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Wednesday, 04 July 2007 00:00

A pack rat’s nightmare – a yard sale

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You need some space. Believe me, I understand. The closets are so full, it takes two of you to press the doors closed — turn the knob to open one, and you risk a broken nose from the sheer force of stuff pushing out, like a dam bursting, unleashing a torrent of stuff. I know it’s dangerous. The shelves, all of them, every one in the entire house, are covered over with stuff. It is like kudzu, threatening to swallow the entire house by the end of the summer. Something has got to be done about it, all of this clutter. There is no room left for anything, not in this house, no space for a hairpin, no place to put a pocketful of change.

I know you are desperate enough to consider treacherous measures, such as hauling truckloads of stuff away to various thrift shops, pawn shops, charity auctions, even the dump. You might wait for a weekend when the owner of all this stuff is going to be away and have a giant yard sale, the biggest ever—you may need to borrow the neighbor’s yard, or even the entire neighborhood. With all of that stuff spread out all over the place, from the vantage point of a helicopter it would look like a tornado had ripped through the neighborhood, somehow leaving the houses intact, but jerking every item inside them out into the yard, perfectly folded or polished and tagged for sale.

OK, so you made five hundred bucks and created some badly needed space. You had not seen the back of that hall closet for seven years. So that is where that Wok we got from your mother for Christmas that year got to. We’ve been through four Woks since then. You made some money, got rid of a bunch of junk, and found a brand new Wok, but can you tell me what you’ve lost?

I can. It’s a little thing called trust. Don’t worry about it. Why, it’s only your honor, your integrity, your credibility. When a man or a woman comes home one day and finds that essential pieces of his or her life have been sold off to strangers for pennies on the dollar, it is a violation so profound that years of therapy may not be enough to undo the damage. I know this is a difficult concept to comprehend for non-Pack rats, just as getting excited over the DVD release of “Gomer Pyle, USMC” is unimaginable to anyone who did not grow up in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Why would anyone care about knickknacks and artifacts, tattered shirts and non-functioning typewriters, boxes full of banners and bumper stickers and wallets and old magazines and cigarette lighters that haven’t sparked in 20 years? He doesn’t even SMOKE anymore!

Here’s why. Pack rats do not save these things because they have a practical use. They are not even saving them because they have sentimental value, not exactly. It goes much deeper than that. They save them because they provide a tangible link to the past, something tactile. Have you seen the movie “Dead Zone,” where Christopher Walken has a car wreck one night on the way home from his girlfriend’s house and wakes up from a coma years later to find that his mother sold off all his stuff ... no wait, that’s not it. He wakes up to find that when he grabs hold of a person, he has the ability to see the future in rich and vivid detail.

For pack rats, it is just the opposite. Grab onto an old baseball glove, and suddenly you are whisked into a past so real and vibrant that you can taste the Red Man chewing tobacco in your jaw. Slip into your Fleetwood Mac T shirt, and there you are again in the backseat of a maroon Nova, drinking Boones Farm wine out of the bottle and speculating on the various rumors about this girl or that one. Was that Sandra in Jake’s Ford pick-up? You’re KIDDING, right?

You may say that pack rats are holding onto the past? Well, who doesn’t? What are you doing with 14 photo albums and 12 VHS tapes of home movies? How would you feel if you left for the weekend, and came back to find all of your photographs and videos sold off to random people you’ve never met for a nickel apiece?

For the pack rat, these things are as meaningful, perhaps MORE meaningful, than photographs. No glossy Polaroid is ever going to compare to a memory evoked by going through notebooks saved from high school, the little notes scribbled in the margins, a drawing of a tree on one page, on another the first two lines of a limerick still waiting to be finished 25 years later.

I am not really a total pack rat, although I guess I can admit to tendencies. As a 12-year-old, I went on my one and only deep sea fishing expedition with my uncle and caught a spectacular flying fish with wings and a baby shark, about two feet long. These, I brought home to show off, and they wound up somehow in my mother’s downstairs freezer, where they remained, among packages of sausage and sirloin, despite her protestations for the next several years until I went off to college, when they were finally dispatched.

All I can remember now about my one and only deep sea fishing expedition is getting very, very sick and throwing up over the side of the boat into the Atlantic Ocean. Without my frozen shark to hold onto, the memory has simply vanished, its features polished away by time. Nausea, that is what I remember.

If you love a pack rat, remember that the next time you decide to do a little “spring cleaning.”

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Waynesville. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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