Years ago, before I moved to Maine, I used to take great pleasure in attending country auctions. I think a combination of two things drove me to these events: the democracy of it, and the phenomenal trash and treasures that came to the fore. A skillful bidder could come away with some precious bauble for a song.
I quickly learned that I was not a very talented bidder.
Fresh out of college, I attended my first auction in rural New Jersey. It was just as I had imagined it: The whole show was crammed into an old barn, with the auctioneer perched behind a lectern, a cornucopia of goods stockpiled behind him, everything from furniture to glassware to old coins and crockery. Before him was massed a concentricity of chairs, occupied by the hopeful. I took my place among them.
When the barking began, I was taken by surprise at the velocity of the action. The auctioneer's articulation didn't miss a beat, and he disposed of chifforobes, turkey basters, Bakelite radios, and stamp collections with alacrity. Although nothing had been brought forward that I was interested in, I was slowly overtaken by the sense that I had to buy something. After all, this was an auction.
And so I tried to bid on a set of tintypes. I had no interest in tintypes, knew nothing about their value, and hadn't even examined them before the auction had commenced. To tell the truth, I wasn't even sure what a tintype was, but I was emboldened when I overheard an elderly woman behind me whisper to her companion, "Now, these are nice."
The bidding started at $5. I hesitated, then decided to bid, but by the time my hand was aloft someone else had swooped in and suddenly the bidding was at $10.
I looked around to see if I could eyeball the culprit, but by the time I looked at the auctioneer again, the bidding was over at $20. I had been bushwhacked.
Successive attempts to win something - anything - were also fruitless. Perhaps it was because I really did look at an auction as "winning" something, as if I were in some sort of competition with my fellow auctiongoers. And then again, that was exactly it, no? So I girded myself, focused on the action with renewed intensity, and bid my heart out, eventually becoming the owner of something called a whiffletree.
I didn't learn what a whiffletree was until I brought the rotten old piece of wood with its rusted fittings home. My dad recognized it as a component from an old horse-drawn wagon. I offered it to my mom to use as a support for hanging plants, extolling the thing with the zeal of someone who had an unusual flair for concealing his own embarrassment.
But she delicately declined, suggesting instead that I store it under the basement steps, where, I understand, it still reposes.
All that was 20 years ago. In the interim, my attention turned to other affairs. But recently, as if coming out of some sort of stupor, I realized that in Maine I was in auction heaven. I mean, so much junk!
And so, a week ago, I decided to reacquaint myself with country auctions, only this time I would be an older, savvier, and more judicious bidder. As I drove out to the auction barn that winter evening, my mantra was, "Control, control...."
I made it in time to preview the offerings. The place was aswarm with patrons - mostly local folk, some with their children -out for a night's entertainment as respite from the short, overcast days and biting cold. To one side of the auction barn a snack bar was doing a fanfare business in hot dogs, custard pie, and strawberry shortcake.
The auctioneer ascended his podium as the rest of us seized our seats. Almost immediately he brought out a brass lamp, followed by an eight-track cassette player and a 1958 Funk and Wagnalls Encyclopedia.
The bidding was furious, and by the time a handful of arrowheads was offered, I had that old-time feeling again, and I found myself bidding reflexively, even though I knew that if I didn't restrain myself I'd once again be hauling a whiffletree home, or worse.
You will never know how close I came to becoming the proud owner of a straight razor from the Columbian Exposition of 1892, a ceramic spittoon, and a ladies' bowling ball with the name "Ethel" engraved upon it. It was only the practiced hands of my competitors that kept me from these triumphs.
But then - my fellow bidders must have been distracted by the lure of custard pie or the antics of some screaming children - I found an opening. I bid, the auctioneer acknowledged me, and before another hand could go up he declared, "SOLD!"
Ten seconds later I was holding an old, rotten, splintered canoe paddle.
It wasn't until I had arrived home that I began to wonder what all that was about. And yet I wasn't about to surrender the gleaning it had taken me more than 20 years to corral.
The only way I could rationalize ownership of the paddle was to place the thing in a remote corner of the house, together with some of the other kitsch that has come into my life over the years, so that, if some visitor should see it, he or she will be compelled to remark, "Well, he must know that this is a piece of junk. That's why he put it here with all this other junk."
Yeah, that's it.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor