By the light of the silvery spoon

THESE good-garden sprays that control bugs and blight are measured by tablespoons, so many to a gallon of water, and I have just the right thing -- a tablespoon. I hadn't been giving my tablespoon a thought, but I was mixing a dollop for the squash the other morning when Jim happened by and wanted to know. My tablespoon, you see, is sterling silver, and Jim was aware what has happened to silver of late. Jim says I should lock it up at night. Perhaps I should, but it belongs on the high shelf where my several cans are out of reach. My spoon goes back to my grandfather's time when he was burned out -- lost house and barn and all -- and had to start over.

After the embers and ashes cooled, he moved on a woodchopper's tar-paper shanty he found somewhere, got out sawlogs for a bungalow and barn, and began scouring the countryside to find things he needed. Gramp was a trader, and he got a good many things at the auctions about the area. In those days, right after the World War, the country auctions had not become social gatherings for curio collectors or mother lode for antique dealers. They were just sales meant for the neighborhood, usually the last gasp of a family that had run out -- offerings of goods and chattels, house and land, all sales final, the accumulation of a lifetime. People from Connecticut and New Jersey hadn't begun to come up to Maine to pay $150 for a chair that was easy worth 35 cents. When they did begin to come, they were looked upon as intruders, spoiling the whole purpose of a good auction. That summer my grandfather did buy 12 dining-room chairs -- how much apiece and take the lot? -- for 25 cents apiece. He needed only four, so he sold the others at a dollar each, making a profit, so to speak, on four chairs that cost him nothing.Grandfather was a shrewd trader.

Well, one Saturday the old Bingham place on the Brook Road was sold off, lock , stock, and barrel, and Grandfather expected there would be many things he could use. He attended with his horse and wagon and looked the items over before the sale began. He liked the looks of a mowing machine and a separator, and thought he might bid on the vise for heading apple barrels. He had the horse tied to a tree on the lawn, with some hay thrown down, and he sat on the wagon seat to wait the exercises. Squire Chet Longway was the auctioneer, and he was a good one. About midway of the sale two men brought on an ancient trunk -- one of those steamer trunks with rounded lid and iron bands. The way they walked, the trunk seemed heavy. Squire Longway had a whispered conference with the two men, who were his helpers, and all three shook their heads. When Chet turned back to the crowd he said, "Now, folks, this here trunk has got to be sold unopened and sight unseen. No key. The trunk has been in the Bingham attic for many, many years and nobody knows what become of the key. Nobody knows what's inside. There's something, but who knows what? So I'm offering this as a mystery box, and how much am I offered?"

Grandfather shouted, "Fifty cents!" Chet ignored him. Again, Grandfather shouted, "Fifty cents!" and Chet ignored him again. So Grandfather kept shouting his 50 cents and Chet kept ignoring him until somebody down front said, "Hey, Chet, you got a bid up back -- you gone deef?" Chet said, "I heard that minnow bid and it's an insult to public intelligence. Regardless of what's inside, the trunk alone is worth five dollars. Now, who'll give me an honest bid and start things off at five dollars?" Grandfather shouted, "Fifty cents!" and the crowd, amused, decided to let him buy. The only bid was the 50 cents. The men put the trunk in Gramp's wagon, and when he got home he looked through boxes and pails from numerous previous autions, and found a key that opened the trunk.

It had quite a few things in it, so it was well worth the 50 cents' investment, and Grandfather was pleased. And it seems somewhere back in the Bingham family there had been a renegade who liked to steal spoons from hotels and restaurants. Gramp found about a peak of spoons. Mostly they were plate, but the tablespoon from Bailey, Banks & Biddle was coin silver and my grandfather used it the rest of his days to mix garden stuff. Then my dad used it, and now I use it. It is not for sale, and no matter what silver decides to do, I'm going to keep it.

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