If It’s Trash Day, I’m Collecting!

Prologue…

I was born in 1932, which by definition made me a depression baby. This episode in the life of Urb the emerging nerd, demonstrates that people were totally capable of doing economically irrational things during the height of the depression. They would throw things away needing only simple repairs.

How it all began…

At the time my trash picking started I was in 7th grade and I was the only student living far enough away from school that I couldn’t make it home for lunch, and back, in the allotted hour. I was a brown bagger.

On an early beautiful spring day I was walking leisurely to school and there in front of me was a beautiful floor lamp. I realized that if I waited until school let out the lamp would have been long deposited in a landfill (we call them junk yards back then.) I picked it up and started walking toward school. About two blocks from school was an empty wooded lot. I put my lamp in the lot and camouflaged it with a few branches and continued to school. I agonized all day worrying that someone would abscond with my lamp.

After school, there is was. I took it home and showed my father and he determined that the lamp had a switch that was not functioning, we went to a local hardware store and purchased a new one. (Home Depots didn’t appear for many decades into the future.) Lamps similar to my trash pick find were selling for about five dollars of 1940s money.

A new switch cost about 20 cents. Although my knowledge of the consequence of the depression was very limited I still found it strange that people would throw away a five dollar lamp because it needed a 20 cent switch. The lamp, with a new shade, occupied a place of honor in the LeJeune household for years to come. My mother, God rest her soul, was very excited about anything I did not requiring a trip to see the principal of my school.

After the experience with the lamp, I started leaving for school about a half hour earlier that I usually did on trash day. One day someone threw away a pair of roller skates (the type you attached to your shoes and tightened with a key.) I fashioned a wagon with a milk box and the skates. I was now ready for the big time of trash collecting. I made a camouflaged den in the lot close to school and was in the trash picking business.

Turning Trash into an Art Form…

Even I was amazed at the quality and variety of things thrown away despite the economic conditions . When a discarded item contained gears I was in Trash-Land heaven. If a discarded item contained a motor, functioning or not, I was in paradise. Thrown away items with gears were especially prized, I used gears mounted on a piece of plywood to make Christmas presents. My relatives told me how creative I was but my artwork typically wound up on their basements wall.

At Christmas time I loaded some of my artwork into wagon and traversed my neighborhood selling my wall hangings. When people asked how much? I replied, “whatever you think it’s worth.” I made enough money to get nice presents for my mother and father.

Spare Parts…

Growing up my family lived in half of a farmhouse. I had a corner of the basement all to myself. My little den served as workshop, storage area, and a laboratory for perform experiments. My attempt at making artificial diamonds was a barn-burner but an article for the future.

Epilogue…

An event viewed through the key-hole of currency frequently takes on a greater meaning when viewed through the rear-view mirror of realism. As an example, the fact that I lived at a greater distance from school than any other student probably lead me to trash pick. If I walked to school with other students I doubt I would not have trash picked.

I went through a period between jobs, a nice euphemism for being unemployed, and money was tight so I put my trash picking days to good use. On the bulletin boards of local super markets I posted notices, “Small appliances repaired , no fix no pay.” The results were a God-send when satisfied customers recommended me to neighbors and friends.

When times are tough we frequently receive the emotional help to give us the strength to get through these period, if we are alert to them.

Urb LeJeune, W1UL, is the creator of Ham-Cram, a ham radio test preparation website. He writes from New Jersey, USA. Contact him at [email protected].

6 Responses to “If It’s Trash Day, I’m Collecting!”

  • Goody K3NG:

    Good article.

  • Richard KWØU:

    Well said, Urb. In today’s disposable society you don’t see the reuse and repair that I understand was common during the Depression. Perhaps if the next recession really hits hard that will also return, though there will be a steep learning curve for people as they figure out how to make do. But one thing I do know: in finding practical at home solutions hams will lead the way.

  • Cliff KU4GW:

    Very good article Urb, it’s been a long time since I last worked you in a CW sprint. I know what you mean about people throwing perfectly good stuff away, sometimes brand new stuff! I had a friend that used to dig through trash dumpsters, he referred to it as dumpster diving, and he’d find all kinds of good stuff people had throw away. I remember one time when he found one of those Simon electronic toys, the one that flashes 4 different colored lights in sequences along with tones and you had to repeat what it did and then it would add an additional color and tone making the sequence longer and longer the longer you could repeat and keep up with it. Well, he found one of the larger ones, about the diameter of a dinner plate, that was still new in the box and still sealed in the plastic from the manufacturer along with the instruction manual and warranty registration card sealed inside the plastic too! It was brand spanking new! Someone threw it away even though it had never been opened since it was manufactured! I wondered why anyone would throw away brand new things. Anyway, he found lots of neat things “dumpster diving”, but I never did try it myself. Very 73 Urb and great to know you’re still alive and kicking!

  • Walt N5EQY:

    Been there done that… I was born during WW2 1943, after my Dad came back from Europe we moved to a farm in NC. The dumpster diving was strong back then. As soon as I was able to comprehend what Dad was doing to survive on little or no $$, I became a packrat like him. We NEVER threw anything away that had even one good useable part. I learned to scrounge anything that didnt cause me physical damage. It led me to be a darn good mechanic/electrician and I made a teenage living off my skills. I went to any kind of instruction class that was free and it paid off later on as i was hired as a electrician like my Dad. After being drafted for vietman, the USAF gave me lots of free tech training in electrical/electronic systems. I was fortunant to get a free higher level education at a college because of a layoff from a corporation that bought our my employer and laid me off. The college hired me to be a electrical instructor for 10 year until i retired.
    Bottom line: I’m 77 yr old and still cant stand to throw anything away that can be used for something especially ham radio stuff that i can keep using. I even managed to pass on my “talents” to my son who is a ham also. The beat goes on……

  • Walter L Wilson W4WLW:

    Super article, you had a much better grip on how to fix than I ever did. Most of my collections never made it past the junk stage

  • Burton Lowry K7HVN:

    Great article! When I entered the ministry we were on a starvation income at a tiny church. I worked various jobs, and we learned to make do. And, we fixed everything. For probably 20 years our microwaves were from the dump– always found one that only needed a switch or fuse. Perhaps this is our frustration with the cheap Chinese stuff– it is so bad that it isn’t hardly fixable so as to get much life out of it.
    Buying Bosch grinders for welding, the switches failed quite soon– made in China. Paying more, we expect quality but it is hard to find now. I replaced a lamp switch…from China… the new one failed in weeks. Also from China. However, there is certain joy in finding older stuff and getting it going!

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