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‘Scalvager’ Transforms Found Objects

It was a scorching hot Friday morning at the Pea River Outdoors canoe and kayak rental shop.  As I sat on the porch, I heard the sound of gravel crunching beneath wheels. I looked up to see a misty blue Ford Explorer.

The man who stepped out of the truck that day was one who crosses your path once every 110 years.

A man holding up a jacket

He stepped out of his vehicle with a Pall Mall cigarette still smoldering between his strong fingers.  He wore a white beard, and his hairline was receding, the seal of many seasons.  His garments were stained with what looked to be oil and paint. 

This was a man of labor who appreciates the value in an honest day’s work, William Lawrence Washburn, known to most as “Bill”.  A former engine man in the U.S. Navy and small business owner, he stood battle ready on a U.S. Naval ship outside of Cuba during the missile crisis 52 years ago.

While the entire world held its breath, he held his ground. He’s lived to tell the tale and eventually found himself in Elba, Ala., miles away from his hometown back in Maryland. 

He stopped by the canoe shop on a steamy summer day for no reason other than to say hello. We got into a deeper conversation as he reflected on his near-death experience following a motorcycle crash.

I was invited to visit him at his home later in the week.

Washburn ushered me into the house and insisted on showing me all the wooden shelves, entertainment centers, chairs and tables he handcrafted. The amazing part was that each piece was constructed of scraps cast off and found in the streets.

Every piece of furniture only cost him around $15 to $20.  While some might dub Washburn a hoarder, others would surely appreciate his handcrafted works of art.

More interesting items could be found outside, including an old shed he’d built from three trampoline frames he found in the woods and a bench swing that had been modified into a lawn mower repair station.  A separate building next door housed all the tools he uses to create these makeshift masterpieces.

A sign that says "Welcome to the Porch"

While his hobbies keep him busy, he was once involved in a more risky undertaking as an avid motorcycle drag racer.  Just a few years ago, he was involved in a terrible accident that nearly took his life. Washburn says he believes a higher power was responsible for his recovery. Since then, he has been living by a different code that values all things, even objects others casually toss away.

“The way people are today, if you don’t like your spouse, go get another one.  If you don’t like your TV ‘cause it doesn’t work anymore, go buy a new one and throw the other one away.   If you’re not happy with what you have get rid of it, throw it away,” Washburn said.

In opposition to the disposable mentality of the masses, Washburn finds it comforting to make do with what most people would see as junk.

“I’m not a scavenger or a salvager; I’m a ‘scalvager’.  I’ve been scalvaging for as long as I can remember.  I’ve always been able to make different things for other people,” said.

“It’s a marvelous feeling knowing that you have that inner talent to be able to do those things.  Through my life I’ve learned a multitude of skills…as you grow in knowledge there’s something in the back of your mind that says: ‘You know, I might be able to do something with that’, and that’s the way it’s been.” 

Washburn’s wife, Gloria, a retired schoolteacher, also shares his philosophy and believes strongly in making do with what one is given yet giving away all that one can afford to lose.  “We’re a disposable society, “ she said.  “It’s just one of those facts of life. But do we give up on society?  No, we can’t.  If we do then we aren’t what we should be.”

A man and a woman smiling

Taking in what others have discarded led the couple to find room to rescue kittens. They now have a total of 14 cats.  A picture on a mat in the porch room illustrated with two cats proclaimed, “Always room for one more.”

Most of the furniture, fixtures, decoration and entire rooms of the house have all been made by hand out of scrap materials he’s found in the street.  Even the porch room we were sitting in was made from recycled parts. How’s that for going green?

“It’s made out of stuff that came from the levee when they rebuilt it.  The only new thing we’ve got in it is the insulation and the windows.  It cost us less than a $100 for him to put this up,” Mrs. Washburn said. 

"When we first moved here people didn’t know how to take us,” Washburn said.  “We treated everyone exactly the same, no matter what color, black, white, red or yellow. I’ll do everything in my power to make someone comfortable in our home.  It’s not my home, it’s our home.”

The Washburns may not be big community activists, but they still have something to say.  Living Democracy—in my opinion—isn’t about highlighting the volunteer of the week, but rather passing the mic to those soft voices that get lost in the crowd.  Democracy is put into action when speakers listen and listeners speak.

Tags: Elba

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