Have I mentioned the junkyard before?

The other day I was driving the family somewhere and one of the boys pointed out a junkyard along the highway.

“Hey, boys,” I said to my three sons. “Did you know Daddy grew up on a junkyard?”

A pause, then George, 4, uttered a begrudging, “Yeah.” Then he sighed.

My wife laughed at me. And so it is.

Between recent writing at this blog, my book, and pretty much every damn thing I am able to translate into memoir, I talk about the junkyard constantly. Did you know? Did you know I grew up on a junkyard? I did, you know.

A recent story by Candace Renalls in the Duluth News Tribune profiles Don Kotula, who grew up on a Hibbing scrap yard in the 1950s and went on to build Northern Tool and Equipment into a major international supplier of parts and supplies. I suggest you read the story for its own merits, a testosterone-drenched love letter to machines and violence.

One passage stood out to me, though:

Being the kid from the town’s salvage business created challenges that toughened him.

“Because you came from a junkyard, you had to strive to prove yourself,” Kotula says. “Up to sixth grade, everything was good. After that, everybody wanted to kick my butt.”

His father’s advice was to pick out the biggest kid and fight. Kotula, who was average size and not much of a street fighter, did just that.

“I knocked out a couple of front teeth,” he says with a tinge of pride. “Dad said you always had to stand your ground.”

Now, I never fought in school. It wasn’t my nature. It was the late ’80s and early ’90s. Fighting was bad, m’kay. Dad did, however, instruct me in the fine art of knocking a bigger kid to the ground and beating his head on the ground until he stopped moving, a fact I still keep tucked away for future use. 

When Kotula says that at some point all the kids wanted to beat him up because he was from the junkyard I was reminded of a Louis CK joke about the song “Signs” by Five Man Electrical Band. In that song, CK highlights the first line “And the sign said long haired freaky people need not apply.” He says, “First of all, no it didn’t.” That is not what the sign said. That is what a long haired freaky person projects onto everything because he is defensive and driven to become exactly what others hate about him.  (Ha Ha! Believe it or not, this is funny when Louis does it).

I suppose this story shows one of the ways you can go after growing up on a junkyard. Kotula went all in on junk and parts. I went the memoir route. But we are still driven, still angry, still overcompensating for those childhood feelings of isolation, swimming in a sea of junk that lapped against the retaining walls shielding it from the good and decent public who would never understand us.

Or maybe not. Maybe I’m just an egghead writer. Can’t even turn a wrench.

I’ll show you where you can put that wrench.

Yeah, I grew up on a junkyard.

Photo: Jim Orsini, Creative Commons

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