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Roger Barbee: A can of bent nails


By Roger Barbee

This week when the weather turned, many folks were outside enjoying the spring day. Like them, I spent one delightful afternoon in the shop.

The large double doors on the east framed Short Mountain, and the opened front door allowed the smells and sunlight of spring to float in on the soft breeze. The dogs slept in the sunlight, birdsong came from every tree, and it was the perfect time to clean and organize the shop for coming projects.

After sweeping, re-stacking assorted lumber, and making a list of items to get at Zerkel's, I sat lazily in the large doorway looking across the recently mowed yard at Short Mountain, wondering how soon it would be shrouded in summer's growth. However, wanting to use this time, I turned back inward to the shop, looking for something to piddle with. Getting the green bean gallon can that now contained old nails, I took it to the workbench in the good light and dumped its contents, picked up a 20-ounce hammer, pulled out the square piece of steel, and went to work.

Tapping away, the rhythm of the day and work brought back memories of the past, and when, as a young boy, I would venture to the workshops of men in the neighborhood. I recalled the acrid smell of Paw Medlin's garage turned to workshop, the sensible clutter of Mr. Brotherton's old chicken coop turned into a place for work, and the varied visits to my father's workshop.

All were different -- Paw's was for mostly small electrical motors that he would re-wire, so his shop was full of covered copper wire and oily parts; Mr. Brotherton's was mostly for repairing watches, so it was crammed with small parts and crystals and leather bands; my father's was for a bit of everything and by far the neatest. Its center was his self-made tool box where he kept his whet stones, small oil cans, and delicate tools. Always in the rafters would be at least one forked dogwood branch that he was curing to be a slingshot for some boy. Every saw, hammer, screwdriver, plier, and wrench had its place. The few times I was present, he was working on some project - a birdhouse for someone or just for the pleasure of doing it, repairing a piece of furniture, or cutting a piece of lumber for a particular need.

What always struck me was how he could get so much done, but keep his space so clean and orderly. All of these shops reflected the personality of the owner, but they all shared one common denominator. They each had a can of bent nails.

As I sat, piddling away that fine spring afternoon, I remembered these three men and wondered if folks today keep a can of bent nails about, or a jar of loose screws on a shelf, or a collection of various sized nuts and bolts nearby? My guess is that some few do, but most throw away a nail that is bent, a bolt that somehow has lost its nut, and any screw that is not in a box marked "Made in China." That is our sadness.

On occasion, a young neighbor will come by wanting to build a bird house or some other small project. We set to, and each time when I take out the can of bent nails, the child is taken aback. The wonder is on each young face as I explain how we will straighten some nails for the project. Each youngster looks at me, then at the boxes full of new (cheaply made) nails, the hammer, and the large can as if questioning my sanity.

My answer is to pick up my hammer, grab a right-sized nail, and begin to straighten it. Slowly the timid hand will reach into the can, pull out a nail, and follow my lead. Before long we have enough used nails for our project and it is completed. Often, but not always, the child will say afterward, "That was fun." When I ask what, the answer is, "Using those old nails."

On such spring afternoons, memory seems to come with the gentle breeze and birdsong.

Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs and five cats. Email him at redhill@shentel.net. Read his columns online at www.nvdaily.com/columns/barbee


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