19: Bill’s Garage and The Magic of Junk

There is something magical about junk. Well, more specifically, there is something magical to the story of what we call junk. Junk reveals something magical about our personal mythology.

It could be the historian in me. It could be the nostalgic loving romantic in me where every piece of abandoned, rejected, discarded, and forgotten thingamajig and doohickey has a history. After all, no one wants to be abandoned.

Holding a whatchamacallit is holding mythology in your hand. Shown to the right person they will have a story about the object. Two people experiencing the same object will see it differently.

Kind of like our relationship with others. Each telling of the story will be built on what we imagine is true about our experience with that person. The story is a laundry list of perceptions. Those perceptions define the mythology of what it means to us.

Life is like that. We don’t see things as they are, instead, we see things how we are. We remember the moment and then we create a mythology to explain what we feel.

With cars, some people see junk to be scrapped, while others might see something to be restored.

Another person might see a color, a design element, or a memory playing out in their minds eye. A creative person might see a photo or painting waiting to be breathed onto a canvas. 

I see a lonely face in those headlights. Sad not to be surrounded by the laughter of kids.
I see a lonely face in those headlights. Sad not to be surrounded by the laughter of kids.

Regardless of how we see something, the story we imagine reveals more about us than the widget in front of us. In reality, when we explore these objects we will discover more about our stories than the object.

In my case, when I see a smokestack I see the mythology of dozens, hundreds, thousands, and maybe tens of thousands of people over time. I see the story of a community. I want to know the stories and their mythology. I pursue the silence. I rush into the vacuum. I want to document the stories so they are not forgotten or lost.

If you look through my photos and travels it becomes obvious I like to visit the forgotten, the fading, and the hidden. I will lunch in country cemeteries and read the headstones. I will stop and photograph vintage neon and murals. I will spot a smokestack in the distance and chase it across a county. 

Meanwhile somewhere in Oklahoma

As such, one of the activities I enjoyed most about my life traveling the country by motorhome with a friend to her art shows was discovering stories waiting to be told lost in the weeds, on the back roads and abandoned buildings. My travels allowed me to discover the beautiful and ugly mythology in the new and old places, things, and people I met. 

For example, the first weekend in April for five years we would abandon Wisconsin’s winter for a music and art festival in quirky Deep Ellum, Texas, a small creative enclave of Dallas. On our trips, my partner and I often took a new route meandering through Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Oklahoma, or Illinois while in route to Texas. I always thought of this annual trip south as racing south to Spring and encouraging Her on her northward travels. 

Looking towards Dallas from Deep Ellum
300 exhausted artists trying to be first on a one way, dead-end road

For a lot of reasons, these spring trips quickly became a journey of my heart.

On our first trip together through Missouri we made a detour into the boneyard of rusting monuments marking Detroit’s quirky and glorious past, or as I prefer to think of them–beautifully rusting old cars in a semi-curated junk yard.

In truth, the ghosts in the machines reached out and snatched us from the interstate and we were forced to stop and listen. The ghosts didn’t give us much choice.

At least that is the story.

Climbing down from the truck a happy dog greeted me. As I gave it a pat and rub behind the ears I contemplated the wisdom of approaching the cinder block garage overlooking old Route 66 north of Lebanon, Missouri. 

Fortunately, one of my superpowers is people, and after some knocking and heartfelt curiosity, we were invited in.

Inside, I found two late fifty-year-old men sitting on the floor arguing about how to reassemble the small dirtbike spread on a tarp around them. They introduced themselves as Bill Junior and his brother Roger.

The garage was full of old parts and pieces of this, that, and other things. Tools littered the benches and tables. Dust mixed with the smell of grease, tobacco, and metal.

The shelves of an entire fifty foot wall, floor to ceiling, was filled with dust-covered vintage toy trucks and cars. 

It was all beautiful.

As my traveling companion reservedly held back, I made small talk and asked for permission to intrude on their land and life. When they finally gave us permission my partner practically nearly fell out of the door as she rushed off to grab her camera.

Here we wandered in the spring rain, as the several dozen rusting vehicles silently hid in the weeds, behind trees, and overgrown acres. Each car, truck, trolly, and bus carrying a unique mythology telling the story of its existence. Each one a lost and hidden treasure. Each representing a thousand different personal and unique stories.

A pididdle

An auto touches thousands of people from creation to manufacturing to selling and then to delivering that specific vehicle. Once delivered everyone that owned, drove, or rode in that vehicle added to the cars history. In this case the car is ultimately the story of people coming together to contribute one moment and then another and then another. Everyone that touched that car contributed in some way to the story of the car.

As the rain washed away winter, turning the new spring grass a rich green we meandered. This was a happy place. It was a place where I walked next to fading ghosts excitedly whispering stories of people and their history.

I stood in the rain watching my partner rush from one spot to the next snapping images she would later turn to paintings. I savored the moment.

A few hundred camera pictures and a thousand goosebumps later I headed towards the garage to thank the brothers. I laughed as my partner dashed ahead of me to grab her painting portfolio, making a beeline for the garage. By the time I caught up to her, she stood between both brothers, the three of them laughing about the cars, the people and history. She was as chatty as a five-year-old high on cotton candy and Coca-Cola.

A coke and a smile

I had a great conversation about the history of the garage, their family’s history as drag racers and stock car drivers. I slowly flipped through their family album looking at pictures of people standing alongside their dragsters and trophies.  It was a treasure book filled with stories about the family garage, their passion for cars, and Lebanon, Missouri.

I was fortunate they were comfortable enough to share some of their lives with us. 

As we gathered up to leave they gave us a few copies of old family photos and posed beneath the sign painted over the door of their father’s shop. The walk through the junkyard was a trip through a Wonderland with genuine stories of people and places. 

Frankly, something in that first journey with my partner forever altered the trajectory of my life for the better. At least, that is how I tell the story.

Just as the cars we saw that day are now just shells and mythology surrounded by weeds, so are my memories of that day. When I think on that experience it is full of smile filled moments and stories of a life worth living.

As I said earlier, like the cars, there will be people lacking imagination that will see my memories as simply scrap and want to junk them. Burn them up in the furnace for profit.

Others will see the art in it all.

As I said, we see life as we are, not as those objects and experiences actually are. To tell a story, to hold a memory, to sit in a car, to look at a painting is to embrace the mythology of the stories we want told.

As you look through these photos I hope you will share your stories too. The stories matter.