Artifact Or Fiction

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There you were yesterday afternoon, old nail. Unearthed no doubt by our six-month-old pup. You certainly didn’t excavate yourself from wherever your resting place was within the confines of a backyard that never ceases to amaze me with its seemingly endless trove of artifacts.

The pup and I were playing catch when I looked down and in the space between us I saw you at rest mostly camouflaged against a backdrop of loose sloping earth — a surprise and painful puncture wound and subsequent tetanus booster waiting to happen.

At first when I picked you up I thought you were just another old nail, one of several dozen I’ve recovered from all over the backyard. But I saw immediately that you weren’t. Sure, you were old and a nail. But it was clear you weren’t one that had been a product of mass-manufactured modern times. No, your irregular head and imperfect length tapering to more of a blunt and flat tip spoke of a time when you and your brethren were not bought by the box-full but rather wrought by hand… a long time ago.

From “Nails: Clues To A Building’s History” by Thomas D. Visser:

Until the last decade of the 1700s and the early 1800s, hand-wrought nails typically fastened the sheathing and roof boards on building frames. These nails were made one by one by a blacksmith or nailor from square iron rod. After heating the rod in a forge, the nailor would hammer all four sides of the softened end to form a point. The pointed nail rod was reheated and cut off. Then the nail maker would insert the hot nail into a hole in a nail header or anvil and form a head with several glancing blows of the hammer.

Almost immediately you reminded me of another nail I found some 20 years ago when I last visited my mother’s hometown of Carbon Hill, Alabama, to bury my grandmother. At some point we visited the wooded area where once stood the long-gone house that my great-grandmother Margaret Sims lived in and raised my grandma Ola. Tromping through the brush I tried to envision the two-story structure and searched the brush-covered ground for some evidence of its existence. I found it in the form of a decayed board that could have once been part of the home’s roof or floor. At one end of the wood an old crudely made nail was sticking through it. With not much effort I was able to extract the three-inch iron spike with my bare hands and I put it in my pocket and brought it home. Several years later the nail broke mid-shaft at its narrowest point. I still have both pieces somewhere.

Though Visser puts your type of nail in use around the early 1800s, I won’t go so far as to say you’re approaching or perhaps beyond your 200th anniversary. While that may very well may be in some realm of possiblitity, it strikes me as distinctly remote. Moreso in L.A. where old is anyone over 40 and anything over 70 it strikes me as absurd. And in fact, you’re age — whatever it may be — is just a number.

What’s more important to me is the wonder and unsolvable mystery your uniquely individual presence has supplied.

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Will Campbell arrived in town via the maternity ward at Good Sam Hospital way back in OneNineSixFour and has never stopped calling Los Angeles home. Presently he lives in Silver Lake with his wife Susan, their cat Rocky, dogs Terra and Hazel, and a red-eared slider turtle named Mater. Blogging since 2001, Will's web endeavors extend back to 1995 with, a comprehensive theater site that was well received but ever-short on capital (or a business model). The pinnacle of his online success (which speaks volumes) arrived in 1997, when much to his surprise, a hobby site he'd built called VisuaL.A. was named "best website" in Los Angeles magazine's annual "Best of L.A." issue. He enjoys experiencing (and writing about) pretty much anything creative, explorational and/or adventurous, loves his ebike, is a better tennis player than he is horr golfer, and a lover of all creatures great and small -- emphasis on "all."