Pick from the Past

Natural History, April 1993

Der Ring des Bubbalungen

Borrow unto others before they borrow unto you.

T was the day that you skipped class thirty years ago to have coffee and a doughnut with that cute sophomore in Intro to Anthro. I didn’t have a chance with her, even with a chocolate doughnut, so I went to class. And that was the day Cro-Magnon Christensen bored us with his lecture about Bronislaw Malinowski’s study of the Trobriand Islanders’ Kula Ring. The Trobriand Islanders—get this!—trade red-shell necklaces clockwise around the Pacific islands and white-shell armbands counterclockwise along the same route. The goal is to accumulate more and more armbands and necklaces and thus more and more prestige, the shell jewelry having no value other than prestige. I can’t recall what Malinowski concluded, but C-M Christensen used it as an example of how arbitrary human behavior can differ from one culture to another.

He was wrong. In the intervening years I have been struck again and again by how much alike we are—us and them, Americans and less reasonable people, penny-stock shufflers and Kula Ring runners. Malinowski could have saved a lot of trouble and transportation costs by coming to Nebraska. This realization came to me after a long period of serious observation, which pretty much lets Malinowski off the hook, since he didn’t spend a lot of time in Nebraska. Here it’s not the Kula Ring but the Bubba Ring, the big difference being that the Bubba Ring involves not worthless shells but objects of real value. Otherwise the object of the two social systems is pretty much the same: do unto others before they do unto you.

Woodrow Buehler and I were at an auction last week when a six-foot iron pry bar went on the block. Woodrow is constantly borrowing my pry bar because in his business—plumbing and salvage—a pry bar is the sort of thing you need every day. That means Woodrow borrows my pry bar on a regular basis. Then I go back over to his place
Bubba Ring Rule 1: There is no need for two people to each own something like a pry bar.
and get it back, and then he comes here and borrows it, and so on.

The pry bar at the auction drew an initial bid of twenty-five cents from Stan Kowalski, who opens every bid with an offer of twenty-five cents, whether the object in question is a mint 1957 Chevy hardtop with 12,000 actual miles on it or a five-gallon bucket of used firecrackers. This time the bid stuck at a quarter for a full minute while the auctioneer begged for a dollar. “Fifty cents,” Carl Kohl yelled. Another long pause.

I poked Woodrow. “That thing is going to bring less than two bucks.” No reaction. “Buck!” muttered Stan. Woodrow rocked on his heels.

“Woodrow, what are you waiting for?” He looked at me as if I had just suggested he slash his wrists or go back to school.

“Buck fifty!” crowed Carl.

“Going, going, going . . . GONE! Buck fifty to Carl Kohl.”

I sputtered to Woodrow, “You could have had that bar for the price of a beer.”

“Why . . . ” he paused. “Why would I buy a pry bar when you already own one?”

Bubba Ring Rule 1: There is no need for two people to each own something like a pry bar.

I understand borrowing a six-foot iron pry bar: it just sits in my shed until Woodrow comes by to pick it up again, but the issue isn’t always that clear. For example, Woodrow owns a canoe, but he doesn’t own paddles. Paddles, to my mind, are an integral part of a canoe. Would you have a rod and reel and borrow fishing line? A road and borrow gravel? No. But in the Bubba Ring, this is a common logic.

Bubba Ring Rule 2: Nothing is beyond borrowing.

I once showed Woodrow and our mutual buddy Lunchbox a filter I had installed in our water line. As water comes from our well, it passes through the filter, which removes ugly-bugglies, if you can excuse the technical terminology. Our water tastes fine, is healthful, and no longer requires chewing. Since Lunchbox has the same problems with his water, I thought he would be interested in the filter, and since Woodrow is a plumber, I thought it might strike his fancy, too.

Lunchbox was interested; Woodrow was fascinated. “That thing is fantastic,” Woodrow enthused. “Lunchbox, you ought to borrow it.” Woodrow had just proposed that I lend out part of our plumbing! When I regained my composure, I was flabbergasted. I exclaimed, “Woodrow, you’re dense as a lug nut!”

Woodrow and Lunchbox were both shocked by my small-mindedness.

Bubba Ring Rule 2: Nothing is beyond borrowing.

My arrival in Dannebrog twenty years ago generated some comment—for example, “What a dufus!” Thing is, I listened to my father, who to this day says, “Never borrow anything, and when you do, return it in better condition than when you got it.” I love my dad, but he doesn’t know zip about the Bubba Ring.

Slick once asked me to come up to his house and help him trim some trees hanging over his garage. “Sure,” I said.

“Bring along your saws,” Slick said. “And your ladders. And your tractor. And ropes and chains.”

Uh-oh—the Bubba Ring! I thought that I might avoid the inevitable complications of the Bubba Ring Syndrome by not letting my tools out of my sight. That way, when we finished the job, I’d just bring my stuff home with me. Such innocence! I was lucky to leave Slick’s place with my tractor and pants. He wound up with the ladder, ropes,
Bubba Ring Rule 3: You can save yourself the trouble of returning things in good condition by not returning them at all.
chains, and saw, which I did not see again for three years.

The only reason I ever got any of my tools back is that Slick moved. Friends offered to help him, but he smiled with total self-confidence and said that he wouldn’t need help. All he had to do was tell everyone to come get the stuff he had borrowed over the past twenty years and he could move what was left in a cardboard box.

Bubba Ring Rule 3: You can save yourself the trouble of returning things in good condition by not returning them at all.

Slick did what he said he was going to do. I got my saw, chains, ropes, and ladder and a lot of other stuff I had almost forgotten. A week later, Slick asked me to come and help him trim some trees that were rubbing the shingles of his new house. I said I was busy, but that didn’t work. “Okay, Woodrow and I will come over and pick the stuff up. Bet you don’t even have it out of your pickup truck yet.”

I didn’t. When I mumbled that I hadn’t had my tools long enough to get reacquainted with them, even Slick had to agree. “Hmmm,” he said disapprovingly. “I was hoping you would replace the bad rope on our block-and-tackle and sharpen the chain on our saw.”

Bubba Ring Rule 4: Possession may be nine parts of the law, but the tenth part, repair and replacement, is the owner’s responsibility.

And what’s that stuff about “our” block-and-tackle, “our” saw?

Bubba Ring Rule 5: If you had trouble with the community property ruling in your recent divorce, don’t even think about getting involved in the Bubba Ring!

Last week I witnessed a raging argument between Slick and Russell Barker. When Slick got married a few years ago, he borrowed Russell’s good shoes and never got around to returning them. “You stupid, no-good, irresponsible deadbeat!” Russell roared into Slick’s face. “I want my shoes back, and my bowling ball, and bicycle, and hedge trimmer.”

I expected fury but Slick was neither angry nor hurt. He was indignant. Russell was violating the rules of the Bubba Ring. “No matter how nasty you get, Russell,” he said, “You’re not going to make me mad enough to give your stuff back.”

Bubba Ring Rule 6: The customer is always right.

As in the Trobriand Islands, Bubba Ring exchanges are a matter of prestige and strategy, not value and commerce, and I haven’t lived out here all these years without learning a little about how things are done. This morning, for example, Woodrow stood in our farmyard kicking gravel and sucking his coffee, finally asking, “You still got the posthole digger I saw in your shed last summer?”

“Uh, I lent it to Kenny Price when he was building a fence this spring.” I pawed casually through the rubble in the box of Woodrow’s pickup.

“Isn’t that the handle I see over there in the corner of the shed?” he said, trying to draw my attention away from his white armband shells.

“Well, look at this! Here’s my torque wrench,” I said, trying to divert his gaze from my red necklace shells.

“By golly, that is your posthole digger!” He moved toward the shed. Should I defend my territory or launch a threat against his? I tried both: “Hey, Woodrow, I need to borrow this set of socket wrenches of yours for a couple days,” and I moved briskly toward the shed to head off his shopping expedition.

“Yep, here it is—the posthole digger and a minnow trap! I’m setting catfish lines tonight. I’ll bring you fish by morning, wait and see!”

“Uh, Woodrow, I need the furniture dolly you borrowed two years ago.”


“We’re moving the fridge.”

“Did you get a new fridge?”

“Uh, why?”

“I was thinking maybe I could borrow your old one for a bait cooler.”

“Well, I am going to, uh, put the old one in my shop . . . and besides, I need my rake back because, er, after we redecorate the kitchen, we’re starting on the lawn.”

“Look at this! A tiling spade! Just what I need for. . . . ” I was losing ground.

Bubba Ring Rule 7: A beginner always loses ground.

Eventually I suspected that I was being watched. I’d buy a wheelbarrow in Rising City and two days later, there was Slick, wanting to borrow a wheelbarrow. I’d buy a rasp and the next day Woodrow needed a rasp. I couldn’t wear the labels off of new tools if I waited more than three days to use them.

I learned later that Woodrow’s wife’s cousin Faye, Slick’s daughter-in-law, works at the bank and in casual conversations with her favorite cousin she’d drop nuggets of information like, “Gosh, Bernice, the girl next to me was clearing checks yesterday, and she goes, ‘Here’s one from that Welsch guy, and he paid, get this, fifty smackers for a wheelbarrow!’”

Bubba Ring Rule 8: There’s no hiding place.

This, obviously, is research in progress.

(Postscript: I did finally locate my furniture dolly. Woodrow lent it to Kenny, who lent it to Slick, who lent it to his mother, who lent it to Reverend Miller, who lent it to Dave Calvin, from whom, it turned out, I had borrowed it originally twenty years ago. I’ll probably never get it back now.)

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