A Little is Good… More is Better

By David Turner in People

My father never did anything halfway…or even just “full” way. If a project…whether it be constructing calf pens, lining a granary wall, replacing a wooden floor or building a new wagon rack…Dad believed in the axiom “Better overbuilt than underbuilt.” Hence, if a three-inch nail was adequate for the job, Dad used a five-inch. If the assignment called for a four-inch spike, Dad’s practice would be to utilize a six. If a nail every two feet was sufficient to secure two pieces of lumber, Dad would double the dose….and “spirals” not “common” nails…and clinched to dissipate any doubt of its fastening ability. “That’ll never come apart!”
Two weeks later some fool calf with nothing better to do with its time than to coordinate escape attempts would jump over the partition for which Dad had expended so much time, not to mention nails. A sledge hammer, a three foot pry bar, hammer and other assorted tools would be needed to undo Dad’s handiwork and often the planks would split in half before yielding the nails that Dad had gone to such effort to install.
Dad would then add another plank for added height, secured with even more hardware. “That’ll never come apart!”
It was the same when it came to detergent, sanitizers, disinfectants or practically any cleaning solvent. Dad’s motto; “If a little is good…more is better”. If directions called for a half cup of detergent, Dad would use a full cup; if a half cup of “Iosan”…an iodine disinfectant…were suggested to wash the milking equipment, again, Dad would use a full measure. I recall the wall behind the sink where the milking machines were washed being permanently stained from the fumes of reddish-brown iodine solution.
Another idiosyncrasy of our father was to never throw anything away. “It might come in handy sometime.” Occasionally it did; most often it was merely junk taking up space. Twisted bolts with their nuts seized to the threads, bent spikes…“They can be straightened”. An endless array of scrap metal, including discarded hinges, brackets, flat iron, angle iron, broken tools and barrel staves, cluttered an already chaotic and disorderly implement shed. No one had a “shop” back then. Rusty washers, screws, nails and sundry unrecognizable items filled an assortment of containers. Dad never discarded anything that might hold something. Hence every tinfoil container, every plastic bowl, every glass jar enjoyed an afterlife. Dad was decades ahead of the recycle curve…except he never actually recycled anything. Without exaggeration, there were hundreds of containers stored on shelves around the place. I doubt if more than a dozen were actually ever used.
Few of these collectibles had merit…most made no sense at all; Discarded razor blades abounded. On every stable window shelf, hidden away in kitchen cupboards or residing in the recesses of almost every implement’s toolbox were spent Gilette razor blades; Even Dad’s pockets were seldom without a blade or two as he rarely carried a jack-knife. Dad’s observance that the instrument quickly wore a hole in the lining of his pocket and was subsequently lost was motivation to carry razor blades instead. “You just have to be careful reaching into your pocket.” I recall Mom not being too thrilled when a couple would inevitably surface in the Monday wash.
Another habit of our father’s was his passion for keeping expired light bulbs. Nobody could ever get a satisfactory explanation for that particular disorder.
Dad employed two modes of deployment for excess scrap metal. Smaller articles as noted were saved, while sheets of galvanized roofing, bent steel posts, steel rod, tire rims, copper wire, surplus litter carrier track and other large pieces were indiscriminately tossed in a hap-hazard pile behind the shed. About once or twice a year, Mr. Fleet our township’s resident scrap dealer would appear in his old Fargo pickup in an attempt to dislodge the pile from Dad’s grasp.
The ritual was similar from season to season; Fleet would offer ten dollars for the entire pile, Dad would respond it was worth at least twenty-five. Fleet would lament how the price of scrap had tanked during the previous year but in the interest of fair bargaining would offer twelve. Dad’s counter-offer was he’d accept fifteen, but without the aforementioned copper wire. Fleet, fully aware the copper wire was the most valuable commodity in the pile, would in great exasperation offer seventeen, and Dad, especially if he was a little spare on cash that particular day, for the most part would accept.
For the next two or three weeks, every time Dad walked by the empty space where the scrap pile had stood, would mutter to no one in particular…“I should have held out for twenty-five.” This “should have” philosophy held even greater merit when some neighbour in passing happened to mention that he had heard on good authority that “old Fleet” had sold the load in question for double the price paid within the hour.
Although nails remained Dad’s favourite fastener, “Black wire” was a mainstay as well. Anywhere nails were impractical or unsuitable, black wire sufficed. Purchased in a thick coil, it was surprising the uses this soft flexible wire was capable. Our farm gates never swung on “hardware hinges”. Wire was the answer. Of course, this meant the gate didn’t swing, necessitating the heavy metal barrier be dragged open and closed at each entrance and exit. Not an easy task for small boys with limited muscle.
I sometimes wonder just how many miles of wire we used over the years. The black wire could repair almost anything at least temporarily and could be found almost anywhere on the farm; in every implement’s toolbox, including the tractor; hanging on a nail in the implement shed or upon the walls of the granary. Even strategically secured to fence posts, so whether you were strengthening a wagon rack, cobbling together a hay rake, repairing a swather reel slat, or making a quick fence fix, it was guaranteed a chunk of wire could be found in close proximity.
Used baler twine was almost as prolific a fastener and much easier to undo in an emergency. Just reach in your pocket and grab (carefully) a razor blade. When dozens of jute bags would be bulging with twine…more than we’d ever use in a lifetime…Dad would reluctantly thin the inventory by tossing them on the weekly bonfire. The dry string made for a spectacular show!
In the stable itself, Dad built gates and pens with wood…good hard hemlock or maple, reinforced at every corner, cross-braced and end-braced with plenty of nails. It was my belief our box stalls could have withstood a herd of charging buffalo. When the Dutch Elm beetle decimated woodlots and fence sides in the early 1960’s, Dad sometimes substituted elm, although was frustrated to no end as it was nearly impossible to drive a nail without it bending once the wood became seasoned a year or two.
As a teenager, something I found particularly annoying was the fact we never had a proper tool kit to carry all the wrenches, sockets, screw drivers, hammers etc. needed in the everyday operation of a farm. If the mower broke a knife section in a field halfway to the bush, the chances of the right tools to repair the job being at hand were remote. There might be a spare section in the mower kit…if you’re lucky maybe even a few rivets. Most likely the hammer was in the combine tool kit and the anvil was probably somewhere in the upstairs of the barn. “Just run and get it!” Dad would command.
Similarly, if a shear pin expired during the baling operation, a supply of replacements and probably the correct wrench to remove the pin would be available, but no vice-grip to keep the bolt from turning. “It might be in the stable…I think I was using it to fix the litter carrier…hurry now…it looks like rain!”
I remember stating to Dad how different things would be on “my” farm. “Tools would be with me at all times,” I boasted. “A single toolkit with everything I could possibly need for any situation.” Dad’s answer…“Why would a person buy a heavy clumsy tool kit when every tractor and implement already has one? And where would you keep the big awkward thing?” I never did have a good answer.