File this under “things change.”
There’s a story that has been floating around for quite a while about an ax, but it could also be about a hammer or a shovel. It was about an ax when I first heard it, so that’s how it stuck with me.
It seems that a young man came to have an ax that once belonged to his father and his father before him. It was, therefore, his grandfather’s ax. At some point after grandpa passed away, the handle broke and had to be replaced and some time later, the head split, and that too had to be replaced. Still, it was and would forever be thought of as the grandfather’s ax.
It’s not often we get to apply these stories to real life events, but I actually did have my father’s hammer and I actually did break the handle while pulling out a particularly stubborn nail. Truth be told, that fair hammer was ill suited for the type of work I was doing, and breaking it was entirely my fault, not the fault of the handle. It was far too delicate a thing for the task, much the same way that a paper clip would make a horrible clamp.
I hung on to the pieces for a while, eventually making a new handle out of a chunk of hickory. I have a picture of my then four-year-old daughter using the hammer to tap some nails into a birdhouse she was making for my mother, her grandmother. The hammer eventually ended up someplace, I don’t know where, but I’m sure it’ll turn up again. The birdhouse fared much better, ending up back in my garage after my mother passed away, some twenty years after it was built. It will eventually get a fresh coat of paint and some minor repairs and then go to my daughter’s house when she gets a suitable tree on which to hang it. Someday, when she has children of her own, she can tell them about their great-grandma’s birdhouse and how it found its way to their tree.
Anyway, I thought about the story of the ax the other day when I was looking at my keyring. I started thinking about how some things seem to stick around for a while in one incarnation or another, as I’ve had the same keyring since 1973. It’s not worth anything, not really, but that isn’t why I keep it. The ring itself is one of those split circular things that are a pain in the neck to open when new keys need to be added or subtracted, but the real value of the ring is the quarter that has hung on it for over forty years.
My first car was a used 1968 VW Beetle that I bought in the fall of 1973 for an even thousand dollars from the now defunct F.A. Motors in Henrietta, New York. It came with a full tank of gas, and two keys that were attached to a cheesy, plastic F.A. Motors key fob. That simply wouldn’t do, so I went up to Western Auto to find something more befitting the status of a sky blue used Volkswagen
Young men tend to accessorize their first cars but let’s face it—a bland, practical 1968 Bug didn’t have a lot of room for accessorization, so I bought a leather key fob that had a metal VW logo on a tag. I know, right? So cool, right up until the VW tag fell off about a month later, so now all I had was a raggedy leather fob on a ring. This was very uncool, to say the least, so possessed by some uncontrollable force, I drilled a hole straight through the head of George Washington as he stoically posed on a 1954 silver quarter, and then threaded the quarter through the ring. Why 1954? Because that’s the year I was born. Now I had a solid silver ornament that cost all of twenty-five cents along with one key on a circular split ring. When I moved out of my mom’s house a few months later, I added the keys to an apartment and a mailbox and straightaway, I was jingling like a proper adult.
It’s now thirty-plus years later, and any relief that coin once had has all but worn away, and the hole is no longer circular but keyhole-shaped, molded by time and the weight of dozens of keys. I’ve had a lot of cars since 1973, along with several houses, padlocks, bike locks, toolbox locks, equipment locks and office locks, so a lot of keys have come and gone. That quarter on that ring has always been there though, which says two things: I have never lost a set of keys, and that if one drills a hole in a U.S. coin, the federal government will not come looking for you, as I once believed.
As my previous career has slowly melted away, I found that I no longer needed most of the keys on the keyring, so one-by-one, they were removed and soon enough, I’ll be getting rid of my faltering work truck. This will mean taking off a key that has hung on that keyring for nine years and replacing it with a different key, or whatever it is that passes for an ignition key these days. Once again the keyring will change, but it will still be the same set of keys I’ve hung on to since 1973.
A lot has happened each year since then, and this year will certainly add an interesting layer to the mix, and as I mindlessly fiddled with my keyring the other day, I thought about that story of the ax. I was still unable to unravel the riddle of that enigmatic story, but something about it became a little clearer. It’s not as deep thinking as me being the keyring or the worn out quarter, although either of those works too.
It’s simple, really—change is unavoidable, but we always carry a bit of the past along with that change. Socrates may have lost sleep over the paradox of the ax, but that was his problem. He never learned how to bob and weave and if I had to guess, I’ll bet he lost more than one set of keys.