MAINE TALES. “Good Deals.” Benedicta, Maine. Circa 2006.
One must be prepared to face insults, ridicule and derision when one embarks on the quest for a good deal. Here in Maine, scorn is deemed an acceptable price. Because etched into the hearts of Mainers is an ethos of frugality, with the highest revered pinnacle being reserved for good trades.
There was this one time decades ago, when it was late in the day and a local farm auction was winding down. A beat-up, old two-row PTO-powered Potato Top Beater came up for bid. In its prime this tractor-drawn wheeled-machine had been a marvel of sheer-annihilation-power. Crossways to the rows of potatoes, the fast-spinning L-shaped ‘cutting knives’ attached to the ends of short chains connected to a revolving cylinder had done a magnificent job of obliterating-to-smithereens potato plants in need of desiccation ahead of harvest. This machine was a long ways past its prime. However, it did contain valuable parts – including a rugged gear-differential – needed for a current farm fabrication project and I was determined that the piece become mine. I won with my ten-dollar bid. The satisfaction of getting a good deal more than outweighed the public barb hurled my way by the wise-cracking auctioneer from his pickup-truck-bed mobile-platform. “Be sure you take that home with you today,” he implored in a somewhat jeering and taunting tone. To all nearby ears he was conveying his thinly-masked contempt that the old metal carcass was just junk and not worth hauling anywhere. “Oh, don’t you worry,” was my feigned and soothing response. For a pittance, I had gotten back way over ten-times the value in parts, rough and ready to be utilized. Millennia of human experience has demonstrated one may tolerate quite a bit of belittling harassment if the deal within grasp is a good one.
An oft-repeated rule for those attending an auction is to never make the first bid. Generally, this is sound advice and is a tactic worth adhering to almost all of the time. However, at every auction this rule is relentlessly violated. In fact, if the rule were never broken, nothing would ever get auctioned off because of the absolute absence of bids. The inherent situational problem is that when one makes the first bid they have extinguished any hope of learning just how low the opening bid might have gone had you not been so anxious and undisciplined as to make that first bid. When there is no second bid made which tops the opening bid, observers grasp that the bidder likely made his opening bid too high and paid more than what was required. Such overpayment may not be a cardinal sin, but it would be a sin nonetheless.
However all that said and done, on occasion it is a sound tactic to violate that rule and make that first bid at a level calculated to still qualify as a good trade. Sometimes, a bid at just the right level scares off anyone with casual interest from jumping in. For example, on nickel-and-dime items, a quick opening bid of five-dollars might dissuade other bidders from entering the fray because that next step up to a bid of $7.50 would be widely regarded as simply too much to pay.
Auctioneering school must teach well-worn successful techniques or else why attend? When an auctioneer in these parts engages with a new auction lot, and before launching into his fast-talking-auctioneer-chant, he would begin the choreographed procession by throwing out a certain, calculated dollar figure, as in, “OK, boys, who will give me $300 for this here manure spreader?” This dreamed-up-value is never where the bidding will begin. However, it represents the level where the working-on-a-percentage auctioneer has high hopes it will land up as the final bid. This psychological trick aims to embed the desired selling price subliminally into group-think. Verbalization mentally grants a potential bidder subconscious permission to accept that bid-goal as an altogether rational price. Because of its regular deployment, one might conclude this auctioneering-school-technique is a keeper.
Now it was almost twenty years ago, on a clear sunny Saturday in June after potato planting was all done, that a local farm auction was held on some sloping high sod ground in the little farming Town of Benedicta. Beginning back in 1834, the Catholic bishop of Boston, Benedict Fenwick, began sending Irish settlers north to establish a new potato town in the shadow of Katahdin.
This auction field enjoyed a breathtaking view of Katahdin which lay just off to the west. One of the last multi-generational potato farming families in Benedicta, a Qualey he was, decided to retire from farming and was auctioning off all of his farm equipment. Along with our boys Peter & Caleb, I drove our truck down the hour south to look over the equipment and see just what equipment we might be able to use and afford.
Farmer Qualey had been geared up to irrigate his potatoes during Maine’s dry years and he had a good amount of irrigation equipment to get rid of. Some nice irrigation pumps and Hard Hose Reels were auctioned off first. Then came along the six-inch aluminum irrigation pipes in efficient thirty-foot-lengths. Those pipes are sought-after by all the big-scale Maine potato farmers who have switched over to irrigating.
Soon, the auction worked its way over to an enormous pile of older four-inch-diameter irrigation pipe in twenty-foot lengths, a mixture of both lightweight aluminum and heavy-guage galvanized steel. Each lot of irrigation pipe that day was being sold by the foot so you would multiply the number of pieces by length of pipe to determine what exactly you were bidding on. The four-inch pipe was all gathered together into a single lot, about two-hundred-pieces in all, or around four-thousand feet. Four-inch was too small to mess with for the big farmers, but it was perfectly adequate for our scale of family farming.
Sensing the crowd and with some hesitation, the auctioneer began into his liturgy, “Who’ll give me a dollar a foot?” Stone silence from the crowd. Eying the heft of all that pipe, he involuntarily let slip a discernible sigh, then he once again repeated, “Who’ll give me a dollar?” No reply was forthcoming.
With words of auctioneer-desperation he then pleaded, “Is there any interest at all?” Silence continued. Suddenly, pouncing on the opportunity at hand, the crowd heard called out in a loud voice, “Five cents!” The auctioneer, a bit stunned, did a double-take and cast a gloomy look of disdain directly at me.
After a moment’s pause in which he gathered his wits, his memory-muscle kicked in and he bellowed out, “OK! Who’ll give me ten cents?” No takers. Then he decided he’d drop the bid increment, “OK, seven-and-a-half cents. Who’ll give me seven-and-a-half?” Again, not a single word nor a single hand raised. Grasping imminent defeat, the auctioneer’s last move was to pivot quickly onto to the next auction lot and leave his heartbreak behind. So out came his ultimate and curt, “Sold!” and suddenly, we were the new owners of a lot of irrigation pipe.
With Katahdin looking over us, we had been granted a supreme trade. But next, we had to somehow get those many long lengths of pipe home. We gathered up the miscellaneous items we’d also purchased, secured them onto the back of the truck and squared up at the mobile-trailer-office. Then we high tailed it home to hook up a trailer. We made the first two loaded round-trips that same afternoon and evening. On Sunday morning, admiring majestic Katahdin as we loaded up, we made our third and final trip to bring all the pipe loot home. On each trip the monstrous accumulated weight of that galvanized pipe flattened out the leaf springs and squatted out the trailer tires.
Shortly after, we sent samples of the old, dry-rotted rubber-pipe-gaskets to our irrigation dealer. After some sleuthing, he scored a treasure of pristine gaskets in a dusty bin somewhere out in California. We told him to get us a boxful and spent almost as much money on those gaskets as we did for all of the pipe. But we weren’t whining: we got our money back on both purchases the first time we used the pipe. And we’ve re-used it many times since, each time savoring the burned-in-memory of a good trade.
Not always but sometimes, the cost of getting a good deal may mean weathering the heights of humiliation. The Maine equation is simple. In measure equal to the potential of a deal must be your mettle to withstand mockery. Transcending contempt, momentary mortification passes quickly, but the memory of a good deal lasts a lifetime.