According to Grover Helton - and he ought to know - a man can only spend so much of him time restoring trunks. "You've got to have something else," says Helton. That's why he works 64 hours a week - from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. Sunday through Saturday - as a night nurse at the Carriage Hill Nursing and Convalescent Center in Sliver Spring.
There are those who would like to see Helton retire from nursing and devoted himself exclusively to trunks. These was that Texas woman who paid $100 for a trunk and resold it for $400, then called him up from Texas to announce that she would soon be back to buy a U-Haul truckload of trunks at the same price. Thanks but no thanks, said Helton.
He doesn't like deadlines. He tells customers, "Don't think it's going to be done in a week or two weeks. You leave it here and when I get finished you come and pick it up. And pick it up right away."
He has also had his fill of consignments. He found out what a consignment was when he agreed to give two trunks to an antique dealer who had promised to sell them for $90 apiece. a few days later, when Helton went over to the antique dealer's shop to pick up his money, he ran into a customer loading one of the two trunks in her car. Helton innocently asked her what she had paid for it. "A hundred and eighty dollars," she replied. "I got a real bargain."
Helton says he didn't bother to ask the antique dealer about the apparent discrepancy. "I just said, well, I'm damn sure not doing this no more."
Nor does he waste any time worrying about the trunks that got a away - for instance, the one his wife Charlotte told him to get rid of because it was taking up too much room in their old apartment. "I would have a few drinks every now and then and I would fall over that SOB," says Helton. So he sold it for $100, only to be informed a while later that it was a 17th century Greek trunk worth, oh, in the thousands.
That sort of thing doesn't bother him, says Helton, ' "as long as we gravy with."
"I'm 54 years old and I've messed with trunks all my life, ever since I can remember in Kentucky," he says. "Back when I was a kid, well, nobody wanted a trunk. I'd go to the garbage dump and pick me one up and bat and bang on it and put my tools in it. I don't know, I just have loved 'em all my life."
"We lived so damn far back in the woods there wasn't anything to get into not like they have now . . . You learned to work with your hands cause you damn sure didn't go to the store and buy it."
Home was Mudtown, Ky. an unmapworthy hollow stuck between a couple of hills just above Jenkins and not too far from Slick Rock. His father was a miner, and there were nine brothers and one sister. His mother owned 85 acres of utterly unfarmable had to come right home from school, clean the gardens out and get the horse started to plowing."
Nobody else took Helton's trunks very setiously in those days. His dad would burn them every spring cleaning and wasn't any use asking him not to says Helton. "Do no damn good. He'd burn 'em up anyhow."
After five years in the Army Medical Corps - 1940 to 1945 - Helton returned to Kentucky and went to work in themines. But that lasted only six months, until a state fall. "I just flew down the shaft, you know, and good God, the whole side of the hill fell in. I like to have got killed so I said this ain't no damn place for me. And I'm gone.
"I have seen a couple of guys that I know in the TV with this strike going on," he said. "Rough necks. Shoot you in a damn minute."
With his army experience, Helton became an orderly and later a ward supervisor at the Solider's and Airmen's Home Hospital here in Washington, and stayed there from 1947 until 1959. Then he left his first wife and went to California.
"I left her, just went out the damn door," he says. "Well, she found out where I was and she come out and joined me."
It was while he was living in Sacrammento that Helton heard about a museum somewhere in Nevads with a collection of 19th century trunks, "but I never could go 'cause my wife raised so much hell." But afetr his divorce, he decided to step by the museum on his way back east, and he saw his first Jenny Lind.
The distinguishing characteristics of a Jenny Lind are the concave sides and the beveled edges at the bottom. "They were the Cadilacs of trunks as far as I'm concerned," says Helton. (Jenny Lind herself was a Swedish-born opera singer who toured the Old West. Whether the trunk was so named because it resembled her in shape or because she traveled with one, his detail lost to recorded history.)
Helton has spent much of the last 10 years searching for more Jenny Linds, undeterred by a museum attendant's warning that there were none to be found. Eventually he turned one up at a house auction in Jefferson, Md., and paid $18 for it. Inside the trunk was the original receipt dated 1862. The trunk is now built into a glass-topped coffee table that sits in Helton's living room, and he says he has been offered $600 for the table, which is not for sale.
"I brought this one back in my arms and I took it all apart and give it a bath just like you would give yourself a bath," says Helton. "And put it back together."
Helton cares for his trunks in a basement workshop that abounds with speciments in various stages if renovation. On the wall hangs an assortment of hardward and spare parts - locks, hinges, handles, and old strips of lumber he uses for staves. Putting new lumber on an old trunk is not recommended, he advises. And keys. "I've got five gallons of key that can be thought of."
To fix up a trunk right, says Helton, "You have got to be a locksmith, you have got to be a carpenter, you have got to be an upholsterer." He is skeptical, to say the least, about another local trunk refurbisher who is said to turn out a trunk a day. "You can't wash the inside and outside at the same time," Helton points out." And a trunk needs at least a few days to dry after it's been washed.
His wife takes care of most of the upholstery these days, and that's not all. Fishing around for something in-his workshop, Hetlon drops a piece of scrap lumber on the floor. "The old lady'll pick it up," he observes. But a moment later he is in their bedroom proudly displaying the splendid quilt he made for his wife with the letters "Charlotte Helton" sewn across the base.
Among his customers over the years, Helton has a few favorites and a few less favorites. he is not fond of people who ask him to line a trunk with contact paper, for instance. "You do it," he tells them.
Nor is he impressed by people who identify themselves as belonging to the staff of this or that senator or congressman. "I tell them I'm on the nurses' staff at Carriage Hill Nursing Center. We're both on staff. Now what's your problem."
"But he is very fond of one University of Maryland student who bought a trunk for her dormitory only to have it stolen a few days later. When she came to him with the money for a replacement - money earned as a part-time waitress at McDonald's - Helton accepted her payment and carried the new trunk out to her car.
Then he handed her the money, and said, "You keep your money and keep the trunk both."
"I didn't know there was anybody like you," she said.
"I didn't know it either," said Helton.