Sometimes, in the least likely of places and at the least likely time, life causes me to wonder. One such time was yesterday, and the place was the scrap metal yard in a small town in central Maine, about ten miles from where I now live with daughter, Deb, and grandkids.
And as I did, Yesterday, When I Was Young, the poignant song from back in the day made popular by the singer, Roy Clark, came to mind. Life just seems so different, when we are old, and tired, and our dreams have mostly turned to dust. How different we were, “yesterday, when we were young.”
Earlier in the day, I had loaded some scrap copper pipe, salvaged from updating the plumbing in the cottage of Deb’s that now has some new renters, into our old Dodge pickup. I’d also tossed in the aluminum window frames salvaged from when the old camper was razed so its chassis could be used for a flatbed trailer, a rusted out water pump, a push lawnmower that had been totaled when the barn shed had collapsed, and a few other items of mostly iron stuff.
My memories of the scrap metal drives during World War II have always stuck with me. Metal, of any sort, was a precious commodity, then, never to be wasted. I’ve never since been able to bring myself to just toss good metal into a “junkpile” somewhere at the back of the place, to simply rust and corrode away, or to be buried in a land-fill. Besides, scrap metal is now bringing pretty good prices, so a trip to the scrap metal yard satisfied both the “greenies,” and my Kansas upbringing of never wasting much of anything.
Scrap metal yards, or junkyards as they are often called, are not places known for their appeal to the higher echelons of society, and the jobs are not what would be considered “white collar.” But, I had hauled junk to junkyards since I was in grade school; made a fair amount of spending money, that way, in fact. So, I was accustomed to the look of both the yard, and the guys that work there. Muddy drives throughout the yard, dirty overalls, grimy hands, scruffy beards, all things I had long been accustomed to seeing, and that never troubled me.
But it was the proprietor, the “boss,” of the yard, when I was waiting for him to figure up how much my scrap would bring me for my efforts of getting it there, that caused my mind to wander down an unexpected path.
Although I’m a poor judge, he didn’t appear to be all that old, late forties, perhaps early fifties, at most. But everything about his appearance would have easily fit a stereotype of the homeless so often featured in news stories slanted towards sympathetic responses. And certainly, he had the appearance of anyone you would expect to see at such a place. As do so many of the males, here in Maine, he had an excessively long, scraggily beard, that had obviously not been trimmed for many moons. His hair was equally long, shaggy, unkempt, hands dirty, fingernails equally so. It would be easy to believe his jeans had never once seen the interior of a washing machine, nor had his shirt.
But what I noticed, as he was writing down the types of material unloaded, the weights and prices for each, was that he had very good cursive handwriting. Not only was it easily legible, but was rather attractive, a quality that required all my years in country school to acquire. He also had no problem with the mental arithmetic required, as he pecked on a grimy calculator to tally up the totals. All in all, it gave the appearance of someone who had been reasonably well educated.
I found myself beginning to wonder, what had he been like, as a boy. What circuitous paths led him to this job, in this place? By all appearances, he had likely made it through graduation from high school. What were his dreams for his future, back then? It’s doubtful that “running a junk yard” would have been his response, when asked what he wanted to be when he grew up.
It would be easy to assume he was simply lazy, had little ambition. But he didn’t act lazy, pitched right in to help me unload. Perhaps something had forced him to drop out before he graduated, in fact, causing him to lose all opportunity for a better life. If so, it would have been just as easy to assume he was now embittered, mad at life, mad at God, mad at whatever he perceived the cause of his failures in life to be. Strangely enough, I never sensed that attitude, in my brief interactions with him, as we unloaded my truck, and as he tallied up the total owed me.
Although he wasn’t particularly cordial—being open and cordial is not typically a part of this region, in most instances—he was reasonably polite, answered the questions I had about some old machinery I would like to get rid of. As I drove home, I could not help but wonder about him, how he had come to be where he now is. Life seems to take us down unexpected roads, so often in our lives.
Later that night, I had to go to YouTube, and listen once again as Roy Clark sang about how different life was, “yesterday, when I was young.” Listening to him sing that lament, it’s hard not to relate to it, at times.
There are so many songs in me that won’t be sung,
I feel the bitter taste of tears upon my tongue.
The time has come for me to pay for
Yesterday when I was young…