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The Auction Story


The growing crowd surged, under the brightening morning sun, like waves of the unharvested oats ripening in nearby fields.  This rather usual gathering of local curiosity was a common site in small towns and farm communities, around the country, not all that long ago. The participants were all willing tickets in a special dance, common to small community life.

They were gathered for an event.  It was an auction.

Auctions were the place, in the era of my youth, on the western edge of the great Hoosier prairie, to gather for used goods in the days before garage sales and flea markets. Auctions were the unofficial redistribution channel of local possession wealth.  The auction was also a revelation of past personal histories.

Auctions would – and still do – bring out some of the more interesting elements in a small community population. Small town auctions are even more condensed in their storied, story-lines. Participating in an auction can appear, in principle, a lot like slowly peeling away the skin of a banana.  From the outside it looks ripe and clear. But, once the peeling is removed, the imperfections – and even the unexpected treasures – are revealed in all their naked reality.

Thus, people come to them as much for the findings – the revealing traces of the people – now on public display – who amassed the possessions being sold – as for the goods themselves.

Small town communities are built upon people.  People are the genesis of history.  And history is rife with ripe untold stories; well, at least untold in the light of day. It was the lure of untold story potential that tugged at the surging mass of humanity that morning. Anticipation fed the little centers of curiosity, agitating the very core of each participant.

But this auction was not to be – at least for me – any regular auction, driven by the quivering dopamine-rushed hippocampi pumping the wave of small town auction curiosity.  No. This auction was to become a key component in my own personal heritage collection.

This is my … Auction Story.

The auctioneer strode the to top of his auctioneer’s stand and flipped on the speaker.  His voice sparked and crackled over the bright morning air with a call for the crowd’s attention. He paused carefully – and deliberately – allowing the heads in the bobbing wave before him to gain a majority in his direction.

Upon finding the moment, he began his enumeration of the virtues of all the possessions on display on the many tables, on wagons and in roped-off sections of the parking lot before he and his congregation of, “Will I or Will I Not… be the new owner of ____?”.

He gave instructions and times for each auction of goods by lot-type and value.  He then flipped off the mic.  With an electronic snap the wave returned to its previous hum; steeped in personal investigation.

The auction had begun.

In most auctions the early morning hours are used as a time for previewing the goods. This allows the potential buyers time to work up their list of items on which they will begin a monetary joust with their fellow auctionites.

The day progressed as normal right up until the lunch break. At this point, those who remained with a card full of items to bid on, would either walk to a nearby restaurant or diner or patronize one of the on-site vendors.  Socializing during the lunch-break was as popular as the need to grab a bite-to-eat before entering the auction battle arena. All of this was preparation to actually begin the bidding for goods.

Shortly after 1:00 PM the auctioneer again strolled to his podium, flipped on the mic and with another sharp crack from the speakers, he brought the crowd to attention and the auction began in earnest.

Nearing 2:00 PM, the event that was to seal, in my memory, what an auction is truly about, began to unfold.

One of the roped off lots had a collection of shop equipment; tools of various sorts.  There, lain out upon tables and in boxes and crates were the tools of a farmer.  They weren’t new or even all that clean, but they had in themselves a special beauty. Sturdy, used, but dependable tools: hammers, wrenches, files, saws, drop-cords, oil cans, and the like. Stacked in wooden crates were cans of screws, nuts, washers, bolts and other assorted hardware that become the daily essentials of the farm workshop.

You see when a farmer isn’t in the field preparing, caring for or harvesting a crop, he’s fixing his equipment.  And all that fixing takes place in – or in very close proximity (drive way, feed lot, barn lot to mention a few) to the shop. The shop is the hub of a farm; the nerve center.  And one of the most important tools found in a farm shop is the vice.

In the middle of this assortment of tools stood a steel-plate workbench and on that bench was a big … BIG … vice.

That vice had my uncles’ eye.

He had been playing peek-a-boo with that vice nearly since the moment he’d arrived.  He was coy though.  He didn’t dare give anyone the impression he was interested – not in the least – about actually bidding on it.  That is one of the many tricks learned by veteran auction attendees.

The auctioneer began calling off the items. One by one the bidding began and ended with a sale. The vice remained untouched.  Seconds dragged into minutes. Before long 15 minutes gave way to half-an-hour. Still, no one had ventured a bid on the vice.  Occasionally, as an item of low interest was being promoted, my uncle would wander over to the vice bench and check on the mood surrounding it.  It was calm.  But he wasn’t.  He knew two things:  1) He wanted the vice.  2) He didn’t have the money to buy it.

Both are real problems on an auction ground.

The auctioneer was wrapping up the auction and noticed the very large vice and equally large man standing next to it.  The same vice that had not received a single bid and the same man that had remained close by it throughout the auction. Yes. It was that obvious. Well, at least to the man in charge of making a living by moving these goods; if not to anyone else.

At an auction there are three primary ways to instigate a productive sale mood.

First, proper placement of highly desirable goods.  When an auction has a fair number of items, for which people will be hot to buy, the auctioneer can space special offering of these items out, so as to create interest and the induced purchase of peripheral goods.  Some will even go so far as to plant nice items in an otherwise mediocre to poor quality lot to seed sales.  As long as it’s done within reason, it is seen as a good marketing ploy.

Second, is offering a few – select – highly-desirable products at incredibly – ‘can’t pass ’em up’ – low prices.  Often the auctioneer will offer a moderately interesting item – or even a very good one – at a very low price point.  Such an effort is like seeding the lot with better items, only the seed here is the price.

The third option is to offer a compelling story.  The alert auctioneer will watch his congregation with an eye for opportunity. If he sees a person in the crowd whom he believes – or observes – as being a crowd favorite, he might just offer that person an opportunity to make him a story.  With that story-line the crowd can become a feeding frenzy.

The auctioneer knew he had his story-line. He just had to figure a way to put the big man and the big vice into a crowd pleasing moment.

The loudspeaker crackled to life again as the auctioneer spoke.

“Hey Big-Fella? Yes, you by the big vice. Are you going to bid on the vice?  You seem to have taken quite a liking to it.”

My uncle answered back clearly,”I would if had the money. But I don’t.”

Sensing the moment of a great story-line, the auctioneer countered with a can’t-miss-offer.

“OK. I’ll tell you what I’ll do.  Since you’re the only one who seems to really like that vice, I’ll give you a crack at getting it.   So, tell me, what do you think it weighs?”

Carefully studying the vice for a few seconds, my uncle looked up at the auctioneer and said, “Enough… enough that any man who could lift it and carry it, should own it.”

“Alright then!”, exclaimed the auctioneer. “If you can carry that vice to your truck and put it on the bed… you own it.  That vice will be yours.”

A smile began to grow across my uncles wide, gentle face. He looked straight at the auctioneer and said in a pleasingly low tone, “Oh, I don’t know. That might not be fair.”

“Fair?”, coughed the auctioneer. “If you think you can carry it to your …”. And before the auctioneer could finish his counter, my uncle reached down, hoisted the vice from that big steel-plate table – strode with an unwavering stride to his truck. Then in one continuous move, lifted that giant vice even higher to the level of the near-shoulder-high – truck bed.  He dropped the vice with a loud  – CLANG – that announced to all, the deal was closed.

The entire truck shuddered and bucked under the weight of the giant vice as it hit the truck bed. For a full 30 seconds the springs and shocks struggled to restore equilibrium.  The wave of the congregation had stopped.  No noise.  Only the sounds of the world outside this local auction community could be heard.

After a brief moment, my uncle turned, looked at the auctioneer and simply … smiled.  The crowd erupted into a vibrating cacophony of applause as the pulsing  body heaved one giant gelatinous wave after another of congratulation.  The auctioneer beamed.  It was one of his best moves ever… and he knew it.

The big man had his big vice.  The auctioneer had his story-line.  And as I understand it, the auctionites made quite a day of transferring local possession wealth.

They gave him -the table

From that day forward, I heard recant, mention or relay of the story at least once a month.  Each time, I was never reticent to announce that, “Yes! and that was MY UNCLE!”  Amazing what impact -and zone of safety- such a story-shadow can provide a young kid growing up.

Witness the power and importance of the heritage story.  The fragments of our lives are wrapped around the framework of certain key stories.  These stories are what our lives are built upon.  They form the framework of the character we carry though out our lives.

Likewise, we never know when  -WE-  are adding to another person’s heritage story-line. Uncanny isn’t it?

We simply cannot afford to loose connection to our heritage. If we do, we loose connection to our very life compass.  Recovery is possible later on, but not without facing some very unnecessary and rough waters before we do.

Listen-to and look-for your heritage stories and you will know it. You’ll also realize it as one of your best moves ever.


The Auction Story by Les Booth
From the series, “In The Shadow of Gar Island: a life of wonder on the edge of the Hoosier prairie”
Written for Donna Swanson’s eMagazine: Aechoes