On the Edge (Junkyards: Like father like son)

Wes’s father lives in a junkyard, and there couldn’t be anything more rich with similes. Wes’s “desert” (the old dredging ship he is renting) and his father’s house are virtually the same thing. There’s useless looking junk spread all over the place. Their homes are like my grandparents’ house, my parents’ house, and the way my house would be if I didn’t have a wife and a family. My grandparents lived through the Great Depression. One result is they kept every Styrofoam container from Meals-on-Wheels, washed them, and cut them in half. They had a huge stack of bowls (the lids) and a stack of deep, divided plates (the bottoms). Whenever I saw piles of this stuff I thought, “What are you ever going to do with this junk?!?” Then I would see them at family reunions and church potlucks. They never bought Styrofoam plates. I still think most of the stuff my parents keep is truly junk.

I’m a bit the same way. I have a “box of burdens” in the basement. This is as much “junk” as I allow myself to keep. It is full of wonderful odds and ends that I hope to use someday. In the meantime, it’s waiting and taking up space. There are few things that give me more joy than finding a use for something in my box of burdens.

Although Wes and his father share so much, they have a troubled relationship, and his father has never seen him race. His father, who is an in-the-trenches labor organizer, thinks running is a waste of time. But Wes’s drive, determination, courage, stubbornness and rebelliousness come from his father. They just have different ways of expressing it.

Wes’s father builds a windmill (from parts in his junkyard, of course!) to generate electricity and get off the grid. He gathers some friends for its inauguration, and he gives a short speech, spitting in the eye of the money-grubbing electric companies. Then he switches the house to windmill power. But later at the celebratory meal, as the sun is going down, and the electric bulb is providing only a dim glow, and the windmill is creaking, his girlfriend says, “I can’t eat like this.” And switches the house back to the grid. I feel like that when my dreams for living closer to the earth, like Thoreau, butt up against the harsh exigencies of the here-now. The here-now usually wins. At this same meal, Wes’s father extols the virtues of a Cadillac U-joint. But ironically, he does not appreciate the beauty of his own son who is more exquisitely designed and precious than that U-joint. I sometimes wonder if the “junk” I love (e.g. this blog post itself [I’ve worked hard on this!]) clouds the beauty of the things and people all around me.

I remember stories about how grandpa would eat a Snickers bar for lunch – and that was it, because it was the Great Depression. As a kid, I remember the stacks of Snickers they kept. And my grandma would bore us with stories about how she saw them on sale, found a coupon, and bought them on double coupon day. Snickers are still my favorite candy bar. Grandpa was a machinist for Boeing, and my grandmother loved to brag that he operated the biggest drill and made holes in metal that had only 1/100th of an inch of tolerance. It’s no wonder I’m “detail-oriented.” My grandpa rode his bike to work every day in all kinds of weather. (And I thought I was being edgy by riding my bike to work once a week. Now I’m parking at Oak Park Mall and running in. Still. Only once a week.) He was a consummate tinkerer, keeping several bikes in various stages of service. And I constantly tinker with my running gear, keeping it in a constant state of disrepair.

When I think about junkyards, I think about the future. I have an idea for a novel about a time when we are mining landfills for the raw material in them. I don’t think we are too far away from having lots of people sorting trash into reclamation and recycling. (There are a lot of places that have mixed trash/recycling, including the Atlanta airport, which turned trash into a profit center by paying people to go through it. Google “atlanta airport recycling” http://www.atlanta-airport.com/hjn/2009/12/fa1.htm) It makes me wonder how we can afford to throw things out before they are used up, mortgaging our future.

In Slaughterhouse 5, there is a brilliant passage where Billy Pilgrim watches a war movie forward and then imagines it in reverse. Think about that… Planes fly over towns, putting out fires and building new houses and factories. They pull bombs back into their bays. Repair (not fighter) planes come up to the bombers, fix holes in them, and bring people back to life. Back on the ground, crews remove the bombs and send them to a factory. At the factory, the bombs are taken apart and the dangerous explosives are separated and returned to the earth, “where they will never hurt anyone ever again.” And so on… (Talk about beating swords into plowshares…)

There are two Indigo Girls songs that I think apply to junkyards. The first is “Deconstruction.” (The parenthetical remarks are mine.)

We talked up all night and still came to no conclusion.
We started a fight that ended in silent confusion.
And as we sat stuck, you could hear the trash truck,
Making its way through the neighborhood,
Picking up the thrown out – different from house to house. (And in this house, it’s a broken relationship.)
We get to decide what we think is no good.
We’re sculpted from youth, the chipping away makes me weary (like a Cadillac U-Joint, a rock tumbling down stream, Wes Holman, and me),
And as for the truth it seems like we just pick a theory, (Global warming anyone?)
The one that justifies our daily lives
And backs us with quiver and arrows (We are so prickly about our beliefs with our families.)
To protect openings cause when the warring begins
How quickly the wide open narrows… Into the smallness of our deconstruction of love.

I think it is a beautiful, sad song.

The other is Chickenman, which is about traveling and all the roadkill from the day’s journey. The narrator says, “Darkness into darkness. All the carnage of my journey. Makes it harder to be living.” Chickenman says, “It’s a long road to be forgiven.” I like that Chickenman doesn’t say, “That’s okay. Don’t worry about it.” I think of this song often when I see a dead animal on the highway. I think, “What a waste,” and “There but for the grace of God go I.” In particular, I remember a deer that was killed on Woodland on my running route. The first time I saw it, its eyes were still reflecting and it startled me. Over the course of several weeks, it started to smell pretty bad, and then it was gradually moved toward a fence that was adjacent to some “undeveloped” land. Over the next few weeks, that deer was slowly consumed. It didn’t exactly go to waste.

From the here-now, I have a retroactive admiration for my grandparents and parents. I can see their grit and determination. I can only imagine half of the hardships they overcame. I see how they live through me and taught me how to find a path in the world. I am paying off the mortgage, making and correcting mistakes, revising and revisiting the past. Now, I am the dad to the son I once was.

It is a long road to be forgiven. In the here-now, I think we have to figure out a way to use the waste we create or just not create it in the first place.

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