The Longest Yard

By Leigh Ann Henion
Sunday, April 29, 2007

My fiancé, Matt, and I are standing on a roadside in Kentucky deciding whether we want an old cast iron sink full of mud. For some, this might be an easy choice. But we are playing the is-it-a-piece-of-junk-or-an-antique-worth-saving game. We stare at the sink for a while, trying to envision it surrounded by freshly painted bead board, beautiful. It takes effort to flip it over to see a rust-free underbelly. A spider web clings to a corner. I find the sink's owner sitting on a couch in the cool interior of a nearby barn. "Five dollars for the sink," she says. Sold.

We're at a yard sale, but it's not just any yard sale; it's the longest yard sale in the world. Four hours ago, we started our journey in Covington, Ky. We have seen people hawking antique linens, slate-lined coolers, pottery and paintings. We have seen wedding dresses and estate diamonds for sale a mere 10 feet from a yard full of mismatched cane-bottom chairs. We've met punks with henna-dyed hair selling black mosquito nets, and men in American flag T-shirts selling wooden Santas proclaiming, "Joy to the World." We've been told it is nearly impossible to travel the official 450-mile route of the four-day sale to its southern point in Gadsden, Ala., if we want to stop and shop, but we are on a mission. The fact that it's taken us four hours to go 40 miles is cause for mild concern.

The sink's owner, Debbie Thompson, gets up and walks over to survey what we've purchased from her roadside setup. "I'd better help you clean this out," she announces. She disappears into the old barn and emerges with a plastic jug of water.

The milky-white bottle is sweating in the humid heat of the day. Debbie pulls a clump of soggy grass out of the sink with her hands and squeals a little when she touches the mush. Then she pours water in to clear mud from the drain.

As she swishes her hand in the swampy water, she asks, with genuine curiosity, "What are you going to do with this, put it in your house?"

"Yes," we tell her. "Well, we're getting ready to build one." I gesture toward Matt, "He's a carpenter. We're building it ourselves." By this time, her husband has wandered up.

"So, you're going to build a new house around old things," he says.

"Well, now that you mention it, I guess so," I reply.

Debbie is delighted at the thought. She moves close to my face, and I can see that the heavy dark eyeliner she's wearing is lined with powder blue. "I just think it's wonderful that you are interested in old things. Not a lot of young people are . . . Have you seen the old chicken coops we've got?"

I say: "My grandfather was a poultry farmer, and, well, let's just say that my father doesn't have as much appreciation for old things as I do. A lot of things I value, he sees as junk." I don't tell them about how he bulldozed my grandfather's barn with its 80 years of treasures still inside it.

"Isn't that something," Debbie's husband says. "I suppose sometimes ways of seeing things skip a generation."

As we're getting ready to leave, Debbie takes me by the arm and leads me around to show me her favorite things -- painted steel chairs, graying mirrors. "Don't you just get excited about these things?" she asks. "People back then had a hard time, but they sure made things to last."

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