I learned a lot from the frugal king

I tossed the scraps into the wood stove; Pete turned them into something beautiful.

The first winter I knew Pete, he went all the way from September to June on $128. Consider that he had put away stores for the winter with his summer earnings. That left him enough for a quart of buttermilk and a cantaloupe every Monday all winter. He lived about 30 miles from town and would limp what was left of his '68 Datsun pickup to town every week for his fresh treats and mail.

I've known other frugal people; Pete's in-laws are only a shade different. But Pete was a master. He had acquired a piece of desolate ridge outside Fairbanks during one of Alaska's public-land disposal programs. Build on it, live on it, and it's yours, young man.

The first couple of years Pete was up there, he lived in a hexagonal cabin six feet in diameter that he'd made of vertical Aspen poles cleared from his parcel. Pete was six-feet tall, so he slept along three walls, the stove in the center, books on the other side.

Pete was so cautious about money, he chose to burn diesel fuel in his lamps instead of the more expensive (and not as smoky) kerosene. I've seen Pete angry a couple of times, but in all the years I've never seen him sad. No electricity (no TV!), crummy cars, day after day of solitude, and never a moment of self-pity did I see.

My favorite item was Pete's snowplow. The state maintained the road to within about five miles of his house, and there were no residents for about three miles before that. It fell to Pete to keep the road clear if he wanted that buttermilk and cantaloupe. The easiest way to keep a road clear is to use a three-quarter-ton pickup truck with an eight-foot plow. They are cheap and easy to get, so Pete built his own instead.

He started with a military surplus two-ton truck built shortly after World War II. The cab was junk, so he pulled it off and replaced it with a spare cab left over from his previous '68 Datsun. Then he came across a 12-foot highway plow, one of those huge, half-pipe-shaped ones meant to throw the snow 70 feet from the road at 50 miles per hour. Pete had no mechanism for raising and lowering the plow, so once he'd built the thing it plowed whenever it was moving, forward or backward.

Pete and I worked together a lot. One time, a big, single-cylinder diesel generator we were using ate its main crankshaft bearings. The parts were on back-order from England, so Pete made bearings out of leather. They lasted through winter and into summer. When the proper parts arrived we replaced the leather ones, but they didn't really need it.

And one spring, a bunch of us got together for a two-week dog-sled trip in the Brooks range. Pete and I were the only ones with pickups, so we hauled the dogs and gear. My pickup was nothing to trust, a '68 Jeep J-20. But Pete's, for crying out loud - he had a tire that had one of those irreparable holes in the sidewall.

Did I say irreparable? That was all Pete needed to hear. He went to work. The hole was a tear about an inch long. He made a sandwich using three-inch-square pieces of plywood for bread, burlap for lettuce, and silicone for mayonnaise. The sidewall was the baloney, and a carriage bolt made a fancy toothpick to hold it all together.

We were off. I watched that goofy sandwich go around in circles for 400 miles of some of the toughest gravel roads in the world. Pete saved himself $20, too.

Pete's dog sled was built in the same spirit. I used regular old store-bought, commercially produced hickory and ash for my sled. But Pete figured the birch saplings growing in his yard were good enough. So he cut them green, steamed them in a wooden box fed by a tea kettle on his wood stove, and bent them into the shapes he needed. Pete's sled was small, efficient, light, cheap. And incredibly beautiful.

Pete owned very little, but aside from his vehicles, everything he had was absolutely beautiful. It used to make my heart ache to go to his house (he built a lovely cabin while he lived in the Aspen closet). Every single object he had was carefully thought out, handmade, bought cheap, or found. His washtub was antique, his ax handle handmade, the windows were salvaged glass in handmade frames. Where I used a Rubbermaid pitcher to dip drinking water out of a Rubbermaid trash can, Pete had built a cistern and pumped out of it with an antique cast-iron unit. He had a small pail on the counter with a ladle for smaller quantities.

Of course, you could drive on my road all year, my cars started more often than his, and I could buy a book whenever I wanted, so I guess we all make choices that work for us. But the thing that keeps impressing me, some years later, is the jewelry box on my daughter's dresser. Pete made it for my wife, Kerry, and me one Christmas out of scraps of flooring left over from a job he and I did together.

This was before I had any daughters, or he his daughters and son. It was a jillion below, and I was gathering up some of the scraps to take home and toss into the stove. Pete grabbed some and took them home, too. But a few weeks later, the scraps came back as a jewelry box. Those nice in-laws of his that were so frugal? Their daughter, not yet Mrs. Pete, made little quilt-like tops for the boxes. We all got them, and I think of this grand master of frugality often when I spy the box on my girl's dresser.

At my auto shop here in the Lower 48, we don't throw very much away. Everyone teases me for having six different flavors of recycling. But I'm sure Pete could stay completely busy filling the world with beautiful things made from the stuff we just don't have time to deal with.

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