Roger King probably wouldn’t have stopped to untangle this coil of rusty barbed wire, but if a fellow had dragged it into his salvage yard and offered it up, I doubt he would have turned it down. A stroll through the buildings on his property suggested he rarely refused anything. Piles of sheet metal, ceramic insulators, lengths of angle iron and rebar, old appliances, and Mason jars filled with fasteners huddled everywhere. Occasional oddities showed up as well, helping to keep things interesting: an armadillo shell; a set of paisley chair cushions; a bird cage painted green and filled with red plastic geraniums.
Born in San Antonio, Roger served in the Navy during WW II. Then, he and his wife Mollie opened a scrap metal and demolition business in northern California. In 1970, he sold the business to a nephew, moved back to Texas, and opened King’s Salvage in the town of Comfort. He loved to tease his customers, and was willing to have a little fun with people who didn’t know him so well. Asked what he did for a living, he’d often grin and say, “My wife and I are in the iron and steel business. She irons, and I steal.” It was his signature line: so well known that it was printed in his obituary.
I spent more time than might seem reasonable at King’s, looking over the rusted bits and odd-shaped bobs while attempting to divine their original purpose. It was, in certain ways, an extension of childhood habits. Long before I began frequenting scrap yards, scraps filled my life.
Some of my earliest memories involve table scraps: egg shells, vegetable peelings, and fruit rinds gathered for the chickens; bits of bread for the birds; turkey carcasses picked clean and carried away by raccoons.
Occasionally, leftovers returned to the table in the form of scrapple: bits of meat cooked with corn meal, shaped into loaves and sliced for frying. Scrapple wasn’t our custom, but Grandma was more than willing to borrow good ideas from her German and Czech friends. Scrapple was a very good idea, and paired with fried apples, it was a double delight. “Scrapple and apples,” my friends and I would shout, gleefully. “Scrapple and apples!” We laughed at the sound of the words, and we loved the sweet and savory pair that tasted of autumn, comfort, and home.
Other scraps, more long-lasting, provided a different sort of comfort. Every home contained boxes filled with bits and pieces of fabric that remained after making dresses, skirts, blouses, and shirts for family members. Snipped into tiny hexagons or squares, the fabric was transformed into building blocks for what my grandmother called scrap quilts. Some called them pieced quilts, but in either case they were treasures: hand-stitched with skill, patience and love.
Every year when the weather cools, I open the cedar chest and sit in the fading light, tracing my childhood through patches of fading color: a mother’s sundress; a grandmother’s apron; my favorite playsuit; the shirt my father wore when, desolate and brimming with tearful despair, I begged him not to abandon me to the terrors of summer camp.
Later, souvenirs of those not-at-all-terrifying weeks — the postcards, the pressed flowers, the mimeographed sheets of song lyrics – went into the first of many scrap books that served as collages of the passing years. Like the bits and pieces of scrap metal sculptor Lyle Nichols brings to life at his Colorado studio, their original purpose remained clear, even as their selection and combination created an entirely new vision of reality.
Looking at Nichols’s horse, thinking about leftovers for supper this evening, remembering that it’s warm enough now to put quilts away for the summer, it occurs to me that every bit of life we call scrap is valuable, and worth cherishing.
Scraps recall real meals, lovingly prepared. They intimate the cut of real clothing, patterned and stitched by human hands. They embody authentic experience: photographed, clipped, and pasted by the hands of those who knew which experiences were significant and which were not: which demanded saving, and which could be released without regret.
The best scrap, it seems, is grounded in reality, capable of stimulating memory, and able to contain an entire universe of experience within the tiniest shred of peeling or fold of cloth.
To the extent that writing is grounded in fragments of thought, a scrap of memory, or a pile of trimmings from from a vibrant and imaginative reconstruction of reality, it belongs with our quilts and our leftover meat loaf. Pulling words from from a pile of paragraphs; reworking paragraphs as though forging metal art; piecing sentences together with prepositional stitches and conjunctive thread; snipping, framing, and pasting images as if into a cherished book — all of this is beautiful, nourishing, and worthy of regard.
Few authors have understood the shimmering potential of mental scrap, the beauty of leftover experience, more clearly than Portuguese writer and poet Fernando Pessoa. After Pessoa’s death, a trunk filled with thousands of scraps of paper was discovered with his belongings. Among the unpublished poems, unfinished snippets of prose, and assorted other bits of writing was his thrilling and mysterious The Book of Disquiet, the source for this hypnotic sentence:
I ask and I continue. I write down the question, I wrap it up in new sentences, I unravel it to form new emotions.
Published fifty years after the author’s death, the extended diary fragments which form The Book of Disquiet represent the autobiography of Bernardo Soares, one of Pessoa’s remarkable “heteronyms,” or alternate selves. Each of these selves, nearly seventy or more of them, functioned autonomously as a fully developed literary alter ego, with a deeply personal voice and vision. And yet, the scraps remained just that: not unlike the pile of notes that covers my desk, scribbled on the backs of envelopes or grocery store receipts.
Why would a writer do such a thing? Pessoa suggests one answer:
I’m always horrified whenever I finish anything. Horrified and desolate. My instinct for perfection should inhibit me from ever finishing anything; it should in fact inhibit me from ever beginning. But I become distracted, and do things.
Reviewer Tricia Yost once suggested that Soares’s diary speaks of “Lisbon, literature, monotony, dreams and much more.” But, she added, “in the final analysis, the minutiae of life is made heartbreakingly beautful.”
The minutiae of life. Fragments of experience. Scraps of remembrance, well-trimmed and basted into patterns of prose. Poetry tasting of sunlight and oranges. Strands of rough and barbed experience, unraveled and re-coiled. Tailings of thought, and half-formed questions, waiting to be asked.
All are there, waiting in the trunk, behind the door, beneath the surface of memory. Perhaps they are waiting for us to become distracted, and do things.
Comments always are welcome.