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Boomer Bytes #44: Do You Have the Packrat Gene?

Editor’s Note: Below is another column in Steve Canipe’s series called Boomer Bytes. The column, as the title suggests, will focus on a variety of topics that may be of interest to baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964. But Canipe also hopes to start a conversation with younger generations, too. Check out an introduction and Canipe’s (first self-titled) column here.

Do You Have the Packrat Gene?

By Steve Canipe

Nov. 14, 2014. Can you inherit being a packrat? I’m not sure if you can or not but I certainly have the history to be able to have inherited one from my Dad. My wife and I have been doing some deep fall cleaning, really clearing out. (I know it should be spring when this happens, but we had the time now–so it is “fall” cleaning.)


As you might imagine, we have a lot of stuff that we have accumulated over the years, probably like a lot of other people. We were blessed when we moved into our new house that there were loads of storage spaces. Unfortunately we took full advantage of this space and lots of stuff that should have been recycled, donated, or trashed was kept because there was room for it.

Everyone knows the rule that if you throw something out or give it away the next week you will need that very item!! I am sure this is not a universal constant but it certainly seems that way often.

I was sort of kidding when I asked about inheriting the gene for being a packrat…it may well be more nurture than nature. However I do have some empirical evidence it is inherited!! My grandparents Canipe were believers in keeping things on the off-hand chance they would be needed later. They were born before the turn of the 20th Century in 1885 and 1890 respectively. They were farmers and never had much cash money to buy things so when you had something you kept it to reuse or recycle yourself. I had seven aunts and uncles; with my dad included, there were 10 people in the family to take care of; therefore keeping things made a lot of sense.

My dad was born in 1915 and was a young man during the depression with a new family to take care of; it made sense for him to keep things. And keep things he did. I can remember a work building he had built on our home place in Lincolnton where the spoils of the past were kept (horded). The things he collected and kept ranged from leather belts discarded from his work in a textile plant to bent nails.

I can remember asking him why he kept nails that were bent and the comment was that “they can be straightened and used.” Reusing meant that one did not have to buy new ones. Even as a kid, I knew that the cost for nails was not terrible even in my family that was pretty poor…so I never understood the comment.

Once when I was about 6 or 7, I was working on a building project, I think it was a birdhouse. Hitting a nail straight did not always occur. I was under the tree in our back yard assembling the birdhouse and bent some nails. I was pulling them out and trashing them. My maternal grandfather Farmer was visiting and came out to see what I was doing and he was shocked that I was trashing those perfectly good, bent nails. He showed me a trick on how to straighten in situ and hammer all the way in. Funny I still use that trick when I am building something today; even though the cost of a nail is negligible to me today!!

Dad’s storage building full of “gently used” items (like bent nails) became sort of a family joke, but I do remember that there were lots of times when some piece or other was required and it could be found in the storage shed. You had to really look. Sometimes the looking could be dangerous because wasps had easy access to the building and often made these huge nests. Dirt dauber wasps as well as paper wasps loved the place. An occasional snake inhabited the building. Never saw a poisonous one but no doubt some were there at times.

As my dad got older he lost some passion for the storage building and it gradually fell into a state of total disrepair; eventually collapsing. Before it finally fell in, no one would venture inside since it could fall on your head. There were large, heavy gears and other objects stored in the loft and they could have done great harm had they fallen on your head!! Dad was a builder and constructed two additional but newer buildings for keeping his plunder. After he passed away in 1996, all of the materials were sold or trashed. In a way it was sad to see some of the old things go.

Once when I was about 10 or 11, my dad and brother-in-law were contracted to demolish an old house in town. It was in the way of a hospital wing expansion. The home was built in the 1830s, and a lot of it was done with peg construction and some with hand-forged nails. I still have some of the old nails (see packrat gene still at work!).

That year was a good year since I was given a job of cleaning mortar from the old bricks used in the house. The house had been remodeled several times and while some of the brick were “modern” a number of them were hand-made. Those brick found their way into many projects in and around my mom and dad’s house. I made 1¢ per brick for cleaning and stacking. I did over 5,000 brick so had Christmas money that year of more than $50 to buy gifts and spend too!!

Our cleaning was prompted by several things; one of them was the passing in January of my sister who was also a card-carrying packrat. I also remember when my mom passed in 2010, all the things she had that needed to be disposed of to friends and family but mostly to charities like Goodwill. With all the packrats from my paternal grandparents, who even had a room in their home called the plunder room, to my dad and mom and to my sister, my wife and I felt it was important not to leave our kids with the task of throwing away our plunder. We would be in a better place to have it go where we wanted it to go.

Some of the things we have accumulated over the years can go to our children now and not wait until we die. We can get to see them enjoy some of the things they have indicated they wanted. Some of the things we have been able to sell so that others who have a pressing need for them (or just a desire to have) can have the use of tools, clothes, etc.

With all the good intentions we probably still have way too much stuff. But our fall cleaning/clearing will be a good first step. I remember reading somewhere a statement about clothes – “if you have not worn a garment in a year, get rid of it.” This mantra could probably be useful in the terms of things – if it has not been used in a year get rid of it. As we were cleaning, I found 3 different VHS tape machines. Who even remembers what a VHS tape looks like? Long ago I converted all my tapes to DVD. This means I can still watch the old home movies of my grandparents, parents, and kids when small but I don’t need a VHS player.

When I finished college at Appalachian as an undergraduate, I decided to keep a scrapbook of various mementos. Ticket stubs to movies with a new girlfriend and other similar “valuable” trophies. My Selective Service letter inviting me to come to Charlotte to be examined for service during Viet Nam was among those mementos. What I did recently was to scan the items and they now exist as digital images but take up little or no room!! The scrapbooks have since gone to the recycling center and no longer are taking up room.

Do you have the packrat gene? Do you keep things that you should divest yourself of? I would be interested in hearing your story of keeping things. Please share in the space below or drop me an email at boomerbytes@yahoo.com. I will look forward to hearing from you.