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Back then: Gone haywire
On Aging with Dr. Roger Branch Sr.
old nails

Necessity, immediate or expected, turned wives/mothers back then into string savers. Men living in the same world of scarcity were also string savers, and like their wives, they saved and reused many other things. Because they faced different challenges, they treasured different things: screws, used fence staples, nails and wire.

Men saved used nails, even if they were bent and their points blunted. Two kinds of nails were particularly treasured. The shingle nail, designed to hold wooden shingles in place without splitting them, were valued because they had many uses. The shaft was about a six-penny in length but slender — so as not to split shingles — and the head was wider than a standard nail to reduce leaks from rain. Their design made them the best solution for repairing oak or hickory tools and leaking roofs. Their broader heads made them easier to drive, more forgiving of imprecise hammer blows.

Big nails were also prized. Twenty-pennies were expensive but necessary for hanging gates, attaching braces between fence posts and building board-fence pens for mules, cows and hogs. When a structure was dismantled, hinges and big nails were saved, but they were often bent. Nails driven through heart pine boards into heart pine posts lost their sharp points and were so difficult to remove that they usually bent in the process.

Reusing such nails, precious as they were, was challenging. Points were round. They could be straightened but were prone to re-bend when anyone tried to drive them into hard boards and posts. So straightening and driving were repeated, sometimes over and over. Meanwhile the sun beat down or the rain fell, while the mules were out or the hogs/cows were in the corn, maybe even a neighbor's corn.

Worn and broken tools were rarely discarded. Handles took a beating. A misdirected swing with an axe could shatter its handle. Hoes and rakes were at risk. Pulling a nail with a hammer was risky; lots of leverage and a slender handle. Only the broken handles were discarded. If suitable hickory wood was available and the farmer knew how to select and work the wood, he could replace handles himself. Otherwise, he had to buy replacement handles, usually at a hardware store, and then fit them to the eyes of the tools.

The tools themselves were used until hoes were worn thin and narrow and hammer faces were rounded from wear. Old, beat-up axes were relegated to the woodpile for banging and prying on "lighterd" stumps. (Note: "Lighterd" refers to lighterwood, very resinous pine kindling used to light fires in fireplaces, stoves, furnaces and campfires.)

Haywire was the most prized and useful "fix it" tool at a farmer's disposal. Its primary use was to bind rectangular bales of hay for transportation and storage. (It has been replaced by nylon cord.) It was relatively small-gaged but strong and flexible. It was the duct tape of its time, a marvel of a thousand uses.

Haywire was so regularly used to fix broken things that it entered the language as a reference to trouble. "Gone haywire" was used to describe anything that had broken or malfunctioned from romance to health to mechanical objects.

Some things, like broken hearts, could not be fixed with haywire, but tools and plows could. The way to repair a cracked wooden plow handle was to attach the wire to the wood above the crack with a shingle nail. (The nail was inserted through a tight loop in the wire then driven carefully to avoid splitting the wood but all the way to the head.) The wire was wound tightly around the handle down the length of the crack and well beyond, each round of wire touching the previous. Finally, the wire was again fastened to the wood below the split with a shingle nail, as it had been above. The repair was strong enough to get through the day, perhaps strong enough to get through the season when maybe the crop would bring in enough money to replace the broken part or even the plow. Handles for axes, hoes and rakes were sometimes repaired in the same way.

Things still "go haywire" even though there is no more haywire. (High quality electric fence wire is similar and will do as a substitute.) Now, as then, haywire and duct tape cannot fix all broken things. For that matter, these days, things are designed not to be fixed but to be discarded if they no longer work. That bothers those of us steeped in a "solve the problem, fix it up, make it do" culture. It's wasteful and, sooner or later, everything is scarce.

Some "Back Then People" remain and they still try to fix things, even when things are designed not to be fixed. We long for haywire and reach for duct tape. We can, freeze, preserve and save. When the lives of family and friends "go haywire" and they bring their brokenness to us, we try to help.

Many lives "go haywire" in a world where community has been destroyed by the external control of mega systems, family dissolution and engulfment of the individual in electronic illusions of entertainment and pseudo community. If those problems were as simple as a cracked plow handle, we could find some haywire and fix them.


Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.


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