Life in the Pedestrian Lane: Trash and treasure

  • By Virginia Walters
  • Saturday, September 20, 2014 4:34pm
  • LifeCommunity

July and most of August were such good weather that no one had much time for socializing. Everyone was so busy fishing, herding company, gardening or just plain enjoying a real summer that when the ‘Lunch Bunch” was finally all in one place at the same time for coffee one day, it was just to say hello and chat for a few minutes. Hubby and I happened to be on the way to recycle a few bags of aluminum cans once our company was gone and that fact prodded lots of memories from the group.

We all remembered going with our dads to the dump, which back in our day was a treasure hunt. We laughed that our moms probably hated it when we got to go, because we were apt to bring more home than we took. Which of course was not the real case, but in our day, the dump was a place of grand adventure. The “junk man” had first pick of anything brought to the dump, but there was always good pickings for a kid. A fancy candy box, maybe a toy that only needed a back wheel, or a comic book with most of the pages intact; truly, one man’s junk, etc., in action.

Dad allowed each of us one thing, and sometimes he’d find a piece of iron, or a shovel with the handle still intact that he’d pick up and bring home. Recycle bins were unknown because newspapers were used to start fires or wrap packages or put down to train puppies; magazines were passed on to the neighbors, and aluminum cans and plastic bottles were things of future.

Betty remembered her Saturday job as a kid “during the war” (and none of us had to ask “which war”) was to take the ends out of empty tin cans and then smash them by stepping on them. Food cans were made of a tin alloy in those days, and were sent off to the war effort by the train car full, each one probably smashed by a kid somewhere doing his part for the war.

We all remembered peeling tin foil off the paper backing used to wrap pieces of gum, then rolling it into a ball, again to be sent off. But one of the fun side lines was to see who could collect the biggest ball of foil. Some claimed as big as a basketball, but I only ever saw one about as big as a softball. I never grew one much bigger than a marble because I always gave the foil to my older cousin to add to his growing ball.

And we collected string. In those days, before Scotch tape came into popular use, things you bought at the store were wrapped in paper and tied with cotton string. The counter top in the department store had a small hole in it where the string was fed through from underneath to be pulled across, then the paper laid down on top of it so when the package was wrapped, the string was right there. The butcher had his string on a cone over his shoulder, where he could pull it down to wrap purchases in waxed paper. Everyone collected string, because it was useful. Scotch tape eventually took over as the sealer after the war and decorative bags came into being to carry purchases from the store.

Nowadays, string is not as available, and I find myself using broken shoestrings, yarn, or old extension cords to do the job that cotton string used to be employed for.

Our parents were of the depression generation so knew the value of using everything, and we were being brought up in an atmosphere of austerity because of the war. We all remember ration tokens and stamps, and not being able to buy sugar. Gasoline was at a premium unless your family were farmers and the worst thing you could be accused of was “hoarding.” We understood “recycle” before it became “repurpose.” We use a washed vienna sausage can as a cookie cutter, drank our lemonade from a pint jar (before someone put a handle on it) and used the backs of envelopes as scratch paper beside the telephone.

The current atmosphere of built-in obsolescence is foreign. Our parents probably bought one refrigerator in their lifetime and it was still operating when they died. Buying a new TV every few years or replacing the dryer when the warranty expires then worrying about recycling a pop can or a water bottle seems penny-wise and pound foolish (remember that?) to us old grouches.

And who the heck even wants to go to the junkyard these days? Nothing there but big Dumpsters full of black plastic bags and maybe a tricycle set to the side for someone to re-use. No way to scavenge around to find a bottle to use for a vase, or a pretty plate to set a plant on, or even an almost good picture frame. Now THAT’S repurposing.

Virginia Walters lives in Kenai. Email her at

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