With apologies to Dusty Springfield for the title, one of my favorite memories of childhood is going “picking” with the old man, an activity he loved and my mother detested. You only had to step into the garage to see he was a collector of all manner of previously used “stuff”. I can hear mom shouting “Gordon, we don’t need any more of that old crap, I’m going to throw it all out!, with him hollering back “woman, don’t touch my stuff!”
He never met a bent nail that couldn’t be straightened out enough to pound into a board. Now, they may get flung into an old rusty Folgers can, mixed with sawdust, dirt and god knows what else and sit in that can waiting to be chosen and pounded straight for an eternity, but you never know when you might need a single 3.25” aluminum ring shank with extra-large head.
He knew all the good dumping spots within 10 miles and we would meander from one to the next, checking out what treasures the imprudent had offered up to the more experienced palate of the expert picker.
The best spots back then (and probably still) were along the Miami River between Miamisburg and the Dayton city limits. Vance and West River Roads along the West bank and East River Road on the East bank were particularly fertile grounds as almost no one lived or worked along the river back then. They were usually accessed down a dead end “fishing spot” road that resembled the entrance to the Bat Cave from the old TV show, not the groomed levee banks, bike trails and industrial areas you find today.
He would holler “let’s go for a ride”. We knew exactly what that meant…we could run wild in the woods and creeks along the river, exploring for snakes and frogs while he dug through piles of “stuff”. He would load us kids in the station wagon and off we would go for a few hours of prime entertainment.
It really was great fun for us as we were pretty undemanding kids. We were happy running the neighborhood, climbing trees, picking berries or wading miles up creeks, flipping rocks for crawdads and poking around for fossils.
As a rule, we didn’t get to go to fancy places (i.e., places that charged money or an admission) that smaller families took their children to have fun, so our expectations had a low bar set for what fun was. Just spending time with dad was fairly rare as he was usually working 2nd shift at Dayton Tire and Rubber.
Sometimes, there might be a specific mission in mind, such as finding some (barely) usable lumber to build some project he had in mind. We would all get hammers and descend on a pile of old wood to pound rusty nails out and refill dad’s coffee cans at the same time.
At least once a year during pollination season in the spring he would take us to old farmsteads that were most likely abandoned after the big 1913 flood, before the levees were built. They still had orchards that had gone wild and we had some fruit trees at home that needed to be cross-pollinated from other fruit trees. He would be busy cutting flowering branches off of apple, plum and pear trees while we dug through old foundations, ruins and out buildings seeking fabulous treasures.
More typically though, was the “let’s go see what we can find” drive. We would pull off onto one of the many dirt paths, usually full of puddles that splashed the car with mud and brambles and briers to scratch the paint up with long, slow, teeth-grinding squeals as dad squeezed through the overgrown paths.
These dump sites contained pretty good sized piles, deposited over many years. There was some house hold garbage, but people were usually driving out to these sites to get rid of appliances and other “big trash” that they couldn’t easily get rid of or to avoid paying for getting rid of it at the dump.
Dad would flip everything around with a heavy stick, looking for washing machine motors, lawnmowers, bicycles, tools, old phonographs, radios and other electric gear for parts and pieces. 2x4s and other dimensional lumber was stacked in the wagon, nails or not.
There might be old flower pots, household knick-knacks, old lamps, brass stuff, ashtrays, glassware, crates, you name it. We were always on the look-out for bits and pieces to make go-carts, skate boards, push carts, bicycle choppers and other ways to injure ourselves like miniature Evil Knievel’s.
If we weren’t sure if something was a true treasure or not, we would hold it up and wait for the nod from the master. It felt like we were in the Coliseum, waiting for Caesar to give us the thumbs up or down, tossing it back down in disgust if it didn’t meet whatever standard dad had in his head.
Another favorite was just being down on the river itself. There were a number of bends and log jams along the river that had treasures that had somehow fallen or gotten tossed into the river upstream. There were always a lot of baseballs, softballs, footballs, kick balls, basketballs, whiffle balls and other floating stuff to be had.
Digging for snapping turtles, poking at dead animals, jamming sticks in muskrat holes and prospecting for snagged fishing lures and bobbers rounded out river activities.
Sword fighting with sticks was prized action. My brother Greg and I were playing gladiator on a log jam one time and he hit me in the face with a good size muddy pole that left a good sized gash. Per standard operating procedures, dad poked around with a Zippo heated knife blade, digging for splinters…mom splashed it with peroxide and called it good with slapping a butterfly bandage on. Left a scar for many years, but it has faded away over the decades.
It was not unusual to come across an uncle or cousin down along the river as well. They might be picking junk themselves, fishing or just plinking at cans with a .22.
One time we came across Uncle Pete or Uncle Shelby (Can’t remember which, we had a lot of uncles back then) bow fishing for carp. He was out in the middle of the river, bow at the ready, staring down intently into the muddy water that was almost up to the tops of his folded-down hip waders.
I was amazed because 1) He was only in knee-deep water. We had been told we would drown if we went anywhere near the bank of the Great Miami River. 2) He was using a bow and arrow to fish! 3) He looked very dangerous creeping around with a big bow in water you could barely see through!
The carp got pretty big and generally slow moving as they vacuumed up everything along the bottom, but it looked like grand adventure to me.
We would eventually grow tired of digging in the junk piles, leaving dad to do his serious picking work while we wandered into the woods exploring. I would run out ahead, trying to escape the younger kids, with Greg right on my tail, Laurie chasing him and Phil just trying to see which way we went.
Each time we came back to a familiar place we would fan out a bit farther each time, enjoying the feeling of adventuring on our own in unknown jungle territory. We were oblivious to any sense of danger, getting lost or being injured.
There were other dangers inherent to picking as well. Worst perhaps, given my dad’s predilection for emergency medical procedures, otherwise known as poking around with that heated pen knife, was stepping on a rusty nail in the endless piles of construction debris.
Not only was there an opportunity for a tetanus infection, he had to explain to my mom what we were doing jumping around on piles of wood covered in splinters and rusty nails and had to go get our tetanus shots updated…again.
There were often bee and wasp nests, chiggers, thorns, loose logs in the river jams, poison ivy, snakes…I have very vivid memory of running wild through the woods and stepping on a big snake.
There were low growing and high climbing viney plants that grew everywhere and hid the forest floor and climbed up everything along with wild honeysuckle, but I knew as soon as I stepped on it what it was. It just had that feel. It wasn’t a little garter snake either, it was big and meaty and curled up and now pissed as all Hell.
My blood went icy-cold as I saw it writhing around, striking at everything within range. I suddenly became aware that I didn’t know exactly what else was under all the kudzu and plants around me. I grabbed a stick and started back-tracking, heart beating like a jack hammer, whacking weeds with the stick like I had a machete in the Amazon jungle.
Not every trip was junk picking, some times it was just prospecting for new spots, or going to his pokeweed patches for a mess of poke sallet. He always knew what was in season, whether it was pokeweed, huckleberries, hickory nuts, fruit in the old orchards, paw paws or a wild rhubarb patch on one of the old farms. He could scrounge up a meal for free just about anywhere.
By the way, the whole poke plant is poison, especially the roots. Don’t eat the stems or any purple parts, only the leaves when they are tender in the spring and don’t forget to boil your poke leaves 3 times, with water changes in-between. Now you are ready to go harvest some poisonous poke come spring.
This reminds me of one of my favorite sayings that dad had, and he had many. Opossums seem to be immune to the poison in poke, and are known to eat the berries. When we had Kool-aid stains all around our mouths he would start chuckling and tell us “your mouths looks like a opossum’s ass in poke berry season”. Use your imagination.
Eventually we would pile back in the wagon, and drive home all covered in mud and burrs, bitten up with bugs, punctured with nettles and briers and totally worn out. We would hurriedly carry our booty to the garage before mom saw it, to be inventoried and examined in more detail later.
What did he do with all this stuff you ask? Most of it gathered dust on shelves built of scavenged wood, put together with those recycled bent nails. Us kids might slap together some monstrosity from old lawn mower wheels and wooden crates to rattle down Orchard Hill as fast as we could before we crashed and burned.
But occasionally, dad would have a project in mind and have just the item he needed, sitting on the shelf for the last 6 years waiting for its moment, or just the right screw or plumbing gizmo, even if it was only a nickel at the hardware store.
I don’t want to crawl too far into the old man’s head, because it was just great fun for us, but I think all this scrounging, living off the land, being self sufficient and gardening his own food was a product of growing up on a small tobacco farm in the hills of Kentucky, where his depression era family relied on getting by however they could.
I pale in comparison, but I’m not ashamed to say I inherited some of the master’s skills. I can’t toss an off-cut of hardwood, will stash a hunk of stainless, brass or copper away “for the future” and have my own cans of nails and screws to sort through when I need one “just right”. Thanks pop.