I am standing inside another man’s workshop. You don’t know him, but that doesn’t matter. You’ve stood inside at least a half-dozen other shops just like this one. They exist on almost every small farm from Valdosta, Georgia to Fort Dodge, Iowa. They live in nearly every small town from New England to the west coast.
A man’s workshop is an expression of his fierce independence. If it’s broken, he intends to fix it. If he doesn’t have it, he intends to build it. If it needs to be taken apart and put back together, he intends to do it himself. He might not know exactly how, but he’s not afraid to try.
These ancestral repositories of toolboxes and bolt bens and homemade benches live in basements and garages and barns and old tin sheds. The best shops are those passed down from older men who taught young boys how to turn a wrench or how to hold a mower blade at the proper angle against the grinder. Memories live here. Shop lights on the floor under the belly of a tractor. Old, wrinkled hands feeding a board through the table saw. Wide eyes watching every move.
Today is the end of this old shop’s life as it once was. The auction company is here. The portable speaker is fired up and the slightly round gentleman in the Stetson hat is testing it out. The cadence in his voice takes me back to the cattle barn in Jackson. He taps the mic with the palm of his hand. “Test, one, two. Test, one, two.”
Against the far wall is a bank of rolling toolboxes. Drawers half open revealing an overflow of pliers and box wrenches. There’s an old hardware ben full of nuts and bolts dating back to WWII. Coffee cans on the shelf spilling over with screws and nails and files and sparkplugs. All of them saved “just in case” he needed them.
Dead in the middle of the shop, there’s a single 4” metal post holding up the center beam. On it is mounted a small flat metal table that wraps around the post. The welds are crude but sufficient. A vise mounted on one side. A grinder with a stone and a wire wheel sits opposite. A makeshift plug with ancient wiring that disappears into the rafters overhead.
Over in the corner is a floor-stand drill press that has seen better days. The top of the motor housing is gone. There’s a bit in the chuck and metal shavings on the table. I imagine that he drilled a hole in a sway bar for his tractor, or maybe in a bracket for hanging another shelf in the shop. The shavings were fresh.
This place is an exhibition of order and chaos. Cabinets with a hundred small metal drawers containing light bulbs and cotter keys and pins and lock washers. Shelves bulging with the remnants of projects that span over the decades. To an outsider like me, it looks like disaster. But, in his mind, everything was in its place, and he was the only one who could find exactly what he wanted when he needed it.
Most of the contents of the shop have been moved out into the yard where onlookers like me can get a better look. His treasures have been loosely categorized in groups on pallets that will be sold in bulk.
Pallet #198 is stacked with boxes of motor oil, transmission fluid and radiator coolant. There are three cut-off buckets with traces of black oil smears. Four funnels of various sizes. Even a handful of the old metal round oil cans with the spout that punches through the top.
Pallet #147 has lawn mower engines on it. Briggs 3HP. A bucket of worn-out push mower wheels. Throttle cables. A box of carburetors, air filters and gas tanks. A hefty stack of mower blades that look like they all ate rocks for lunch.
Max is with me. He’s pulling at his leash, sniffing everything in sight. He pees on pallet #183. I look over my shoulder, check the sky for clouds and pretend like I don’t see him.
Over by the fence there is a 4ft barrel fan. I stop to inspect. The fan blades are a little rusty. The wheels seem to be in good shape. The plug wire has been cut and put back together with black electrical tape. I daydream for a minute about how the air flow would feel inside my own shop. It has potential.
The tag on the fan is #132 and I think about how long it will take to get through the other 131 items before this fan goes up for auction. I’m asking myself how badly I really need an old fan. How long do I want to follow Max around? I decide to move on.
Down the fence line there are old wooden plow stocks. These are from a time when men walked the furrows behind a long-eared mule with a name like Claude, or Maude. Rusted bottom plows on three of them. Cultivators on the rest. Relics of a life that is no more. The sounds of Gee and Haw trailing behind the pounding of hoofs and the jangle of metal trace rings banging against the hames. They have been preserved so that an old man can remember his childhood.
The hillside between the shop and the big hay barn is lined with tractors and farm equipment. A small Farmall with the offset steering wheel and tricycle gear out front. Two blue tractors and two green ones. You know the colors. A New Holland hay baler. Harrow. Boom sprayer. A rusty backhoe with leaky hydraulic hoses. Piles of fence posts. Rolls of hog wire. A three-point-hitch post hole digger.
Everywhere I look there are pieces of a man’s life. His DNA is on every tool. His spirit lingers in every corner. He gave himself to his wife and to his work. It was that simple.
Today, most of it is stacked on pallets. Waiting for the highest bidder.
But this auction is not the sum of a man. He is not wholly defined by his stuff. No man is. What does it profit a man if he accumulates the most stuff? His real legacy? A marriage that stood up against the odds. A neighbor willing to lend a hand. A stern outer layer, but an old softy on the inside.
I shook one man’s hand who said simply, “The world is not going to be the same without him.”
The pickup trucks are rolling into the pasture next to the barn yard like ants invading a picnic. Serious buyers. Many of them old friends who don’t want to see some stranger who doesn’t care take advantage of the situation.
Me? I just came to look. Max and I head for the truck. He pees on a tractor tire on the way out. In the background, I can hear the auctioneer fire it up. Heads nod. This is what it boils down to.
In a matter of a few hours, a lifetime of a man’s work is gone.