The junk heaps had a certain logic

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OLD Man Turner lived in a rambling house on the edge of town and was our only junk collector-farmer. His yard was a mass of rusty box springs and treadless tires, dented car doors and corrugated metal. Adults euphemistically referred to the mess as ``building materials.'' Of course, children do not always appreciate such subtleties; so I was among those constantly waiting for construction to begin. Someone such as Old Man Turner could never exist in the tidy suburbs of the city where I live now. These ``modern'' communities have rules for everything from the color of shutters and styles of mailboxes to what you can park in your driveway or build in your yard. Some folks even argue over whether to allow satellite dishes on their lawns. Needless to say, junk is handled with the utmost decorum, stuffed into plastic bags fastened with twist ties and displayed only certain mornings.

Mr. Turner was much better suited to the style of life in our small Nebraska town. The laws were lax and residents generally minded their own business.

This applied to the surrounding hills as well, where Mr. Turner built junk heaps on his rural landholdings. From the distance, the junk appeared to be disorderly heaps left in the middle of nowhere. But they had a certain logic to them. The junk was clustered around collapsing sheds or disused farm implements. It was as if he hoped these remnants of the machine society would somehow solidify his claim to land that was inexorably reverting to prairie.

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One of these pastoral junk heaps remains etched in my memory. It was the one visible from the top of the hill on the edge of town which held the water tower. The hill eased down into a meadow, where a single tree printed calligraphic patterns against the summer sky and huge sunflowers grew. On hot August evenings, we would chase fireflies through the towering stalks, using the tree as our only point of reference. Even then we got lost. But the meadow was a kind of no man's land. Beyond the last clumps of sunflowers stood a barbed wire fence that marked the edge of the junk king's empire.

The fence bore hand-stenciled ``No Trespassing'' signs and not far beyond stood the junk heap, an irresistible magnet to elementary-school-age adventurers. Perhaps we expected to find parts for a go-cart or something else equally priceless.

The popular myth was that Mr. Turner carried a rifle loaded with salt and did not hesitate to use it on kids who trespassed on his land. Our parents warned us not to cross over the fence, out of respect for private property and a common-sense concern about the hazards of negotiating barbed wire. Of course, we took this as iron-clad confirmation of the rifle theory. In fact, I was never able to find anyone who had actually been shot at, nor could anyone even confirm a case of someone who had.

We seldom saw Old Man Turner work on his land or the junk heaps. But we found evidence of activity: a weather-cracked tractor seat shifted to a new position or an entirely new set of torn window screens heaped against a fence. The junk almost never disappeared once it was added but gradually faded into oblivion, often acquiring the streaked hues of the unpainted shed it was stacked against.

Despite the clutter he caused, no one seemed to complain about Old Man Turner. Part of the reason, I think, has to do with the nature of a long-established farming community. There were plenty of abandoned farm buildings in the surrounding hills and remnants of a variety of long-forgotten projects -- from dilapidated windmills to hay wagons bypassed by the age of John Deere. Even working farms had collapsing out-buildings or broken implements standing about. These all held a certain resemblance to Mr. Turner's junk piles.

Old Man Turner was part of the pattern of life in our quiet town. No one really expected him to change -- or thought it necessary. He was one of Our Characters. One of the ironies of small-town life is that in a place where you find overwhelming pressure to conform, you also find a certain degree of tolerance. Besides, there was a natural beauty to our town that was not the result of any ordinance or civic watchdogs. Streets were lined with elegant elms planted by the first German settlers, and the tallest buildings were the county courthouse, grain silos, and a scattering of church steeples. Everything seemed in proper order.

Everything except Mr. Turner, of course, who lived in the midst of it all as if to remind us that nothing should be taken for granted, least of all neatness.

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