Get the Lead Out

My dad was a pack rat. While I clearly got at least one copy of this gene, I am occasionally able to part with valuable and sentimental items. For example, I recently tossed out all of my lecture notes from my undergraduate years. I just know that sometime in the next six months someone will ask me a question in a meeting that requires me to go back and re-derive the second law of thermodynamics. And, I will be screwed because I don’t have my notes. So be it.

My dad never threw anything away. Ever. When he passed unexpectedly in 1997, my sister, Amy, and I had the unenviable task of making all the tough “toss or keep” decisions he refused to make for the prior 61 years. His various systems of filing and saving didn’t make the task any easier. Like many of us, much of his clutter came into the kitchen. He would pile things up on the counter and kitchen table until the piles got so tall they were in danger of toppling over, at which point he would put the pile in a file box, label it with the location of the pile and the date, and move it to the basement. As a result of this system, Amy and I encountered about 450 boxes with labels like “front right corner of green counter, May 1978” or “kitchen table, left side, June 1967,” and so on. Any given box could include 5 issues of Train magazine, 12 bank statements, and my high school diploma. That is to say, we had to go through each and every piece of paper in each and every box to ensure nothing valuable was lost. The end result was that we filled up a full-sized construction dumpster…..4 times.

Alas, soon after dad died, we sold his primary residence in Virginia and whatever had to be saved was saved (mostly in boxes in my and Amy’s basement) and the rest went off to the landfill. But, we still have a connection to dad’s pack rat memory, here at our house in Maine. My dad spent his summers here from an early age, right through until the time of his death. So, the house here has some nice relics in the storeroom. In case you doubt his ability to save just about anything, I offer this issue of the Oberlin Review from April 1954.


I guess it was a pretty big deal to my dad that his faculty was considering doing away with the wrestling and fencing teams, while OK’ing the men’s co-op. He had about 5 copies of just this one edition. I just wish I knew which side of the wrestling/fencing issue he was on. Or was he just excited about the men’s co-op? I guess we’ll never know.

In addition to the filing box by location on the kitchen counter system of storage, one of my dad’s other favorite techniques for “organizing” his life, used primarily for smaller objects, was to put things in cigar boxes. Sometimes he used actual cigar boxes (he never smoked a single cigar in his life so I’m not sure where he got those) or cigar-type boxes, purchased at the back-to-school special at Staples. I was rooting around in the barn at our house in Maine, looking for a bucket (too practical, we didn’t have one) when I stumbled into a few shelves stacked with these cigar boxes.

This wall of cigar boxes was in the barn at our house in Maine

This wall of cigar boxes was in the barn at our house in Maine

I stood there for a moment, admiring the labels on the boxes. Labels like “1 Inch Screws” and “Fuses” suggest a man far more handy than my dad ever was. He was very comfortable in a three-piece suit and wing tips. Not so much with a power tool in his hands. One has to wonder why he saved “Ice Box Parts.” Knowing dad, he probably had “take class in ice box repair” somewhere on his bucket list. Sadly, he never got to it. Thankfully, I have the parts if I ever decide to fulfill his dream and take the course. I’m pretty sure the ice box to which the parts pertain was discarded in the 1970s, but maybe I can sell the parts on eBay.

This is not the first time I stood and got nostalgic at this collection of cigar boxes and it won’t be the last. Each time I do it, I get something new out of it. This time, I landed on the box labeled “LEAD.”

What could possibly be in this box?

What could possibly be in this box?

I’ve looked at this bank of cigar boxes many times, but never really noticed the “LEAD” box. I know I’ve never bothered to take it off the shelf. Before I did so today, I tried to imagine what might be in it. Lots of things are made of lead and probably more so 50 years ago than today. But, while dad was a bit eccentric, I hope by now I’ve convinced you that his labeling systems were both accurate and, in his mind, very practical. If the box contained a lead oarlock, I’m quite convinced he would have labeled it “Oarlock.” If it had contained a lead paperweight, it would have said “Paperweight.”

I couldn’t figure it out so I took the box down and looked inside. Guess what it contained? If you said, “lead” you are correct. I cannot possibly do more justice to this piece of lead than to share some photos.

Lead in hand

It is pretty clearly just a big hunk of scrap lead. With some twine tied through a hole in it. Whether the string was there when my dad acquired this hunk of lead or he put the string on, we’ll never know. We may never know where he got the slug of lead or why he felt compelled to keep it when he was organizing these cigar boxes. Did it have some special sentimental value or did he think it might have some practical utility in the future? The only remotely plausible theory I have is that he and I “caught” it magnet fishing.

When I was a kid, my dad had this huge super powerful magnet. He tied a rope around it and he and I would go down on the end of the dock, drop it to the bottom of the ocean and bob it around to see what metallic items we could pick up from the ocean floor. As soon as I came up with this theory for the lead, I looked around the barn and, not surprisingly, within about 10 minutes I was able to find our magnetic fishing appartus.

I think it’s reasonably plausible that I caught that big hunk of lead magnet fishing with my dad. And, he saved it because it meant something to him. I’m going to run with that theory. So, suddenly this useless hunk of lead has some meaning for me too. I think I’ll hang on to it. Fortunately, it already has a fully labeled box to store it for the next 40 years.

About Bruce Robertson

Bruce Robertson is an amateur writer and professional provocateur
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1 Response to Get the Lead Out

  1. I love this blog. I love the way you write. I loved your dad and I was so glad I got to see some of his “quirkiness”. Thank you, Bruce

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