Did you have a favourite old car or truck? Did you give it a name? “Ol’ Betsy” is a popular name for vehicles, for some reason. We do grow attached to the inanimate things in our lives.
When I was a French horn player in high school band, I decided I was serious enough that I didn’t want to play school horns anymore—I wanted an instrument of my own. So I got my first summer job at age 15, working at the old Crescent Creamery in Winnipeg.
I had heard that the best horns were made by the famous Alexander company in Germany. I hoped I would earn enough that summer, and that maybe a used “Alex” would come available.
And one did. It was an unusual horn that had been made by Alexander as a prototype. Two existed, and one of them was for sale in Winnipeg that summer for $750.
I think the hourly rate at a good Union job was $2.35 in 1974. I worked plenty of overtime making ice cream treats and bagging milk, intent on buying the horn. I was coming up a bit short, but the seller lowered his price to $600. By late August, the Alex was mine.
Some horn players give their instruments a nickname. Richard Chenoweth of Cincinnati called his horn “Skippy.” My daughter Sarah named hers “Curly.” I frequently referred to my beloved Alex as “Judas” for its habit of betraying me in performance. (In fairness, all French horns do that to their masters.)
Because it was such a unique instrument, it wasn’t really suitable for my professional career. But I still played it occasionally, and I loved the way it felt in my hands. It also had a sound and a responsiveness that I found familiar and beautiful.
Three years ago I realized I wasn’t doing it any good leaving it in its case for months on end. I found a collector who would take care of it and play it, and I sold it—for $600. In a sense, I got 40 years of music-making joy from it for free.
Last week I sold my favourite Chestnut canvas-covered wooden canoe. I had bought it from Burt Demeriez 25 years ago, and spent countless hours on the water with it. At 14 feet long it’s quite a small canoe, but paddling it was as familiar and comfortable as walking in a favourite old pair of shoes.
A wooden canoe can last forever. If the canvas wears out, you can replace it. While you’re at it, you can fix any cracked ribs or planks in the wood hull construction. I once had a Kennebec 16-footer that had been built in 1932; for its 75th birthday I took it on a week-long run down the Churchill River. I’m not sure you’ll ever see a 75-year-old fibreglass boat running the rapids.
I’m not an expert paddler, but I’m competent. On the other hand, I utterly lack the handyman gene—I can’t make things or fix things. My Chestnut canoe needed a lot of work, and since I am incapable of doing it, it would have cost a fair bit.
Meanwhile, I have young grandchildren that I would love to take paddling. The 14-footer is much too small and too narrow for two people. So instead of fixing it up, I sold it and I’ve ordered a new, wider, 15-foot canoe.
The Chestnut’s buyer is experienced at restoring old canoes, and he will give it a long life and a good home.
I admit I felt a twinge of sentimentality when I parted with the horn, and again when I sold the canoe. I have shared some of my life’s greatest thrills and also some scary moments (thank you Judas) with these inanimate things.
But in the end, they are things. They may reflect my personality, my interests, and my passions; but they have no interests or passions of their own. They exist to be used, and they serve best when they are looked after, but ultimately they don’t care if they are used or not.
We may say we love a favourite old car, or in my case a musical instrument or a wooden boat. Maybe “love” is too strong a word. Love should be reciprocal, after all. It’s hard to part with our cherished possessions, but they feel nothing on parting with us.
And so I am content to know I have done well by my things. They will never know it, but they will continue to bring joy to someone for another generation, and maybe another after that.