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Of Men and Rusty Metal


When my husband and I decided to remarry each other some 21 years ago, a strange thing happened. In the 16 years we had been apart, Peter, an inveterate — “collector” is too refined a word for his habit, so I am going to call him an “amasser”— had surrounded himself with some 21 tons of rusted metal.

Much of the tonnage was in the form of three very vintage military trucks but the rest of it, neatly stacked next to the barn, was a fine assortment of antique farm machinery pulled from the fields around his house, bits and pieces of cars, steel plate, old cast iron water pipes, woodstove parts and more.

He was moving from his secluded country home to my house when we remarried and I pointed out — logically, I thought — that this fine “collection” could not be transferred to a property located in the middle of a neighborhood. Reluctantly, he agreed to divest himself of his treasures.

That’s when the strange thing happened. Seemingly from out of thin air, men began to materialize in the yard, drawn inexorably by the possibility of acquiring rusty metal. A 150-pound anvil threw one into ecstasy; a 1958 International truck from which all the sheet metal had disappeared except the hood fulfilled another man’s dreams. An old sidewalk plow was just what a Sharon man was looking for, and all three military vehicles went to a local restorer, hopefully to be returned to their World War II-era glory.

Not everything went, of course. Some of it was just too precious to its owner. So down from the mountain came the 15 vintage Gravely tractors and all the stray parts that went with them to be discretely stored in my barn.

That not insubstantial two-story building has a history of being filled to the rafters with “stuff.” Friends and family alike see it as a repository for all the surplus items in their lives and occasionally I have to declare a Decision Day when they have to determine what they will do with the stuff or leave it to my not so tender mercies. Most of that detritus of their lives is not metallic, but I had one young man, a friend of my son’s who lived with us for a while, who was early stricken with rusty metal fever.

Matt collected motorcycles — and pieces of motorcycles. Bicycles — and pieces of bicycles. One Sunday evening, after failing to gain entrance to the barn to put something there, I lost my patience. “Matt,” I declared. “You have to get rid of some of that stuff.”

To my horror, at 9 o’clock on a Sunday night, he piled a large portion of it in the driveway and put a “free” sign on it. Admittedly, with successive generations of children growing up in my house, it is difficult to establish any lasting feng shui in my environment but, I was sure without a shadow of a doubt, that a pile of junk in my driveway would destroy any serenity I might be able to muster. I went to bed in a state.

Imagine my surprise in the morning to find that much of the pile was gone. Somehow, after dark late on a Sunday evening, word got out that there was free rusty metal sitting, just for the taking, in my driveway. By nightfall Monday, it was all gone. Sacré bleu! What was going on here?

My husband more than filled the space vacated by Matt. His “amassing” continued unabated once we remarried. Between tools, projects such as a 1946 Willys Jeep that never got restored and the 15 original Gravelys, were soon augmented by others and their parts, the barn was full to overflowing. But as Ecclesiastes teaches, “Time and chance happen to us all.” In this instance, it was time. Without warning last summer my husband announced that he was downsizing and the Gravelys were going.

I was stunned, particularly when he announced the magnitude of the operation. It was his intention to hire a Budget truck, load all his babies into it and transport them 600 miles to the annual Gravely Mow-In in Brownsville PA.

My son, who has only a tinge of his father’s rusty metal disability, brought his own 50-year-old backhoe to our house and loaded the heavy machines into the back of the truck. I fretted. I didn’t see how Peter and I could unload the machines at the Mow-In or, horror of horrors, reload them if they did not find new homes. I was very dubious that anyone would want badly rusted old tractors, many with flat tires, some operable, some parts of machines. Little did I know that it was to be the finest display I had yet seen of rusty metal fever.

We had reserved a space but, arriving on the second day, nothing was available. They backed us into a space no wider than the truck on the side of a road. Before Peter was out of the cab, men were gathering. “What have you got in there?” they demanded.

When I put out an “Everything free” sign, the frenzy began. “Can I have that?” one or another would demand peering into the truck. Men climbed in to hand down parts and manhandle machines over to the ramp. Nothing was unclaimed by the time it hit the ground. Even a bucket of bolts and other junk was quickly snatched up.

You would have thought we were rescuing orphans from the Sudan. “It’s a fine thing you are doing,” one man said. Another tried to press money into my husband’s hand to defray the cost of getting the machines there. In the newsletter report on the Great Gravely Giveaway, one of the recipients said, “I never got his name, but please tell that man thank you.” Shades of the Lone Ranger — “Who was that masked man?”

The ground floor of my barn was strangely empty once the Gravelys left. Inevitably, it is filling again and the second floor is now dangerously close to another Decision Day. But the new items are mostly plastic children’s toys and bikes outgrown in two-inch increments. They will be much harder to pass on — no lines form to claim them when they are discarded and they will clog the transfer station someday.

I never solved the mystery of the male animal’s affinity for decrepit old machinery but I realize, sadly, that I will probably never again witness the strange phenomenon of men and rusty metal.