Railroad Salvage

My family found the secret to living well on a modest income in the 1950s and 60s. Every Wednesday morning my father went into Portland to the railroad salvage auction. He examined all the goods displayed on long tables, decided on what he wanted, turned his bids into the office. If he submitted the winning bid, the railroad office would call him that afternoon and he would go back the next morning to pick up his goods.

 I went with him, sometimes for the auction and sometimes for the pickup. I was fascinated by the dolls with missing arms and legs, shoes in smashed boxes, sweater sets without packaging, refrigerators with dents, and sets of dishes with a few broken pieces. I liked pickup the best because everyone was so happy. Grown men would run around bragging about what they bought for $5 or $10. My dad did that sometimes, too.

 He purchased our living room couch missing one leg. One of our lamps was a young boy whose foot had been lopped off, until a ceramicist came by to fit the boy for a new foot and a week later made him whole again. Our stove had a dent in the top so Dad had cupboards built above it, giving us one of the few built-in stoves in the neighborhood. The dresser mirror in my bedroom had a damaged frame so I covered it with memorabilia and later corsages from my proms.

 Most of all, we ate a lot of our meals out of dented cans or cans without labels or dented cans without labels. Mom taught us from an early age that if the dented can was swollen, then do not eat it but rather save it and show it to her. If the contents shot out the top, like a volcano, when we opened it, we were to throw it away. If I opened a can looking for ripe olives but found tamales wrapped in paper and covered with red sauce, I stored the open can in the refrigerator until my mom came home from her job at the hospital. We ate a hot German potato salad, pickled beets, sauerkraut, potatoes, small wieners and ravioli. I still love just about anything in a can except peas.

 Sometimes Dad would buy items to resell at his feed store. They usually had nothing to do with livestock or gardens but he got a reputation as someone who offered good deals on unusual items. When he retired he had an entire room of his store filled with dented cans and other food items. They were so old they didn’t have use by dates and he hadn’t been to the railroad salvage for years at that time of his life so who knows how old the food was. The inventory of that room went directly into the garbage can.

 When my Mom was at the end of her life I reminded her about the time she heated a bag of cookies for us and an army of worms fled from the hot marshmallow; she didn’t remember but didn’t doubt the story. We reminisced about the dented cans and damaged appliances and off brand clothing and armless dolls.

 She said, “I didn’t mind because it saved the family money to buy from the railroad salvage.” She paused, as if remembering that entire room we had to throw away. “Even if he did get a little carried away.”

 “Mom, do you remember when Dad bought the frogs?” I asked.


 “Fifty boxes of dead frogs intended for dissection in Biology class when kids only dissected live frogs.”

 She laughed so hard she almost lost her breath. “Your dad really had a screw loose,” she said.

 We both chuckled at the memory of those frogs rotting away amongst the items for sale in the feed store.

 “What happened to them?” I asked.

 She shrugged. “Maybe they’re still there.”






When a Clown Uses an Animal Prop

The strolling clown has a whole class of animal helpers available to her. She can pull out a hand puppet, spring puppet or finger puppet. He can display a rubber chicken or plush animal. Even invisible animals can show up in clown acts. Here are some ideas for making your animal of choice come alive.

 It all has to do with giving your animal its own persona or character.

 Make your animal look interesting. Not just cute but try for odd or even outrageous. Can the animal be decorated or props added? Add a shiny top hat or an awkward purple bow or, maybe, a pitchfork, depending on who your animal is going to be. A snake with a motorcycle helmet and Harley neck scarf is much more interesting than an unadorned one. A squirrel with a miniature monkey riding on his back is odd.

 Pick a name that fits with your animal’s oddness. It should evoke fun and make people laugh. Every time I meet a pig named Pork Chop I always groan; it’s so mean and true at the same time. My snake with the motorcycle helmet could be called Boss, Rattles or maybe Worm. My favorite name for a male dog is Dude, and because of that name, I can picture him wearing sunglasses.

 So where did Worm or Dude or Pork Chop come from? Provide a compelling origin story for your animal. Maybe you found your skunk as a little pink baby hiding under a rock and you raised him in your sock drawer; his name is Sox. Maybe Worm showed up in your bath tub one day alone and afraid. People like to hear about animals, even pretend ones, rescued from certain death and raised in a nice home.

 So what is your animal like? What does he do for fun? What does he eat? Share snippets of bad, interesting or hilarious behavior or characteristics for your animal. Warn people that your pig likes to bite toes so watch out. Worm, the scary snake, likes to hide in purses so hold yours closed. No-No the mouse is so shy. Dude loves to eat broccoli.

 Allow the animal to show affection. He should look directly into the eyes of the people he is entertaining and also look at you that way. For some reason, when an animal shows affection to a person it is interpreted as true honest affection, unfettered from the constraints of being human. People really believe it means something when an animal singles them out. Maybe No-No comes out only if he sees someone he likes. Maybe Sox the skunk likes to kiss pretty ladies on the cheek. Worm the snake might look scary but when he meets someone he admires, he can’t stop staring.

 Finally, have your animal do something unexpected before you move on.  If Sox the skunk is a spring puppet, you can propel him up into the air. Maybe you put Worm the snake back into his box and he slithers back out through a hole. No-No the mouse may squeak excitedly and you explain that means he needs to find a rest room.

 So clowns, as you stroll, share your animal friends with your audiences and make sure the animals have personas as compelling as you do. Interesting clowns always have even more interesting friends.