Magazine Article

The Junk Collector

It took a funeral to see the light.

Joseph Olstad
The Junk Collector

I Grew Up in a Junkyard

Because it was my home, I developed a certain numbness to what some might consider an unfortunate venue for a childhood. It was strange, no doubt, but more fascinating than living in junk was living with the man who couldn’t stop collecting it. 

We called it a sickness, but never so loud that Mr. B could hear. My mother and I rented a bedroom in his newly built house after his first one burned to the ground. We were thankful to have a place, and beggars can’t be choosers. Bringing truckloads of visibly unusable scrap home was justified as a source of cheap material for the new build. The irony was that the home never was completely finished, though the truckloads never stopped coming for years on end. Though engrossed in many seemingly never-ending projects, we quickly concluded that Mr. B was never going to complete the house or clean up the building site. 

An Open Door

An example of this eccentricity was manifested in Mr. B’s reluctance to install a doorknob on the front door. For the 16 years I lived there we never had one. Just a hole in the door you reached through to open and close, one’s fingers touching the outside air every time. The door was perpetually open, from dogs or wind. This was partially remedied when a relative who had had enough of the “open door” issue visited. But being careful not to violate installing any forbidden doorknobs like the rest of the free world, he constructed a pulley system with string and a counterweight, using one of the many acid-oozing batteries Mr. B collected. So now instead of a knobless door that was always open, we had one that would close by itself because of the battery counterweight that I as a child enjoyed watching rise and fall every time the door opened and closed—classic junkyard living. 

Walking through the multi-acre yard was an excursion into a surreal world of rotten wood, rusting pipes, twisted metal, garage doors, immovably large engines, and many items whose identity one could only ponder. A pungent cocktail of expired fuels, old paints, and rot hung in the air. Mrs. B, on the other hand, valiantly attempted to keep the junk at bay and combated the smells with her extensive rose garden. But her efforts were often in vain, like the instance when Mr. B’s pathology led him to keep—in the refrigerator—a mix of water and bathtub grout that Mrs. B mistook for soy milk. Anyway, Mrs. B tried her best. 

Everything Has Value

I once got up the nerve to ask Mr. B why we needed to have so many linear feet of newspaper stacked in the living room. He didn’t hesitate. “Don’t you know that the soldiers during World War II used newspaper in their boots to keep their feet from freezing?” I hadn’t realized we were on the verge of such dire circumstances, nor had I realized my naive reliance on socks. But his answer revealed the key to his rationale of bringing load after load, in his half-ton Ford truck, of what looked to us like scraps from a building demolition. Everything had value. 

Obviously the scarcity endured during the American depression and the extremity of World War II were still very present for Mr. B. For instance, the loads of free busted-up garage doors were brought home for the value of the metal bracketing and the screws. Mr. B would enlighten me to what those screws would cost at the hardware store, and the impenetrable logic was that by bringing home 7,000 pounds of garage doors we could get those screws for free. The same rationale supported load after load of aluminum sheet metal, iron pipe, steel, plywood, engine parts, and on and on. And there it all sat—rusting, rotting, and stinking—contrasting with the beauty of the mountainside property that Mr. B’s junkyard had soiled for decades. 

A Closer Look

Years later, after I had left my junkyard home, Mr. B passed away from a stroke. Of course, a memorial service was held at the little Seventh-day Adventist church where he was a member. This was the same little church of my childhood where my mom was given the gracious offer that we could rent a room from Mr. B when we first became Adventists. The memorial service began. The church was absolutely packed, not only with people, but memories. 

At one point the time was opened to the congregation to share a few words in honor of Mr. B. Given the occasion, only kind words were shared, focusing on the positive traits of the deceased. I said something too. I don’t remember what. But then Clint stood up. We knew him well. When he came to church for the first time years ago, that very church we were in, he was a drug addict and a dealer. His life epitomized the sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll culture of the era, and he looked every bit the part when he had walked through the doors of this small, aging, conservative congregation. He didn’t look like that now, though, as he stood to speak. He had experienced one of the most radical transformations I have ever seen. With the same degree of zeal he had manifested toward sin and self-destruction, he was now completely obsessed with Christ, with Scripture, and with ministry. 

Mr. B had also invited him to live at the “junkyard” house, which he did. If he had a fault, though, it was that his new zeal manifested itself now and again in a lack of tact. But now he arose from the pew to share his impressions and memories. “Hello. My name is Clint. Mr. and Mrs. B took me into their home years ago. And as many of us know, Mr. B collected junk.” Uh-oh, many of us thought. Clint is doing it again; he is bringing up something better left unmentioned. You don’t bring up someone’s most embarrassing flaw at their memorial service. Mr. B’s eccentricities had been acknowledged only in hushed tones and heads wagging. These were not things to be mentioned now in a church packed with family and friends. We squirmed in our seats and hoped Clint would make it short and sweet. But he boldly continued: “Mr. B collected all that junk because he was able to see what no one else could. We saw garbage, but he saw something else. When I came to this church many years ago, I was a mess, and from all appearances, nothing but a ‘piece of junk.’ But when Mr. B looked at me, he saw something different, something of worth. So he brought me to his home, as he had brought all the other junk no one wanted.” 

When Clint said those words, we experienced a corporate epiphany. There was no greater honor than to take what we all considered Mr. B’s greatest fault and express it as his greatest glory. Our hearts broke, and the tears ran down our cheeks. Clint the drug addict, numerous people off the street who had needed a meal and a bed, a refugee from Vietnam, a divorced single mom with her 6-year-old son (me)—we were all damaged and discarded to some degree when we passed through his hanging-battery-rigged knobless front door, but to Mr. B we were his treasures. 

It’s often said that “God doesn’t make junk.” True, but I’m thankful He collects it; otherwise, I’d have no home with Him. 

This is coming 20 years late, but thank you, Mr. B, for teaching us all something about God. I look forward to telling you that face to face one day in a heavenly junkyard, filled with treasures that only you and the King could see.

Joseph Olstad

Joseph Olstad is a graduate from the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies and Andrews University. He currently lives in Utah with his wife and his four daughters.