It may sound odd, but one of my favorite film scenes comes early in “The Straight Story,” the true but offbeat tale of 73-year-old Alvin Straight, who in 1995 drove his John Deere lawn tractor 240 miles across Iowa to visit his ailing brother in Wisconsin.
In that scene, Alvin — played by the great Richard Farnsworth — is gearing up for his big trip at the local Ace Hardware store, which also serves as a hangout for his nosy, old buddies. After one of his pals, Sig, grills him a bit over why Alvin’s buying gas cans, Alvin spies a “grabber” behind the counter and wants to buy that, too.
Pete, who runs the place, nearly cries when Alvin wants the tool, euphemistically called a “reaching aid.” Pete says he only has two, and the one Alvin wants is a “darn good grabber.” It’ll take him two months to get another one like it, he adds.
But Pete concedes, Alvin pays him $10, and Sig then drolly asks: “What ya’ need that grabber for, Alvin?”
“Grabbin’,” Alvin replies…
I know, you probably have to have been there for it to be funny, but I’ll tell you something that I haven’t shared much with the outside world: I’m 20 years younger than Alvin Straight was, but I have a grabber, too. No, I don’t need help taking the lids off pickle jars yet, and I keep my teeth in my mouth at night, not in a drinking glass on the nightstand, but I found out a long time ago that worrying about appearances is almost always trumped by saving myself a little time, or better yet, a sore back.
Life with my grabber started two years ago, when my wife and I found ourselves at a local auction. As we worked our way down a tented aisle of old Perry Como record albums, mismatched china and chipped ash trays, I spied the grabber in a box of otherwise unusable junk.
“I want that grabber,” I told my wife on the QT. She must have suspected that the implement was called a “grab her” instead of “grab-ber,” because she stared at me as though I was kidding.
“Why would you want that?” she quietly asked (a lot of whispering goes on at auctions). Surely the grabber wasn’t a rare limited edition, and it couldn’t have held any sentimental value.
“I want to use it on my lawnmower,” I said. “If I raise up an inch off my seat to try to reach a pop can or bit of trash in the yard, my mower shuts off. It’ll save me some time when I mow.”
Confident that I was telling the truth, she agreed to wait for the grabber to come up for sale while I ambled off to look at woodworking tools that I would never buy (I didn’t even know what most of them did), a leaf rake I had my eye on, and a poplar bluebird house, that we both wanted. A few minutes later, the auctioneer picked up the box that held the grabber, and before he could utter a bid, my wife asked if he’d sell the thing without its companion rummage.
He said OK, and my wife opened the bidding at $1. The grabber sold for $1…
I love my grabber. I can tool along on my mower now, and with very little effort can reach alongside my idling machine to pick up twigs and smokeless tobacco cans and Styrofoam cups without flinching. I’ve used it to knock down wasp nests, reach under my work bench for evasive bolts, even used it to hold a board in place with one hand while I nailed it with the other.
I found my grabber so useful, I figured my son could use one, so on a trip this past summer to a northern Indiana flea market, I bought him one — it only cost a buck, too — and proudly presented it to him as a great addition to his growing collection of tools and doo-dads. He looked at me as if I were half-cracked, but conceded a few days later that it did come in handy.
We have become such fans of grabbers that I eventually made my way to a website devoted to selling the things. You would think the manufacturer was advertising a new Chrysler the way it described “new features” for its grabbers, such as telescoping aluminum shafts and magnetic heads. There are collapsible grabbers, locking grabbers, even grabbers with suction cup tips. Why, I never even dreamed I could accessorize!
Those of us with a few wrinkles know that if they haven’t already arrived, the years can’t be too far off when we all have to make a few concessions to age. I am trying to put that off as long as I can. I often take stairs when I can ride an elevator, use a push mower on spots that can accommodate my rider, and at least match my cookie intake with fresh vegetables. So I certainly don’t feel that my grabber is the technological equivalent of support hose.
A story from a few weeks ago bears that out. As you probably know, we live along the woods, and because of that we get the occasional unwanted houseguest. The “critter who came to dinner” that day turned out to be a snake that had managed to find a small hole in the floor behind a kitchen cabinet (we had asked the men who remodeled our kitchen two years ago to plug every single crack, cranny or crevice they could see, but they failed us). What ensued resembled a James Thurber short story; “The Night the Snake Got In,” he’d have called it, I suppose.
I reached for the snake’s slithering little tail in vain as he disappeared under the cabinet again, so I removed the baseboard, pried off the footboard of the cabinet, and saw him coiled up against the back wall, but I couldn’t reach him.
“Go get something out of my shop that might get to him,” I told my son. In moments, he was back in Indiana Jones’ style, armed, not with a bullwhip, but with a grabber in each hand…
Everything turned out well. The snake’s life was preserved; the hole was closed; the cabinet was repaired; and the grabbers were returned to their places of honor on our mowers.
If anyone ever sees me with my grabber and asks me what I’m “going to use it for,” I’m going to skip all the tales I’ve share with you and take it straight from Alvin Straight.
I’m going to tell them, it’s “for grabbin’.”
Mike Lunsford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or c/o the Tribune-Star, P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Go to his website at www.mikelunsford.com for details about Mike’s books and speaking opportunities.