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By Staff | Apr 15, 2011

Spring cleaning can be a hazardous voyage for me. It happens nearly every time I try to neaten things up.

I launch into the cleanup project under full sail only to find myself run aground on Memory Lane, shipwrecked upon the rocky shoals of the past.

The most recent spring cleaning of our basement is a good example. I was making tremendous headway when I paused to consider the fate of a large wooden box. Should I simply chuck the entire box and assign its unknown contents to oblivion? I opted to paw through it first to see if it held anything of value.

A mistake.

The early decisions were easy. I have always thought that the term “artificial Christmas tree” was an oxymoron, so goodbye synthetic tannenbaum! I then hit a major snag in the form of a lath basket hauled up from the grungy depths of the box.

My gosh! I had totally forgotten about that basket! I dimly recall rescuing it some years ago from my grandparents’ old house which sits slowly moldering out in my grove.

The basket held clothes and other items Grandma Nelson had saved. In order to examine its contents, I dumped the basket out onto the basement floor. Its newspaper liner was dated April 1961 – exactly half a century ago! It suddenly became imperative that I study this time capsule.

The clothing Grandma had saved was rotted to rags, but other items were worthy of scrutiny, including a hardcover book titled “Tom Swift and his Sky Racer.” If that title sounds quaint, there’s a good reason: the tome bears a copyright date of 1911.

Apparently, Tom Swift was a teenaged genius, adventurer and inventor extraordinaire. The book breathlessly relates the tale of Tom and his homebuilt “aeroplane,” which, judging by the book’s lone illustration, was constructed from plans drawn up by Leonardo da Vinci.

Another extremely interesting item is a 1961 Sears catalogue, which contains everything the modern consumer could ever want.

Sears offered baby chicks, Smith-Corona electric portable typewriters, and those jiggle-inducing belt massagers. A “huge 23-inch TV” was priced at $200.

Monochrome, of course; the widespread broadcast of color TV signals was still a few years off.

Also sold by Sears was a “Famous Enfield .303 Rifle, Pride of the British Army” for the princely sum of $11.88. Rebuilt automatic transmissions started at $99.95, about the same as a new Kenmore wringer washer.

A pair of ladies shoes cost $3.33, while foundation garments that resembled self-propelled underwater weaponry could be purchased for 87 cents.

The basket next yielded an item that really grabbed my attention: a Successful Farming magazine that was dated August 1957! Just two months before my birth! My recollections of that time are somewhat dim, so I thumbed through the publication to see what sort of world had welcomed me.

Among the top traits that stood out was the large number of articles and ads that were aimed at the homemaker – a reminder that this was an era before farming had transmogrified into agribusiness.

There were numerous ads for such things as mounted corn pickers, although one blurb was peddling equine liniment. It seems that not everyone had yet made the jump to mechanical horsepower.

One ad featured an image of a 1957 Chevrolet station wagon. Normally, a station wagon would be considered stodgy, but the ’57 Chevy model somehow managed to look cool.

Amidst the cookie recipes and the ads for spark plugs and Kool-Aid and Terramycin, is a full-page advertisement touting an exciting new innovation called “atomic-electric power.” Wonder how that whole thing worked out?

A bank statement from December 1945 reveals that Grandpa had nearly $500 in his checking account, a sizeable sum for that time.

Also in the basket was Grandpa’s husking hook. Its leather straps are still in pretty good condition, and slipping it on reminded me just how huge Grandpa’s hands were. I am definitely hanging onto that husking hook.

A letter from Grandma’s cousin Pauline, in Jewell, is dated Feb. 4, 1908.

In the first third of the letter, the writer divulges that she regrets having not written sooner and that she’s now finally getting around to it. The second third is commentary on the chilliness of the weather, and how are you folks, and we’re just fine down her

The third section of the letter bemoans the fact that writer is now out of space and that she had best close.

Not real riveting stuff, which just goes to show that they weren’t all wordy Wordsworths back then.

My wife eventually called down the basement stairwell to see how things were going.

“You’d better call the rescue team!” I replied. “It’s happened again! I’ve become marooned in the past.”

Nelson is a freelance writer from Volga, S.D. Reach him by e-mail at jjpcnels@itctel.com.

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