Musty Nuts & Bolts
By Rudy Schouten
What I can remember of being six years old feels random, but I suppose young predilections have a say in it, too. Trips to the hardware store with my father were among the recollections that managed to stick. They were staples in a stellar childhood, the early years of an upbringing in a big family that merged fun at home with a handyman’s insistence on drawing his children into his work. That meant home life would always favor doing things over having them. All that family togetherness kept us busy and relatively undistracted by what other people had or did, so I wasn’t so much fully aware of being happy as recalling very little to be unhappy about.
The runs to the hardware store were part of all that—outings with your father to a place coincidentally perfect for reinforcing a few family ethics… earn your keep, learn to use your hands, and try to figure things out for yourself. Those were the practical benefits; the less worldly ones had to do with a six-year-old having some fun with his father and becoming, officially, part of his world outside the house. It felt like he was grooming me for something; what it was didn’t matter.
The earliest errands began with short rides in a 1953 Plymouth Cranbrook. Sometimes, a brother or sister tagged along, but the best trips had me riding shotgun as my father’s only passenger. My favorite destination was The Phoenix Lumber and Hardware Company at 13th and Capitol. Old hardware stores like that had a way of saying welcome without the benefit of a greeter in a vest. The squeaky front door and the bell attached to it would have been enough. But it was the step over the worn threshold and the sound of your feet planting on those first creaky wooden floor boards that told you everything you needed to know about where you were.
Matters of the olfactory took it from there. It was the density of the place marinating a mad mix of a million elements to produce that proprietary hardware smell—like an old toolbox full of old tools, only bigger. And you surrendered to it immediately because there was no foyer for gathering yourself as you walked in; the hardware swallowed you up within the first few feet. I felt at home in it.
The guys behind the counter always greeted my father like he was an old friend. I was impressed by that, but it made me wonder how many times he’d been there without me. That was OK, though, because being with him meant they’d treat me like an old friend, too. They pretended to be serious when they showed me how easily the jaws of a pair of channel-lock pliers would fit around my nose. They gave me one of the chocolate tootsie pops they held back for the best customers. And when it was time for them to get back to work, they rubbed the top of my head to make sure every hair was good and messed up.
Pop didn’t mind if I wandered off by myself. He knew I wouldn’t go too far because there was so much to look at. I spent most of the time trying to figure out what all the gizmos were, but found myself nearly as interested in where they put them all. Some got mixed up in piles on the floor, which was welcome proof that my mother was wrong about my room at home: there was evidently not a place for everything, and, clearly, not everything was in its place. On the other hand, her sense of order was already rubbing off, so I was intrigued by all the nuts and bolts contained so neatly in all those bins and drawers. It was impossible not to look in every one.
But there was no way of telling how my father might find what he needed. Sometimes, he’d show the friendly parts man an 80-year-old faucet valve and then just wait for the man to re-emerge from a back room with a replacement. When it was possible, my handy father preferred doing the rummaging himself, especially when he couldn’t very well describe what he was looking for—but knew he’d know it if he saw it.
He always made a point of telling me why he needed what he needed, even when he knew I had no idea what he was talking about. When I asked questions about what some of the funny-looking things were, he always made up a story to make me laugh before offering a more plausible explanation. Sometimes he sounded like he was guessing, but he never said he didn’t know.
I was even more attentive when Pop led me out into the lumberyard. It was the forklifts and all the sawdust that got my attention; what got his were the bargains on building material—Sakreet ready-mixed concrete at $1.40 a bag, five-gallon buckets of asbestos fiber roof coat for $2.95, and piles of two-by-fours just waiting for his one-eyed inspection for straightness. He talked me through his selection process, but I didn’t need to listen or inspect the boards for myself to see which ones he wanted. I could see it in his face and the theatric contortions he manufactured for my benefit.
He never let the dust on the wrapper of the tootsie pop keep me from peeling it open on the ride home. I always wanted the errand to go on a little longer. A stop at Haag Drugs for a box of Dutch Masters for him meant a Hershey bar for me. A longer route meant my father would have more to notice; more grist with which to entertain his eager audience. I was just one of his seven kids, so yes, getting his humor and his shenanigans all to myself was part of the entertainment. But there was more to it than that. He was almost always happy, but everyone knew how busy he was and how hard he worked, so it was fun watching him take his time and seeing him having fun on purpose.
I went to another old hardware store more than 50 years later. The creaky floor boards just beyond the threshold sounded familiar, and told me everything I needed to know about where I came from. The owner guided me on a tour of the small white house on South Madison Avenue that had been home to Marien Hardware since 1928. He spent extra time on his favorite relics; the service counter as old as the store itself, a table of apothecary jars filled with garden seed, and racks hanging from floor joists holding axe handles in adult and boy sizes—a nod to a time when first jobs were not at all about flipping burgers.
It was a very good look at how much things have changed. But what I saw there was my father frozen in time, and it would have taken a sheet of sandpaper to wipe the grin off my face.