Standing there in the middle of his workshop, it was strange to think that Calvin Taylor had already been gone for a year. I don’t think I’ve every seen a place so full of tools and possibilities, and yet so empty. The workshop had been overtaken by the kind of clutter that sets in when it’s only used casually, without commitment, for little jobs, as it had been for the last five years before Calvin’s passing. “The best way to keep a shop neat is to use it”, I can still hear him say.
Now that the fumbling old man who made this mess was gone, the confusion took on an aire of the sacred. A shrine of relics. Empty packages on the bench, cob webs, an enormous collection of off-cuts, and mouse damage, lots of that. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by the confusion. Despite a few feeble attempts near the end of his life to keep his bird houses in repair and to build a new screen door, I watched him lose his shop-sense completely. Gone were the skills and ways of seeing that must have been honed to a razor’s edge in his heyday as a carpenter, plumber and mason.
I say “must have been” because I never saw Calvin in action as a youthful pro. He was, after all, 59 years old when I was born; an old man by the time we first met when I was in my twenties. No, it wasn’t his actions that made me take notice, but his fruits. They still do. You can know a tree by its fruits, and Calvin’s covered the township– houses, cottages, chimneys, even a bridge on the road down to Lake Huron. Some of his boats are still afloat there today. It’s one of life’s sad mysteries that a man who could do all this, never doubting for a minute the success he would achieve, ended up barely knowing the difference between a nail and a screwdriver. A series of heart attacks and a bout with cancer added to the steady advance of old age that sapped his life force in a way that only the old can understand.
Looking back on his life, the words strength and ambition come to mind. Not particularly blessed with intelligence or foresight or anything else that might smooth the way, he relied instead on strength and ambition alone to provide for the family of four kids that he and his wife Dorothy raised at the end of a small country road in an ancient little corner of western Manitoulin Island. Despite his position near the bottom of the economic food chain, the family never lacked anything. And surprisingly, as an old man, Calvin even gained a mysterious reputation for being rather well-off. Something he denied vigorously, despite the brand new red four-wheel drive pick-up he bought every year.
I still remember the afternoon his wife Dorothy called me on the phone, her voice carrying that subtle note of panic people have when they’re really scared, but trying to hide it. Calvin had collapsed on his way to the dinner table and it looked like a heart attack. When I arrived he was conscious and out of trouble, but scared too. What I noticed most during the few seconds I spent carrying him to the car was the contrast. The contrast of strength and weakness all in the same body. Here I held a man who spent a lifetime working hard with his hands; his body still solid and muscular, despite more than eighty years of life. Solid in a way many young men never achieve. Yet here this same man was curled up in my arms like a helpless infant. A wrinkled, confused, 160 pound infant with broad shoulders, a bald head and round, full biceps. Now that both Calvin and Dorothy are gone, the whole incident seems misty and dream-like, yet indelibly etched in my memory.
Even though that first heart attack turned out to be minor and the doctors assured us that no permanent physical damage had occurred, Calvin lost something that day, something that took his strength and ambition with it. Call it nerve or confidence, I don’t know. But whatever disappeared, its loss marked the beginning of the end for him. “I guess I’m no good for nothing now”, his words unfurled like a white flag of surrender as he lay in the hospital bed just before he came home. I think he felt ashamed.
His eldest daughter, Rachel, called me about a week after the first anniversary of his death and asked if I’d organize her Dad’s shop, to get it ready for the auction next month. Rachel and her husband Dennis would drive down from the city later to prepare the household items.
Alone in the shop, I struggled to make a start. As with so many who lived through the depression, early experiences of poverty had turned Calvin into a pack rat, never able to throw anything out. It was remarkable how neat he kept it all when he was active, but now his shop was like a child’s playroom at the end of a day. Who was I to winnow the wheat from the chaff and pass judgment on what would go to the auction or the dump? The task was daunting, humbling, yet unavoidable. I switched on an old radio on the corner of the bench and, once the tubes were warm, discovered that Calvin listened to the CBC. Funny, I never knew that. I still have trouble seeing him listening to some morning talk show about the information super highway or whistling to modern jazz. A bull in an audio china shop.
I decided to split the tool collection into four parts: woodworking, masonry, plumbing and miscellaneous. My plan was to arrange the groups onto the two hay wagons parked outside, then back them into the barn until the morning of the sale. I started by moving the best stuff onto the wagons first, working my way down to items where I felt the auction patron’s demand would petter out. And I knew from past experience that would be quite low. A good auctioneer can conjure the impression of value where none exists at all, whipping the crowd into a frenzy of polite greed that often turns to embarrassment the morning after. Whatever was left after sorting would have to go to the dump, regardless of what happened in the dirty thirties.
Calvin took good care of his equipment and had made a plywood box for each of his power tools. The drill, circular saw and belt sander were all vintage 1960’s stuff. The kind with polished aluminum bodies that look like something from an old B-grade science fiction movie. Slogans like “Live Better Electrically” or “The Jetsons Build a Rec Room” sprang to mind as I took each tool out and tested it in a wall socket. Each worked and had a lot of life left, as far as a I could tell. I couldn’t help but think how much better today’s power tools are and how much less time it takes a journeyman to the earn the money to buy them. It must have taken real commitment for Calvin to buy these power tools back when they were on the leading edge of technology. I’ll bet he and Dorothy discussed each purchase ahead of time with nervous solemnity. “I could just keep ripping lumber by hand if you think two weeks wages is too much for that power saw, Dorothy.” Maybe a collector or a kid just starting out would pick up these relics and really appreciate them. I hoped so. I found a spare blade for the saw and a couple of new sanding belts and stuck them in the right boxes.
It wasn’t until I was nearly done with the woodworking tools that I noticed a red plywood box that housed a small collection of woodworking hand tools. The box held a set of three sharp saws, two planes, a two foot cast aluminum level, a hammer, a 16′ tape measure, a brass plumb bob, chisels and an assortment of little items that turn a good carpenter into a magician– trammel points, a brass pencil sharpener, a contour gauge, a set of dividers. I took all the tools out and discovered a mouse hole and nest in the bottom of the box. I patched the hole with a bit of tin and gave the box a fresh coat of red paint. While I waited for it to dry, I touched up the chiselsand the plane irons on Calvin’s hard, black Arkansas stone, as much for myself as anything else. It seemed like the right thing to do. Despite the fire hazard, Calvin always swore by kerosene as a lubricant for sharpening and as I skirted a bit on the stone the thin liquid filled the shop with its familiar, antique scent. Before repacking the kit I painted the letters _CT_ on the top of the box in black paint, before giving myself a chance to think twice about it.
Country auctions are popular for two reasons: the ever-present prospect of a bargain, and the opportunity to gaze, with full public blessing, at the private items of someone else’s personal life. Voyeurism and thrift all in one. The promise of good weather and the reputation of Calvin’s household effects drew a large crowd on the morning of the sale. The people in attendance were about evenly split between local farmers dressed in dark work clothes and seed company ball caps, and temporary summer transplants from the city sporting neon-bright leisure clothing and $150.00 pneumatic walking shoes. Contrast again. The auctioneer, a man in his fifties named Morrell, began the bidding on small items first, just to break the ice and then skillfully built the frenzied atmosphere with slippery phrases like “nearly new”, “I’ve heard it works”, “a quality-deal”, “once-in-a-lifetime” to describe each item of the spread he was peddling. As is customary, the tools were offered last.
Every time I see an auction I wonder what a group of twenty-first century anthropologists would think of the scene. People traveling from miles around to witness the high-priest of the event standing on an altar, speaking in a rapid, sing-song tongue, barely intelligible. His ritual hammer blows punctuating a strange mix of words and hand signals he exchanges with the tribe. Every so often one of the worthy supplicants carries off a trinket, with smiles. Strange, isn’t it, how custom makes the bizarre seem so normal.
But there was little time for me to think about such things on the day of the sale. I was one of three helpers lifting items up for bid, so everyone could get a clear view. Time went quickly as we hustled to keep up with Morrell’s rapid fire pace. As we moved from household goods to tools, the bidding crowd changed completely. Less neon, fewer dresses and more seed company advertising. Most of the tools went for more than you’d think fair, but one man was lucky enough to get Calvin’s full-size drill press for just $50. The crowd was distracted by a small herd of stray cattle that trotted past on the road and competing bids didn’t pile in fast enough to satisfy the gavel. A market glitch that, no doubt, would get spun into local lore.
Adolf Hunsberdel, a local junk dealer claiming to be in the antique business, livened the market for many of the tools he wanted for his store. It was he and a tourist who finally fought a dual over the red tool box and its contents I’d spent time getting ready for the sale. I wasn’t surprised, since I’d seen both of them looking over the box before the bidding started. When we finally got to it, Morrell, unable to see properly through the crowd, thought the box was empty and started the bidding way too low– $7.00– until laughs from the crowd and a forest of arms shot up. A few words from his spotter shed light on the matter and Morrell added another zero to the price.
By the time bids had risen to $150.00, only Hunsperdel and the tourist were interested. Morrell, sensing each man was near the end of the line, raised the bids just $5.00 at a time. “$155.00… $160.00… $165.00.” Hunsperdel hesitated, the ball in his court. “…Going…going…” Hunsperdel’s finger rose in acceptance and all eyes shot to the tourist: “…$175.00,” he shouted, trying to shake off the junk man with the aggressive $10.00 jump. Not to be shamed, Hunsperdel okayed the $180.00 bid offered by Morrell and stood still. His economy of motion gave him a false aire of skill and respectability that was immediately laughed off by anyone who stepped into his depressing, disorganized store in town. “Going… going…”
“$181.00!” shouted the tourist. A moment’s hesitation, then Hunsperdel shook his head and Morrell’s gavel dropped immediately. “Sold”, he barked, “to the gentleman in the bright green shorts for $181.00”, sealing the deal and quickly shifting attention to a set of saw horses.
As I carried the box to its new owner, he kept looking towards the road where the refreshment stand had been set up next to the cars, about 100 yards away. When I handed him the kit he thanked me and quickly walked in that direction. The other helpers were managing all right with the rest of the tools so I stayed awhile, away from the crowd, and watched the box move away. Part way to the cars a boy, about nine or ten years old, ran up to the man and handed him a drink. Father and son, I suppose. As the boy took a sip from his own cup, Dad put the box down on the grass, opened it and said a few words that I couldn’t hear because of the distance. Wide-eyed, the boy’s cup dropped to the grass and he started pulling tools out of the box in a hurry. Christmas morning.
“WOW”, I could see him mouth the word as he held up Calvin’s old Bailey plane and then the framing square I’d oiled, then the blue-black cross cut saw with hungry silver teeth, then the tape measure and the calipers. Wow is right. Before anything was lost, father and son put the tools back in the box and closed the lid. After struggling with it alone for a few yards, the boy surrendered one end and they both carried it the rest of the way to the car. Clearly, the start of something great.
— K.M. Evans is a special contributor to this Month’s Gazette.