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Saturday, March 15, 2014

His Story. By John von Daler

                  The old man stood at the top of the scaffold like some high priest making an awesome and sacred sacrifice. Around him stood the other plumbers, the older ones with their caps in hand, their hair wind-blown, their eyes moist and focused on the corner of the roof. The younger workmen, muffling their giggles like small girls with a secret, stood impatiently behind the older men and stared into the backs of the jackets.


                The eldest man reached out and gingerly removed the first four copper plates from the corner of the parliament roof. He handed them back one at a time to his colleagues and they, in turn, sent the tiles on to the youngest men who snickered as they stacked them in a large metal bucket on a chain hanging from the top of the scaffold.
                From under the opened corner of the roof, the leader now lifted up a small package sealed in wax and thick sail-cloth. It could have been a mummy out of Egypt or a treasure chest dug up on an island. But this was Copenhagen. The men tried each in his own way to find a stance solemn enough to suit the occasion. Now some of the older ones took a step back to make room for the man carrying the package as he carefully stepped towards the open elevator. All but one of them could fit into the open conveyance, so they got on, leaving one apprentice, his giggle now lost in the wind at the top of the scaffold as his companions descended to the street.
                As soon as the elevator returned to the top, the youngest man took it down to the street level and hurried over to the trailer inside of which his fellow workmen were now gathered around a wooden table. The old man stood with a swiss army knife in hand and was cutting carefully through the wax that held the package together.
                "Greetings from our grandfathers and great grandfathers," someone said. Greetings from my ass, thought the young man without daring to say the words out loud.
                After much careful cutting the old man with a gray beard, like some misplaced Confucius, his eyes slanted, his face round, now raised a little cigar box from the rubble of cloth and wax. He showed it quietly to each and every person in the room. To the young man who had just entered he offered the box and the unwilling youth reached out two soiled hands and held the thing just for a moment before the old man retrieved it.
                "This is what you come from, like it or not. You can forget it or be too uneducated to know about it or too dumb to understand it, but you come from it and nothing can change that," said the old man and taking the box turned his broad back on the young fellow who stepped back and almost lost his balance. "Let's have a look."
                He put the box on the table, opened it and pulled out a piece of parchment in a roll. It was long and only partially filled with writing.
                "October 5, 1920. Copenhagen Plumber's Union. Total repair of Parliament roof finished in one year and two months. The following are the prices of the goods and services in our day and age." And he read out the prices of milk, eggs, flour, beer, aquavit, sugar, and the hourly wages of a plumber. The youngest man started to wonder what the prices of those things could be in his own time. The only one he knew off hand was the price of beer, but that was the retail price in a bar. What's the good of it? he thought.
                Then the old man dug down into his jacket and pulled out some glasses.
                "The other entries are in Gothic handwriting in 1866 and 1840. Someone must have saved the box from the fires." Then he read up the prices of goods and the wages of the plumbers and the names of the workers, some of which were marked by an x and the written entry of a designated scrivener. The plumbers all stood still and listened to the words.
                "I should have lived backed then," said the apprentice with a snicker. "Only 5 øre for a beer!" No one answered.
                "You write, Jack," said the next oldest man. So the old man with the beard wrote up all the prices after some discussion as to which ones were most representative. They finally decided on one supermarket and took the daily prices from that list. Then the workmen filed by the old man and signed their names. As the youngest man took his turn someone muttered, "Yeah, you put your x here, Jens!" and there was a slight tumult as the apprentice squared around to see who it was that had said it.
                 Then they locked the cigar box in a locker and the old man said, "We'll put it back in the box and seal it when we are finished on the last day." The others filed out of the trailer and went about their work. He sat at the table, pocketed his knife and thought a while. After a few minutes, he got up, went over and unlocked the locker, and looked one more time at the box. He reached out his right hand, touched the lid, and stood counting seconds as they disappeared into the past.
                His mind wandered back to Copenhagen in 1920: hearing the voice of his mother calling her children in from play, he saw her up in the window of their apartment as if she were calling him now, as if he could run in and up the stairs two at a time to get a hug any time he wanted to. "Jack, Jack!" she shouted, "Come in and get washed up. It's dinner time..." He closed the locker and turned the key. He wondered whether that little lock could really keep away anyone who wanted to break in. He decided to come down later to make sure that the little box of history was still there.

Don't let my little history
Click on the cover
of "Pieces"
to buy it.


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