Growing up on a small farm outside of Harlem during the 1950s allowed me opportunities to observe a thing or two that quite possibly some city slickers and other sophisticates my age didn’t get a chance at. Not to begrudge anyone of their upbringing – I’m sure they learned a few things back then that I’ve still yet to.
Not one to waste, Daddy would use empty cans to store an assortment of leftover nuts, bolts, washers, rings and about anything else that would fit into a can. He had a whole shelf of cans full of different stuff.
Even though many of these cans somehow would have a nail or two in them, there were those cans devoted just to nails. Generally they held different sizes of new nails, but a few cans held the “good” scrap nails that had been pulled and saved from something that was taken apart. Nails and other steel products were hard to come by during the 1940s, and that was still fresh on Daddy’s mind. He didn’t throw much away if he thought he could use it again.
OCCASIONALLY, HE’D need to fix a gate or patch a fence right away, and didn’t have the time or money to run to the store. Some of those projects caught him a little short of having all the new nails he would need. Those were the times he’d sift through the used nails and pick out his best ones.
He’d straighten them up, then alternate them in with the new ones. He could drive most of these old nails about like he’d drive a new one; he just couldn’t drive them quite as hard or they might bend again, usually in the same place.
On rare occasions he’d have to use a nail that had multiple bends. You really couldn’t call these nails bent; they were just plain crooked, and hardly ever straightened out very well. These nails would hold strong once they were in place, but he couldn’t drive them; if he tried, they’d fold all over themselves. It would take a bit longer, but he would patiently tap them in, a tap or two down, a tap or two on the side, and so it went.
SOME THINGS can be driven hard; others need an easier touch – like Bertha, my old work van. At nearly 30 years old and more than 200,000 miles, I can’t drive her like a race car. She might not be as comfortable or look as flashy as she once did, but she suits me and, by taking her easy, she’ll get me to any job in town about as well as those new diesel duallies.
In times past, we used what we had, and made that work for us. We made the things we needed without having to have everything handed to us. Often, we did without. We built this nation to greatness with the mind-set of producing things that were built to last. Today, however, there is no guarantee that the product will survive the payments.
Time and again, I’d watch Daddy make things work using materials that someone else would have probably thrown away. As a rule, those things outlasted him – and that’s a legacy to stand on, crooked nails and all.
(The writer is a licensed general contractor and the father of seven children. He and his wife live in Augusta.)