Mike McGough
July 2021

It started in a trench in the Argonne Forest during the Great War in 1918.  As each day passed, he drove a nail into a beam that supported the sides of the trench he was in.  There was little he could do to end the fighting, nor could he ever set right all of the wrongs it had wrought. Each nail was just a reminder of the painful passage of time. 

He promised himself that if he made it home, he’d open a hardware store.  He was comforted by thoughts of hammers and nails, new-fangled electrical appliances, and all the stuff that made a hardware what it was.  That helped to lessen the sounds, smells, and sights of the wounds, disease, and death in the trenches.

He made it home and true to his promise, he opened a hardware store.  With money he had saved and with a loan that he’d be paying on for decades, he bought an old railroad depot along the tracks near his hometown of Kroy.  It needed some work, and he tackled the job.  His goods arrived by train to the back of his store, and he offered them for sale out the front of the store.  A small apartment over the depot became his home. 

The economy was good in the early Roaring Twenties.  His store did well. The wooden floors creaked when you walked on them.  The smell was a pleasant combination of everything from oil-coated garden tools and bags of seed, to fresh lumber and root beer barrel candy.  The sights were enticing.  The staples were always there, and there was generally something new to look at as well. 

When his girlfriend became his wife, she joined right in quickly. Raising their kids in and around the store, made them a fixture in the community.  They were appreciated for what they provided, and they were respected for how they did it.  Helpfulness and generosity were benchmarks of what they were about.

When the stock market crashed in October of 1929, he wasn’t overly concerned.  By the fall of 1930, he, along with millions of other struggling Americans, realized that this wasn’t a periodic downturn.  It was instead a depression of the first magnitude. If his family and his business were to make it through, some changes had to be made.  Anguish about having to do what had to be done to survive troubled him. He knew he had to take care of his family, but he felt an obligation to the larger community as well.  There had to be a balance, and he was determined to find it. 

Next to the store there was a large oak tree.  When he made a decision that went against his helpful, generous nature, he drove a large nail half way into the trunk of that tree.  Each nail was a reminder of a debt he felt he owed.  It was his personal accounting system for marking hard times like those he had experienced in Germany.  This one was also moral ledger he planned to balance as soon as possible, one act of kindness and generosity at a time.  It was a visual reminder of a good man trying to survive a difficult time. 

In the late spring of 1933, he received some contracts from President Roosevelt’s new Civilian Conservation Corps.  His store was responsible for receiving and then providing needed supplies and equipment for CCC Camps in southcentral Pennsylvanian and northern Maryland.  He received additional contracts in the summer of 1935 when the Works Progress Administration began its massive public works initiatives. For he and his family the depression was essentially over.  For his neighbors and his customers, it remained very real. 

With no fanfare, the kindness and generosity that had been his moral stock in trade was back.  One at a time, he began pulling those half-driven nails from the oak tree beside the store.  It took time, but finally he pulled the last nail from the tree.  On that day he let it be known that there would be a community picnic in the shadow of that tree.  Oh, the marks of those nails were still plainly visible, but he knew in time they would heal, leaving only a faint reminder that they had ever been there.  For him it was a time to celebrate.

Certain troubles in life are like those nails driven into a beam during World War I.  Even if later removed, their harsh marks remain permanently. A lifeless beam never heals.  Other wrongs, like nails driven into an oak tree in Kroy, can be set right.  When they are and the nails are withdrawn, the life-filled tree begins to heal, leaving only faint evidence of past wrongs.

What nails could you pull today?