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.”