Al Batt: The case of the purloined Craftsman wrench 

Published 7:40 pm Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Tales from Exit 22 by Al Batt


It was back before I’d ever uttered the words, “Back in my day.”

My father had taken me to an auction. He went not so much because he needed something (I thought we needed plenty), but because he knew the owners who were giving up their farming life.

The auction was draped in sadness. Dreams sold to the highest bidder. Yet, I enjoyed listening to the auctioneers saying I knew not what. They talked faster than I could listen. They talked faster than I could think.

Dad told me to look at my shoes to keep from making an accidental bid. I didn’t need to worry. I was 11 and Huck Finning my way through life.

An auctioneer, who I knew by name only, beckoned me. He asked if I wanted a job. He told me he needed someone to keep an eye out for people swiping things from boxes on hay racks and to report any thievery to him.

My parents were honest to a fault, but the world was wider than I’d imagined. Oh, I’d had a coffee can of silver dollars taken from my bedroom. I’d accumulated them during a four-month hospital stay. Visitors had given them to me. They were a monetary form of get well wishes. It was a thing then. Today, those silver dollars would be known as the Batt Fortune.

There was no talk of salary, benefits, vacation days or the possibility of advancement. He didn’t ask me where I saw myself in five years.

“I’ll make it right by you,” he said.

The freelance position appealed to me for some unknown reason. I figured whatever he gave me would be more than I had. Besides, he was a colonel. He outranked me.

Civil War armies seized contraband and sold it at public sales. Officers ran the auctions. After the Civil War, army colonels sold surplus goods and spoils of war. Auctioneers dressed so similar to the colonels that the public began to recognize auctioneers as colonels.

Why did he pick me? I was still enchanted by a Slinky. What toy could be better than one that encourages kids to play on the stairs? I had little cunning. I wasn’t as clever as Inspector Clouseau, the bumbling police detective in the “Pink Panther” movie series, but I was ready for my first case because the Colonel was willing to allow people to be more than they were. I accepted the Colonel’s offer/order.

I knew there were bad guys. I’d watched cowboy movies. The bad guys always wore black hats. I didn’t expect it, but I discovered a crime. I was as ready for that as I was to drink from a firehose.

The perpetrator wasn’t wearing a black hat. In a perfect world, bad guys would wear black hats as they did in those old cowboy movies. A large man had taken a tiny wrench from a hay rack filled with boxes of odds and ends. It was a chrome combination wrench with one open end and one box end. I saw him stuff it into his pocket.

It wasn’t his fault. There was no “Do not steal this wrench” warning label.

He didn’t cut the dashing figure I expected of an international wrench thief, but it was the greatest crime I’d encountered since my silver dollars were stolen.

I knew wrenches. Wrenches were technology in those thrilling days of yesteryear. I was a fetcher extraordinaire of wrenches. When my father said, “Get me a half-inch wrench,” my feet had wings.

I made eye contact with the desperado. I wanted to make him stand in the corner for being disruptive.

“Shame on you,” I said. I was the adult. I was about to add, “I’m very disappointed in you,” when he threw some wicked words my way. The encounter became toxic. Mothers covered their children’s ears. He tried to unhorse me by saying things that would have hurt my feelings had I known what they meant.

I reported him as I’d been instructed. The Colonel talked quietly to the man, who said, “I didn’t do nothing!”

The thief put three wrenches back on the hay rack. My sharp eyes had missed his first two wrench rustlings.

The Colonel gave me $5 and one of the tiny wrenches.

I continued to have deep respect for grown folks, but I’d learned they weren’t perfect. I have a little wrench (a Craftsman combination 5/16 open end and 11/32 box end) to remind me that even the big can act small.

Al Batt’s column appears every Wednesday and Saturday.