The January thaw was but a memory; the ground-hog with blinking eyes had thrust his black nose up into the sunlight, seen his shadow, and lazily eased himself back into his den for another nap; the farm had buttoned up for a long spell of crisp February weather. Of course the Old Farmer’s Almanac had foretold such weather, but it had failed to mention the event which a wintry February was sure to bring – the annual visit of Tinker Jock. What a wizened, round-shouldered, bandy-legged old codger he looked as he came trudging up the Pound Road, with his kit slung over his shoulder, and a staff in his right hand to steady his feet through the snowy pathway! A rusty black Scotch cap was drawn low over his ears. Under its visor a pair of steel-grey eyes looked straight ahead, while a prim little mouth bit hard on a short-stemmed T D pipe blackened with years of constant use.
The smoke; blown out in spasmodic puffs was instantly turned back by the icy north wind against a wrinkled face all grey with a fortnight’s growth of stubble. Straight up the hill he plodded along with never a stop for breath, in through the great shed door, and along the dark way to the back entry where he paused to stamp the clinging snow from his heavy cow-hide boots, and to rap for entrance at the kitchen door. Then he walked with the utmost confidence, never asking whether or not he was wanted; he knew he was wanted. He was taken for granted as was the minister on a pastoral visit or the Board of Listers on April Fool’s Day.
Tinker Jock was of that snow-treading, pack-toting brotherhood that roamed the countryside every winter, back in the eighties and nineties, offering first aid to man and beast, mending your tinware, filing your saws, oiling your clocks, peddling gadgets for your kitchen or ornaments for your “settin’room. No hilltop farm could maintain high-grade efficiency without the visit of one
or another of these wanderers whose picturesque forms, silhouetted against the white snow banks, as they skurried along from house to house, added life and color to the winter landscape. In physical appearance as well as in mental characteristics these human snowbirds ran the whole gamut.
On the one hand, with a courage as tenuous as a butterfly’s ghost. Stood the demure little clock tinker who would draw himself into his shell like a turtle long before anyone showed the slightest tendency to be peremptory with him. On the other, dominated by a superiority complex out of control stood the burly six-foot-four giant who, bundled in bison-skin greatcoat, and ornamented with a pair of evil eyes and a colossal black moustache pointedly waxed at the ends, would pound on the front door and, in a voice which would have been terrific had it not been detoured through his nose. announce himself as “Professor Greeley, the Optician with a fine and rich assortment of eye glasses – steel bows a dollar; silver, dollar In’ half; gold, genuine gold, two dollars.
Between these two extremes ranged a number of curious specimens: Jacob the Jew, who later discarded his pack for a horse-drawn vehicle chock-full of shoddy clothing. Tony the Italian (pronounced eye-talian), with his case of jewelry, needles, combs, and corkscrews. Crazy Emery with his box of bright chromos for your walls and picture cards for the youngsters, and, as a hobby which he practiced while you were examining his wares, the writing of poetry a la Gertrude Stein.
Then there was George, the patent medicine man; the Reverend Blank, much bewhiskered vending Elder Hook’s Healing Balm for a quarter, and uttering a warning word for your soul gratis but why go on and on with a list that seems interminable?
Of all this motley brotherhood no one was more welcome than Tinker Jock. He never bragged; he never made great pretensions either as a tinker or as “a citizen. On the other hand he seemed to have had no inkling of inferiority. He may have been as ‘umble as Uriah Heap but he didn’t talk so much about it.
As I have observed, he was taken for granted he also took himself for granted. Moreover, there was something about his silence, the calm, deliberate manner of his coming and going, the mysterious way in which he opened up his wondrous kit and displayed his irons of various shapes and sizes, his shiny bars of solder, his huge hunks of rosin, that aroused to a high degree my childish curiosity.
How many tin pans, pails, and dippers were spared an ignominious premature burial at the dump, or consignment to a state of idle ease in the attic by the timely arrival of Tinker Jock and his soldering kit. The old brass kettle, too, which stood year after year under the dripping snout of the dooryard pump, always sprang a new leak just previous to his yearly visit, as if it were consciously courting the attention of the old tinker. His ability as diagnostician left nothing to be desired. As the leaky pots and pans were assembled for his inspection there was no maybe or perhaps in his attitude; they either could or could not be mended.
Tinker Jock never carried a gasoline stove or other thin-blooded means of heating his irons.
No, his customers had to provide a bed of live coals from beech or maple; and if a fire to his liking. was not immediately forthcoming he would deliberately sit down and wait for one. This period of watchful waiting furnished opportunity for animated conversation.
Indeed Tinker Jock was as loquacious as the Sphinx. He seemed to delight in conversation in which his customers were the chief performers, and in which the maximum requirement on his part was the interjection of an occasional yes or no in answer to a leading question, or a nasal honh as a lazy substitute for the Yankee expression, I want to know!
After the pans, pails, and old brass kettle had all been restored to soundness, and the irons cooled sufficiently to be packed away in the kit, there was the important question of compensation to be settled.
In this discussion, also, Tinker Jock assumed a minor role. It took a prodigious amount of prodding to induce him to set even a moderate price on his work. As soon as the question of wages could be agreed upon and a settlement made, which usually included a generous tip, Tinker Jock picked up his kit and plodded along to the next house.
Speaking of compensation leads me to observe that Tinker Jock was supposed to have had such contempt for money that he would deliberately throw away into the choke-cherry bushes beside the road the dimes and nickels which his appreciative customers forced into his unwilling hands.
This belief was especially popular among the boys and girls of School District No.1, whose ages ranged, let us say, from five to eight years. So fully was I convinced that this allegation was the truth that I determined to put it to the acid test, and, perchance, augment my slender exchequer.
In fact, I followed the old chap after he had fulfilled an important tinkering engagement at our house and had been well paid for his labor – yes, followed him fully a mile for the purpose of locating the exact spot in the choke-cherry bushes where the old tinker would throwaway his money and thereby purify his soul. But the location of the discarded money proved as illusive as the pot of gold at the rainbow’s end.
The simple truth is Tinker Jock didn’t throwaway any money. So I turned homeward in utter disappointment and disgust, having come to the conclusion that the old cuss was as stingy, as close fisted as any Yankee in Groton or Scotchman in Ryegate.
Be that as it may, Tinker Jock was a workman that needed not to be ashamed, an honest tinker, indeed. And when he retired from his worthy vocation as tinker we may be sure he became, nay, rather, continued to be, as Isaac Walton might have dubbed him, an honest fisherman; for fishing had been his lifelong hobby. There were brooks galore in Groton. To be sure, they were “fished to death,” as the saying ran, by other fishermen than Tinker Jock.
But there were long stretches of brook away back towards the head-waters which impatient wielders of rod and fly never deigned to explore – stretches of brook well-nigh hidden by alder and dogwood, and richly bordered with goldenrod, thoroughwort, and Joe-Pye weed, where the practice of fishing presupposes an abundance of time and patience, as well as a very short line and a good supply of worms.
More than all his rivals Jock had time on his hands; and patience, if not a natural virtue with him, had become his dominating characteristic through long years of practice as tinker. So he fished the headwaters, and was richly rewarded for his patience strictly speaking, Tinker Jock had no home of his own. All the same he had many homes; for aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, as well as numerous cousins always made him welcome; they all had a “Jock’s room”
And he was no charity case – no poor relation. Rather, he paid his way from his modest savings.
Moreover, his Uncle Sam sent him a little cheque every quarter from Washington in recognition of service rendered back in the sixties, when he shouldered a musket and went South to fight with the old Sixth Vermont. There had been a last day for tinkering; so, too, there came a last day for fishing. Tinker Jock had made one of his long excursions far back into the deep, forest.
As the shadows lengthened and the hermit thrush began his evensong, the old fisherman straightened up, blinked at the afternoon sky, pulled up his line, casually scooped off the transfixed worm with thumb and forefinger, and filled and lighted his T D pipe. Then he took one lingering look westward to the purple mountains behind which the sun was already sinking, picked up his string of trout and turned homeward wearily.
Twas many a year ago that Tinker Jock made his last visit to my old home on the Vermont hilltop, but in a moment of reverie I can see him again bending over his work by the kitchen stove, grasping the old brass kettle between his knees, holding a bar of solder in one hand and a hot iron in the other, his arms akimbo.
I can smell again the fragrance of smoking rosin as it mingles with the fumes of the old T D. I can hear the keen February wind as it sweeps around the shed and hurls the hard pellets of snow against the kitchen windows already half covered with the rising drift.
Listen; someone is speaking:
“It is pretty cold and rough out o’doors Jock.”
“Don’t you think you’d better stay with us for the night.”