Our children say some of their favorite family memories are the days we spend in the woods, as a family, cutting and gathering wood for the family hearth. This year my youngest son finds himself, with his family, in a climate cold enough for warm winter fires. It’s time for him to master the efficiencies of chainsaw technology. He needs a good saw.
I began the search in a nearby town by getting advice from an old country gentleman. “Visit the pawn shop yonder,” he said slowly.
In the shop I found five saws on one shelf. They were of different brands, each wearing faded company colors, not unlike the faded coats of European infantry veterans. Here they stood, survivors of hard experience and neglect, lined up in a kind of formation. But it was not the order of erect military discipline. It was more like the receiving-end of firing-squad formation. They were arranged in front of a wall, stiffly waiting.
I don’t always see animation in the inanimate, but to me these saws looked dejected and miserable. It’s dispiriting to see powerful tools in so neglected a condition. Once bright and mighty, these saws were now weak, of questionable integrity and, in this darkened pawn shop, unredeemed.
Tools are like the men who own them.
Who pawned these valuable tools? And why? If the men who owned them needed a little cash, could the saws not bring in cash doing what they were meant to do, instead of slouching in the dark, covered with the dust of idleness?
Next to the saws stood a collection of guns, including some bolt-action firing-squad rifles. Lying next to the guns were other personal possessions that told similar stories of misplaced hope, misplaced priorities, and misplaced faith.
Pawn shops are museums of failure, ruin and tragedy. The shop’s muddled disarray could not have been designed any better by a master curator of moral disorder. From floor to ceiling was piled the detritus of human desperation.
The main exhibit is mammon. But in this museum we see mammon without its shimmering attractiveness. This mammon has the tarnish of gritty reality. This particular pawn shop is in a small country town. It displays the mammon of masculine aspiration. There’s a fashionable hunting crossbow, an engraved derringer, and a scrimshaw Bowie knife depicting an encounter between an angry grizzly and a man who looks more virile than the grizzly. There are handsome aviator watches, ugly race-car watches, designer barbells, fantasy swords, fantasy video games, and cigarette lighters illustrated with vulgar images of fantasy women.
This once-attractive “man stuff” did not make men of its owners. Mammon cannot impart the substance of manhood. Mammon does not equip men with the means to take dominion. Why? Because the selfish acquisition of mammon is not the acquisition of wealth, but precisely the opposite.
Pile after tangled pile of discarded man-stuff tells a story of masculine failure: men desperate for the trappings of manhood, but who can’t manage the priorities of manhood. This squalid story is repeated in the lives of repeat customers who think money will sustain them until they can get their manhood back in the form of their stuff.
Yes, men do need money to take care of their responsibilities. Money is the currency of protection, provision, and prosperity. But this museum is the record of how often men trade money for junk. They buy junk to sustain them in their fantasy life as potential men, then they pawn the junk to get a few dollars to sustain their life as failed men.
Men need money for immediate and short-term progress. But the permanent currency of manly life is character. Small handfuls of easy money are not an asset. Character is the asset that builds a war-chest of wealth that constantly provides what men need to live like strong men.
An observant visitor to this museum of moral failure might ask this question: How is it that men with no character can keep a joint like this in business? It seems that they would either gain some character as a result of gnawing bankruptcy, or run out of all assets altogether. Answer: Weak American men are kept afloat by the modern nanny state, which is the first resort of easy money for men who lack character. This is not simply an error of planning or management by the politicians. Socialistic governments depend on confiscatory taxation not so much because they need money, but for a reason grasped by statist revolutionary Karl Marx: unlawful taxation (as opposed to limited and constitutional taxation) creates tension between the productive and the lazy, and that tension can be leveraged by the state to gain more power to manage national disquiet. Marx called this “scientific socialism.”
The modern welfare state follows this formula of governance. It steals money from the productive and transfers it to the care of the careless. Where does this wealth go? Toward the gratification of misplaced desires and misplaced faith. Desperate men spend easy money on momentary intoxication, impossible lottery odds, and the toys of manhood found in America’s museums of moral bankruptcy.
For weak men, the nanny state is the supplier of first-resort. Pawn shops are the suppliers of last-resort, where desperate men can obtain the capital of defeat, obtained at great loss to solve repeated crises of character. The great irony of the vicious pawn culture is this: Some of the toys exhibited in the Museum of Moral Bankruptcy were purchased with the paltry emergency sums gained from pawning other cheap toys.
Five-hundred-dollar chainsaws represent a lot of potential wealth, until they are pawned for $75, and that money goes to buy a $5 knife that’s marked up to $75 for no other reason than this: there is an engraving on the blade that may grab the attention of a dreamer. In this pawn shop there are plenty of dreams engraved on the cheap toys of artificial manliness. For $75, a childish man can shrink from his responsibilities while cherishing a vain image of genuine manhood, like, for example, the engraving of lumberjacks carving a highway through a mighty forest.
Why doesn’t he keep his saw and lead other men into the wilderness to convert wood into real wealth? Because he lacks the character of manhood. The wastrel squanders a tool and grasps a toy, a sentimental likeness of work and life. When that sentiment grows thin, the cheap knife will be traded later for a cheaper item that dazzles the eye and justifies more dreaming.
Thus is perpetuated the American Dream at its most nightmarish: a religious worldview of consumption, distraction, pretension and loss. Wealth is dissipated as fast as character, and men become bankrupt in every sense.
Tools are like the men who own them. The five pawned saws were owned by men of questionable character. The integrity of the machinery might have been compromised through neglect. I don’t want a combustion engine blowing up in the hands of my son. So I turned my back on the five neglected chainsaws.
But I did not reject used machinery. I consulted a reliable mechanic and found a used saw that had been maintained by a man of character, an old man whose life had been marked by the virtues of industry and good stewardship. I bought it with hard-earned money, then I taught young Noah how use it to create wealth. Dry firewood is a valuable commodity. So is the character being built in the acquisition of this commodity. Even in the brisk December air, my son will sweat, he will work carefully, and he will watch his pile of wealth grow higher and higher.
When I entrusted a sharp, dangerous chain saw to my son Noah, I told him a story about manhood with three lessons about firewood. Firstly, he heard about the day a chainsaw ripped into the leg of his father. I showed him the scar. Had I bled to death that day, Noah would not have been conceived a year later.
Secondly, Noah learned about trees. Even though there is more forest in the US today than there was at the time of the Pilgrim landing, trees need to be renewed by those who use them. Noah learned to dig holes and plant trees long before he learned to cut them down.
Thirdly, Noah learned about warmth. By making a warm home environment, a man is not simply keeping his loved ones alive, he is creating a family hearth. Civilizations grow from the family hearth.
Cultures develop from the family hearth. Warm families can be productive in bitterly cold environments, like those that gave birth to advanced civilization.
During medieval centuries, France had warmer winters than northern Germanic regions. But many French families were too cold to work, even indoors, because they did not have the fuel and energy for productive activity. Many daylight hours were necessarily spent in French beds while neighbors to the north were developing technology, literature, and other tools of civilization, gathered around a warm family hearth.
Cultures develop and decline according to family vitality. An entire nation fell into cultural decline, and stayed in decline, partly because of a French winter culture of hibernation and inactivity. Trivia question: Why did Geoffrey Botkin buy his son a German chainsaw? Answer: Because German entrepreneurs invented and perfected a superior technology beginning in the 19th century.
When men combine tools with discipline and vision, they not only build the future, they command the future. Let’s give our sons the future by giving them the triumphant character and tools they need to tame a wilderness, master their environment, and build a lasting civilization.