Amateur Archeology


Yard sales are like amateur archeology. You don’t have to dig in the traditional sense, but you have to root around tabletops, filled with recent history. Children’s clothes, glass ware, coffee mugs that say “world’s greatest accountant,” cassette tapes, VHS tape and DVDs, you can tell a lot about a family by the movies they sell, even more about the prices they believe people will pay for a copy of Grease. I don’t really go to shop I go to discover.

We went to Vinton County, Ohio. There was a county wide yard sale, from Wilkersville to New Plymouth. We only went to McArthur, the biggest town and the county seat. There were easily a dozen garage sales, and we traipsed through most of them.

It was a beautiful day, and the drive through Hocking Hills is always amazing. Forest covered rolling hills, so many shades of green. Occasionally you would see, through a small opening, a valley floor covered in wildflowers, or a field crop. I marvel that somebody took the time to prepare the soil, plant the seeds, grow and harvest in such a difficult location. I come from an agricultural family; I have family members who depend on reaping what they sow. They measure their land in numbers of acres, each acre is 43,560 square feet. In these little pockets between the hills in southern Ohio, land has to be measured in fractions of an acre, or if they’re lucky almost an acre. Tucked away is some small, barely accessible valley.

Still, they keep going, they don’t give up. Humankind can be amazing.

McArthur is a small-town, with approximately 1600 people. Nestled in the area defined by the Puncheon Creek and Elk Fork Creek. It doesn’t take long to see the whole town. Like any town there are two sides, the wealthy, and the less than wealthy, with a couple of streets for those somewhere in between. And they were all selling stuff.

You have to admire the beauty of the old places in small towns. Houses that looked as if they were picked out of a movie set. Ornate carpentry, masonry work, the wrought iron, curled and twisted and fabulous. Even the homes that had lapsed into disrepair had charm. Despite being rundown, with weeds popping up between the bricks of the sidewalk, underneath the dust, cobwebs, and behind the overgrown bushes and trees you can see the beauty, just waiting for a talented handyman with spare time and disposable income.

We didn’t find much at the years sales. There was a lot of small children’s clothing. It was as if the children of the entire city were growing from toddler to preschool or elementary at about the same time. We saw evidence of this phenomenon almost everywhere, small children running, shrieking, laughing. Early on, they looked at us with a kind of suspicious, hopeful, innocence, but by early afternoon they had become accustomed to strangers looking at their things. Children are nothing if not flexible.

Mostly, I look for books. Somehow, I feel a spiritual relationship with people who have piles of books. Even if they are trying to sell them for a quarter each. Depending on the books the ties might become irresistible.  If they have a copy of Catch 22, or Watership Down, you kind of feel like you have to buy it, even if you already have a couple of copies. These people are almost family, after all.

“Hey, I love this book.” I will say.

“Me too, but I have 4 copies and my wife is starting to become impatient.” The man will say.

“I understand. What I do is keep them in different places, so it’s harder to see how many there are.” I offer helpfully.

“Hey, that’s a great idea. Do you want to sell me that book? I’ll give you a dollar for it.” He asks, hopefully offering to buy the copy I just bought from him.

“I don’t think so, I only have three.  What if I can’t find the others?”

“I understand.” He says, holding his hand out to shake. We look at each other and smile an insider smile. He grabs his phone and pulls up Amazon, he needs to restock his supply.

There were hardly any books at any of the garage sales at MacArthur. I worry that we are moving to a post literate society. Why read when you have YouTube and TikTok? It makes me a little nervous. I’ve always believed the written word is the truest form of art. It’s why I write.

It was fun, the people who were manning the garage sales seemed to be enjoying themselves. Most of the places seemed to be multifamily events and they were going to make a day of it. Coffee and fizzy canned soft drinks, donuts and pizza, being passed around. There was a lot of loud conversations and deep, hearty laughter. It was a sunny, warm, comfortable day and people were enjoying themselves. It was a block party built around commerce.

McArthur is serene, bucolic, filled with Norman Rockwell imagery. Like most small towns it is easy to feel like an outsider, but that might just be me. I’m never that comfortable, even with family. Life has evolved, though. Several houses had Trump Pence 2024 signs in their yard, even though it’s a pretty safe bet if Trump runs Pence won’t be anywhere near the ticket. It takes a special dedication to have a yard sign for a candidate that hasn’t even declared for the primary. Political campaigning has become a constant. There is no escaping, it’s always there, a constant stream of low-level aggravation, like tinnitus, it just won’t go away.

We were getting ready to leave town when we saw a sign, “Estate Sale” hanging from a porch, the door was open. It was a two-story house, almost square, sitting only a few feet from the street, and right next to the alley. There were several stairs leading to the door, beside them someone had built a ramp for a walker, or wheelchair. Brick walls rose straight up from the sidewalk. They were painted white, a clean, warm creamy color.  The house had the look of having been well cared for, it was neat, orderly, square corners, straight lines, a constant uniformity. It was a house firmly grounded and attached to reality.

Walking in the silence was palpable. It hung in the air with notes of sadness. There were a few things in the first room, a couple of small landscapes, drawn in ink, of scenes from San Francisco, The Golden Gate Bridge and the skyline casting a shadow on the bay. They were matted and covered in protective plastic sleeves.

“These are wonderful,” My wife whispered, it seemed impolite to speak normally. We looked from room to room, mostly empty, the house was built around a center stairway, and each room led into the other forming a continuous path so if you kept going you would end up back where you started.

Leaning against one wall were several family portraits. They were from years ago, and I was loath to look at them, I’m a voyeur, sure, but there are limits. It’s one thing to look at a driveway full of tables filled with the detritus of modern life, kitchen ware and used clothing, children’s toys and board games, but it’s another thing to walk through the house where a family grew, and formed, and separated to start their own lives. Now they were pulled together again by the loss of a family member, and they must sell everything. I felt a little ghoulish.

My wife ended up buying the drawings of San Francisco, for a dollar each, and I bought a canvas military duffle bag, with a name, serial number and service branch identification on the carry strap for $2.00. It had some faults, a few little scars from use, being tossed into the back of a truck, maybe, thrown into a transport ship or troop plane, it had lived a whole life before me, and this was only the next chapter. The man who was running the sale didn’t charge us for the Hank Williams CD we had.

“Is this your house?” I asked, he seemed so polite, and pleasant, he was selling his families memories to complete strangers and it didn’t bother him. We were standing in the kitchen; the door was open to the garage and laundry room.

“It was my dad’s.” It was what I suspected, but it seemed an awkward question.

“I imagine there are a lot of memories in this place. A lot of warmth and happiness.” I said.

“Yes, there are,” He, sighed, looked at the walls, and the ceiling, then smiled at me.

“I’ve sold the car, the deep freezer and the refrigerator today.” He said, making a sweeping gesture toward the open door. “There isn’t much left.” He added.

Somebody peeked in from the other room and asked a question.

“You have things to take care of, we’ll let you get back to work.” I said and walked toward the front of the house. I wanted to ask him how it felt selling his past to interlopers, did it bother him to see people walking through his childhood refuge, the place he did his homework, the room where he sat and ate with his family. But he was busy, and it was none of my business.

As we were walking out a man with a “Let’s Go Brandon” t-shirt, entered. He was loud and unhappy the place was so empty, and he couldn’t find anything he wanted. “Waste of my time.”  He was alone but anybody in the house could hear him, and he didn’t care, it was a reverse sort of noblesse oblige, I guess.

We stopped at the army surplus store just to see how much a duffle bag would sell for. There was a whole shelf full of them, new, lifeless, no history, no character, just canvas and buckles and thread, no story at all. And they wanted $20.00 for them. Who wanted one of those?

I felt like a grave robber while we were walking through that house, but now I’m glad we stopped. It isn’t often you can have a piece of history for a couple of dollars.




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