Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer – part 2

It’s funny how the mind works. I left off last Friday suggesting that this two part story of trouble on the way to the North Hatley, Quebec antique show happened in the same trip.  As I was hitting the “post” button, I realize that the events described actually took place on separate trips, a couple of years apart.  I tend to think out a story and then write quickly.  I had not thought of these events in years, and over that time my mind had blended them into one event.  By the time I realized my mistake, I convinced myself it would make for a better story in any case.  Also, I’ll admit I was anxious to wrap so I could get out in the garden. You know.  Spring fever.  But now as I sit down to write the second part that decision bothers me, not that it matters a great deal;  but I am trying to be roughly accurate in my story telling.  Arguably any good story telling involves a certain level of B.S. and I’ve got nothing against a good tall tale, but there you have it.  Our story continues on the same route, but a couple of years later.

I would avoid an extra night in a motel by arriving in North Hatley around noon on Friday so I would have time to set up for the show opening that evening. I would leave home about 4 a.m. to make the eight hour trip.  The trip had gone well.  Leaving so early there were no traffic slowdowns in Toronto, Kingston, or Montreal, so about eleven a.m. I found myself feeling quite light and happy as I traveled up and down the big hills on Hwy 10  in the Magog area. 

The sun was shining.  Big, fluffy cumulus clouds rolled along the horizon.  Traffic was light, and I could see myself arriving right on time.  I was already unpacking in my mind.  I was heading down a long decline when I saw the transport a few thousand feet ahead of me apply his brakes.  The brake lights came on, and then I noticed a big piece of metal come shooting out from one of his wheels.  A big chunk of his brake had come loose.  I watched it become airborne,  and everything went into slow motion as it bounced once, twice, heading right towards me. In high school I wasn’t any good at algebra, but I generally understood geometry, and so I quickly calculated the distance, trajectory, bounce height, and the velocity, and determined that I was in trouble.  There was a car coming up beside me so there was no switching lanes.  If I tried to brake it might make it worse.  I stayed the course and was relieved when it landed right in front of me, missing the windshield; but making a sickening loud clunk under the truck as it bounced up into the under-carriage.  Looking in the rear view I saw it come out the back and off to the side, and I noticed a wet line on the road coming from the back.  It had hit and punctured the gas tank and I was bleeding gas at a good rate.

The trucker didn’t see it happen, and kept going. I knew I would never be compensated if I didn’t have his license plate number and information, so I floored it and caught up with him, and motioned him over. We both pulled over and he ran back to meet me where I was looking up under the back of the car to determine the damage.  It was a steady flow out of about a 3” gash.  He immediately apologized and said he realized that something had happened to one of his brakes, but didn’t see that it had hit me.  As we stood there watching the gas flow slowly from the tank  he gave me his card and said the company would pay for it, and would I like him to call a tow truck.  I thanked him and looked at the gas coming out and said “ you know it’s only about another twenty minute drive to North Hatley and I’ve got almost a full tank of gas, so I think I will just go for it and see if I can at least get closer, and to a garage and save the tow charge.  With a wave and a good luck we both jumped in our vehicles and got back on the highway.

It only took about ten minutes to realize that yes, I was losing gas at a good rate but the needle wasn’t going down that fast so I just kept going.  I left the big highway driving past a few repair shops because I now had confidence that I would make it, and if I could get to the show and unload, I could call a tow truck from there.   As I came into town I stopped at the gas station which was also the town auto repair.  The owner there could see immediately that I had a problem.  “So how much gas do you have left?”  “I’d say about an eight of a tank.”  “Well here, take this canister of gas, go and unload and if you run out, then dump it in and it will give you enough to get back here. I can fix your gas tank tomorrow so you will have it to go back in on Sunday. “  Heck of a nice guy. Great solution.  So that’s what I did.

The garage was only a few blocks away from the community rink where the show takes place.  When I got there I jumped out of the truck away from the unloading area to tell the people there of my predicament and to make sure that no one was smoking.  Everyone was enormously supportive and helpful. They all came over and helped me unload everything on the parking lot in record time, and twenty minutes later I was back at the garage where they parked my truck out back and put a container under it to catch the remainder of the leaking gas.   We exchanged phone numbers in case he found something else, but otherwise he suggested he would have it ready for me the following afternoon.

I walked back to the show feeling happy not only to be there,  but  anywhere considering the possibility, and at one point seeming probability of a big chunk of metal smashing into my face at high velocity.  It was no problem getting a ride to the motel with another dealer, and I was set up in time and had a great opening night and following show.  My truck was ready the next day as promised, and the trucking company paid for the repair.  I was once again very grateful for the help of others, and for a happy ending.

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Coming in on a wing and a prayer- part one

In the eighties and nineties, in spite of spending a lot of time on the road going back and forth to Quebec and doing weekend antique shows all the time, I  never had auto club coverage. It’s not that I’m against auto clubs.  I’m sure they give many peace of mind, and before the days of google map they would plan a nice trip for you.  But I inherently have faith, I guess you can call it, that things will generally go well, and should trouble arise I can handle it.  This may stem from being influenced as a young person when I watched a t.v. interview with Orson Bean, who was a political commentator and popular comedian at the time.  He argued that he doesn’t believe in the value of insurance.  He proposed  that if you saved all the money that you spend trying to insure yourself against every eventuality, you would have plenty of money to cover yourself should anything actually occur.  Of course this was before the days of multi-million dollar liability settlements.  But I took his point, and have avoided buying any insurance other than car and house which I consider essential, and it’s worked pretty well so far.

Here’s how I deal with a breakdown.  The first thing is to get the vehicle out of harm’s way.   Then relax, take a deep breath, and realize that the plan has changed.  When I become comfortable with this fact I then go about finding and contacting the nearest garage.  If possible I seek out local input.  Because I am not afraid to make contact with strangers, if someone is around and looks reasonably normal my first move is to explain my situation to that person, and ask if they might direct me.  Gratefully, breakdowns have been rare, and touch wood, my luck has held.  Here’s an example.

It was the mid-nineties and I was heading solo to North Hatley, Quebec to participate in the mid-summer show there.  The truck was tightly packed and I remember there was an almost full size folk art moose tied to the front rack.  At a passing glance, it looked like I was hunting and got lucky.  So, I was bombing along happily, East-bound on the 401 near Gananoque‎, Ontario when the engine started to sputter and choke.  There was an exit right ahead so I took it, hoping I could make it to a garage or at least a parking lot.  I just made it up the ramp and it started to die out, so all I could do was to pull over as far as I could on the shoulder and it shut down. I was distressed in that it was late in the day and although I had planned to stop soon for the night, I was counting on getting up early and driving straight to North Hatley so that I would have time to set up before the seven o’clock opening.  If it took all morning or longer to repair the truck I would not make it in time.

At first I just sat there, and took stock. It was a beautiful late afternoon. That time of day when you get the wonderful clear horizontal light as the sun slowly sets.  Around me were green fields and a couple of small houses nearby. As the motor stopped I could hear the sound of a lawn mower. Excellent, there’s my first move. I hopped out, crossed the road and waited until the man on the riding lawn mower turned the corner and was headed back towards me.  Putting on my best non-threatening smile and waving, he saw me and waved back.  He drove right up to me and killed the engine.  “Beautiful evening.  I don’t mean to trouble you, but that’s my truck over there.  I’ve just broken down and I need to phone a garage. Could you suggest anyone?”.  We exchanged names.  “Well, I work for the Canadian Tire in town so we could fix it tomorrow sometime, but I’ve got a buddie who’s got a country shop just down the road and he may be able to get you going faster. He’s cheaper and better too”  I appreciated his honesty. “Sounds great. Can we give him a call?” “ Sure can.  He’ll probably still be working at the shop” .   A half hour later the truck was hooked up to his tow truck and we were headed the few kilometers to his shop.  He was a great guy.  Right away he offered to stay and work that evening to get me going first thing in the morning.  He figured correctly that it was the fuel pump and he had a rebuilt replacement on hand. When I asked him about a place nearby that I might spend the night, he suggested that his sister had a bed and breakfast, and he could take me there and pick me up in the morning.  How Ideal is that?

His sister and her husband also turned out to be really nice people, and offered me a beer and some sandwiches when they realized I had not had dinner.  After a good night’s sleep, and seven o’clock breakfast I was ready to be picked up at eight.  The truck was repaired, the bill was reasonable, and I was on right on schedule to arrive in North Hatley for set up.  Thank you kind people, and here’s to serendipity.

But as fate would have it, this was not the only “test” I would experience on this particular trip.  I will continue the story in next Friday’s blog.  Stay tuned, as they used to say.

Learning to Love Auctions

What is it that would cause a teen age boy to attend an estate auction on a sunny Saturday afternoon , when he could be going to the beach with friends?  Thinking back on my sixteen year old self I remember that I found time for both, and that as soon as I discovered them, I enjoyed attending auctions.   Initially I think it was the “game’ aspect of watching two or more determined buyers going at it, trying to outbid each other to win that desirable object.  . Although not inherently materialistic, I find it interesting to observe the dollar value of things on any given day, and compare it to my estimates of it’s worth.  Also,  an auction presents an opportunity  to be among strangers, and observe their interplay.  Something I also love about public markets, both of the food and antique variety. And finally  of course there is the stuff itself.  There, spread out across the yard lie the components that taken together represent the life and  possessions of an individual, or family.

When I turned sixteen my Mom inexplicably and without warning bought me a brand new Vauxhall Viva station wagon.  She and my Aunt Marie were visiting a car dealer friend, and it must have been a heck of a good lunch, or a sweetheart of a deal because they came home with the news that they had both bought a car. One for me, and one for my cousin Ron.  We suspected that alcohol was involved, but naturally we were delighted all the same.  So I had wheels, and occasionally, a local auction advertisement would catch my eye, and I would take some of my hard earned  cash and set off to see what I could score.  Hard earned being the correct term in that I had a summer job on the night shift at the local canning plant.  I worked in the cooking area.  About 100 degrees, steamy, and loud for eight hours.  Minimum wage.  I learned to get by on about four hours sleep so I could have some fun before going back into the abyss.

I didn’t need anything of course.  I wasn’t setting up house or starting a shop.  I would just find myself interested in certain things.  A naive painting.  A primitive, handmade table, a chrome ashtray stand with an airplane on top.  An old plastic radio. The ephemera of interesting small things dumped from a keepsake drawer into a box lot. I loved to sort through it all and find the unexpected. I realize now that as I was looking over all that stuff I was developing my aesthetic.  I didn’t give a hoot for all the fussy glass and china and Victorian furniture , but I started to love the look of old paint, and hand wrought things.  I decided what of the paintings, if any were of interest.  I grew an appreciation for rusty old farm tools.

I didn’t even bid all that often, and when I did I would fall out early as I didn’t have a lot to spend. But I would usually come home with something.   A little gem unnoticed in a box-lot, or something so off base and goofy to most people that no one else wanted it.  I seemed to score a lot of funky, handmade furniture.  Nobody wanted that stuff.

After a few auctions you begin to notice who the dealers are.  The ones who stuck out from the crowd by how often they bid and won,  seemingly without matter of the cost.  In our area there was Madge Wilson, of Grannie’s Boot who incidentally is still  in the business today, and Don Palmer, legendary picker form the Aylmer area.   On anything of great antique value these two would very quickly leave everyone else in the dust and battle it out between them.  They both had great knowledge and taste so I learned a lot by just observing them.  On something I really liked  I would try to outbid them, but I would rarely win.  I don’t think they liked the idea of encouraging a young upstart, although they would very occasionally throw me a bone.  Still, I would most often leave with something, or a few things in the back.

In Dresden, where I was raised we had a Two car garage.  My mother rightfully insisted in keeping her car indoors, but didn’t mind having things stored temporarily on the other side.  When we sold the newspaper business, I decided to keep a few things.  I noticed one day that the bottom of the trays used to store type were made from very old hand carved wooden plates for making  circus posters.  These approx. 2’x3’ works of art showed wild animals, acrobats etc. with a place blocked out to include the local time and place.  They had remnants of the old ink soaked into the wood.  They were very old, and they were fabulous.  I also had a circa 1840 hand feed rotary printing press.  Quite small, but weighing about half a ton.  Then there was a lot of old hand carved type, etc.  So it did not take long for my space to fill up.  That’s when I met my new, old friend Dan.

Dan was always at the auctions.  He was the friendly looking, disheveled  old dude who would give the auctioneer a $2 bid when he need one, and would go home with twenty or so boxes of old tools, hardware etc. and the occasional piece of unwanted furniture.  I got to talking to Dan over coffee as we were checking out the preview.  He was a nice guy and generous by nature.  Since his wife’s death some years earlier Dan had lived on his own on a small hobby farm at the edge of town.   Just a few blocks from my house along the river road.   One day Dan asked me to come by for coffee and he would show me his barn.   I got myself right over there.

After coffee and a chat in his kitchen we went to the barn, and when he threw open the doors I was truly amazed with what lay before me.  There arranged on rows of tables and in cupboards lay thousands of sorted everyday items.  A box of cork screws here, next to kitchen devices, beside hand tools.  You get the picture.  Then over there are stacks of furniture, old bicycles, and a couple of cars including a big, black 1957 Cadillac limousine.  Wow. “Where did you get the limo, Dan”.  Turns out it was the governor of Alabama’s, and he had bought it cheap because the engine was seized. Knowing that I was running out of space he offered me a 10’x20’ space in exchange for helping him once a week to move and organize things.  I liked Dan and had no trouble agreeing to the terms.

Within a couple of years this space was also quite full, but my high school years were drawing to a close and soon I would be leaving town to pursue higher education.  My mother was wanting the other side of the garage back for storing her picnic table in the winter, etc. and I didn’t want to leave my old friend Dan with a problem.  By this point he was finished with going to auctions and wasn’t leaving the house much.

Realizing the game was almost  up, and not wanting to leave a burden on his kids, Dan phoned a local junk collector he knew and sold it all for one money on the understanding the guy would clean out the barn.  I was just about to leave home for London, Ontario so I told him to go ahead and sell my stuff as well.  There was some cool things in there, but there was also a lot of junk.  I think I got $800 for it all which was probably about what I had spent, and which came in handy to buy books, etc.  The stuff in my mother’s garage lasted about another year until a professor from a Chicago University with a printing studies program  found out about my old press and came racing over to sweet talk my mother into donating it to the library there.  Oh, and he’ll take those old Circus printing plates as well.  They had a deal when he agreed to take everything.  I couldn’t really be upset as I had left the problem unresolved for so long, but I still think about those Circus plates from time to time.

How did this whole thing get started?

The other day as a friend was about to leave,  I spotted a couple of small finger jointed pine shelves leaning against the back porch wall where they had been standing for the last six months or so.  They were part of a cheap wooden shoe rack I had bought a few years back at Canadian tire for about $16 on sale.  The finger joints had begun to come unglued and one of the upright supports had snapped, so rather than repair it we bought ourselves a better one .  Although I had no use for shelves, I found it difficult to throw them away.  “Hey, could you use these shelves.  They need a little gluing but they would make a great little rack for drying herbs or something.”  My friend looked at me and said, “I have no use for them as a shelf, but if you want to get rid of them I will use them for kindling for my wood stove.”  I stood there for a moment assessing whether this was acceptable,  and then reason clicked in and I said “Sure, go ahead and burn them up.” I thought they may have served a nobler purpose, but hey, a man’s got to light a fire.  This incident got me thinking about why I have a tendency to save things that I either find interesting as an object, or which I think I might find useful  later on.

I’ve never lived through a period of want.  Never not had enough to eat.  Never even longed for a new pair of pants.  I’ve been a pretty lucky little monkey when it comes to living in a time and place where I have not wanted for much.  So why do I save broken shelves?   And being someone who saves things, why have I not become a collector per say?  Or for that matter, a hoarder.

Over my 35 years in the trade I have encountered and come to know several collectors, and indeed we do have a pretty large collection of Canadian folk art, but this is largely due to my vocation, and the tendencies of my wife Jeanine who does have a true collector’s instinct.  In collecting terms I relate most closely to the crow.  Not in that I am necessarily attracted to shiny things, but in that I tend to pick up and carry away that which I find interesting or pleasing enough that I think I may want to look at it again and again.  Knowing that one day, I may find that I have enjoyed the object enough, and if it no longer holds a special relationship to me,  I am quite happy to find it a new home.  I recognize this makes me more a dealer, than collector.

It is the process I am interested in. Not so much the act of possession. I like handling the stuff and taking it somewhere else where it will be safe. I like to feel I am saving it from the fire.  Also, I like to be surrounded with things that resonate with me. Things that make me feel something when I look at them. Things I find beautiful.

Does  my becoming a dealer come from me not wanting to throw out possibly useful things as much as it does from an appreciation of beautiful things?  Probably so, at least in the first place. As I grow alder I save a lot less for eventualities.

And why with this tendency have I not become a hoarder? The simple answer is  I guess it never appealed to me.   I have always lived in environments that are essentially orderly, and although far from being minimalist, have never been overly crowded or chaotic.  That being said, from a very early age I have always had a room, or a space in a barn , or someplace where I could pile things that were of interest, but not necessary for my day to day life.  My hidey-hole.  My Raven’s nest. I have included as evidence a tricky triple exposure photo I made of myself in a room I had for my “extra” things in London when I was in my early twenties .

As a kid I wasn’t particularly prone to dragging things home, although as soon as I had my own space in the form of a tree house, I started to put things in there. That was when I was most crow-like.  An interesting rock.  A discarded cowboy beIt buckle. You name it. Then when I was about 16 my Uncle Clare and Aunt Lottie decided to sell the farm and move to a house in town, so that was when I attended my first auction.

I remember that lovely late spring day, arriving to see everything from this familiar place being dragged out of the house and barn and spread across the yard.  My initial response was sorrow. My next response was interest.   I was there with my parents and my Aunt Marie and cousin Ron.  Ron was eleven days older than me, but already a lot cooler.  He had started to grow his hair longer, and had taken to wearing torn blue jeans and moccasins without socks.  We were close, so when he excitedly told me that he was going to bid on and buy the Bakelite portable record player, I was excited for him, and decided then and there that I would also bid to buy something to remind me of these folks and their place.

Ron’s record player came up first, and he was up against considerable competition. About half way through the bidding he had to ask Aunt Marie if she would cover him if he went over his savings.  She agreed, and he won it for about thirty bucks as I remember.  A lot of money in those days.  It was worth it though.  It was a great sounding unit and loud, and we had countless hours of enjoyment playing large stacks of hit 45’s in his bedroom as we discussed everything under the sun, and ate mandarin oranges from a tin.

The auction wore on and I tried for a couple of things unsuccessfully before winning an old pine drop leaf table which had never been painted  for $5.  It washed up beautifully, and I began to sit at it to do my homework feeling an indescribable closeness to it.  The table is still with me; and although it’s nothing special, I continue to love it for the association.

Uncle Clare and Aunt Lottie’s table today

Anyway, it was on that day when I bid and won a useful table for $5 that something clicked in me. And the switch is still stuck in the “on” position.  Within a year I had made an arrangement to rent some space in a barn from a 70 year old man I had befriended, who lived by himself on an unworked farm at the edge of town.  And the rest as they say is history.