for example. I’ve been keeping them around for 50 years.
And so it is that today I got down to the business of sorting through all the good stuff I’ve accumulated in my 80 years. I don’t have near enough time for this so I have to be more merciless than I usually am. Usually when I’m fixin‘ to get rid of stuff, I just get it closer to the door, not out the door.
I have a massive collection of books. Many classics. Bellamy. Hesse. Kafka. I even have a nursery school songbook inscribed to me at Christmas in 1943 by “Mother and Daddy“ in Mother’s deft handwriting. I note that she said “Mother and Daddy.“ There’s some psychological food for thought there somewhere. I’ve seen that book from time to time while looking for other stuff but I never knew it was a Christmas present when I was three. But it does show that a book can be with you for a lifetime so unless you’re prepared for that, borrow it from someone else and then give it back.
I have a complete hardware store in the workshop. Stuff I bought and never used or wanted five but had to buy eight. I have tools that my cousins gave me because they couldn’t bear to part with themselves. Peter was particular guilty of that. He wouldn’t take my big Shopsmith tool when I wanted to give it to him but I ended up with a ton of old cast iron grinders and such. Obviously he is less Yankee and more residual Swedish.
We all grew up in Post War East Greenwich. We were building stuff pretty early on. We all started out every project we ever had by straightening out all the bent nails we could find. We had to or we’d never build anything. Often we had to take something apart to get the nails. We didn’t have money to go to the hardware store for new nails. I don’t think I pounded in a new nail until out of high school. We all got pretty good at hammering them straight without banging our thumbs and fingers. The best thing was the anvil part on the back of a bench vice but the sidewalk was okay too. You had to be careful though so’s to not get cement chips in your eyes.
So yes, today, I was going through stuff and thinking that my dream would be to find a feller who would back his truck up to the door and take it all away because he’s young and just starting out and he needs all this stuff himself. He has a garage and a cellar and wants this stuff to seed his own workshop. Now this guy is not a newly arrived to East Greenwich. No, this guy is three generations living in Exeter or even deeper in South County. He grew up there in the land of the Swampers and he’s one himself. In my dream he’s delighted to find all the tools I have from my grandfather’s toolbox because he can add them to the ones he has from his father’s toolbox. That is exactly the feller I need to find and I know there are less and less of us kindred spirits as time passes. In some households today, you have to hire a repairman for simple jobs because there are no tools in the house but scissors and nail clippers. By the way, I have about 20 nail clippers all tolled. They just multiplied over the decades. I never bought a one.
Anyway, I have to get back to work.
Alan Clarke is a local tinkerer, typesetter, historian, and lover of old cemeteries. He is also a member of the board of East Greenwich News.