Jerry Nelson: Rummage sailing

Jerry Nelson
Special to the Farm Forum
Jerry Nelson

The days have warmed, the grass is green and the last vestiges of the glacial snowbank in our grove have finally disappeared. This can mean only one thing: it’s the sailing season.

Let me clarify that. What I mean is that it’s the rummage sailing season. I know this because it's the time of year when my wife will prepare to leave and I’ll ask, “Where are you going?” and she’ll reply with a casual air, “Oh, I don’t know. Sailing, I guess.”

Her casualness is somewhat of a ruse. I know that she has been secretly planning for a sailing expedition due to the large number of 1- and 5-dollar bills that have suddenly appeared in her purse. And don’t ask why I was snooping through, I mean, examining, the contents of my wife’s purse. (If you need to know, it involved misjudging the spice level of a mega-large burrito and an urgent antacid emergency.)

Our neighbor Al Warnes had a thick Norwegian brogue and a hilarious way of mispronouncing certain words. For example, “rummage sale” always came out as “rubbish sale” and “garage sale” was “garbage sale.” If a person received a new kidney, Al would say they got a kidney “replant.” When you think about it, all of those descriptions are pretty much true.

When my wife and I were young and our two sons were little, rummage sailing was the only kind of sporting event we could afford. During a big morning of yard sale hopping, my wife would spend perhaps $20 – and that included buying Happy Meals for the boys. 

When our kids were tykes, they didn’t mind having clothes that were “pre-worn” or “gently used” or however you want to put it. I think the term “pre-liked” puts the best spin on things.

But they became fussier as they grew older. As toddlers, they didn’t care if their togs came with preinstalled blueberry stains; as teenagers, they insisted on having clothing that was not only new but also stylish and clean.

That’s where we parted ways. I have never cared much about clothing styles. This is because I have long believed that the only two functions of clothing were to 1) protect me from the elements, insects, and whatever “Spanx” are, and 2) prevent me from running afoul of the “no shirt, no shoes, no service” policy which, I’ve learned, is sternly enforced by many public institutions.

I grew up on a dairy farm with seven siblings, so the notion of wearing used clothing was nothing new to us. With that many kids running around, every day was laundry day. Every laundry day was like a rummage sale in that clothing was often handed off to its next owner, although no money changed hands.

Mom made dresses out of feed sacks for my sisters. This essentially meant that they wore hand-me-downs that were given to them by the feed company. 

I was the eldest boy in the family, but that didn’t insulate me from wearing pre-owned clothing. My extended family includes approximately 40 first cousins. Many of them are male and older than me with mothers who couldn’t bear the thought of tossing out a single stitch of used clothing. I was thus afflicted by the fashion choices made many years prior – perhaps before I was even born – by my thrifty aunts. This might explain why I became a fashion agnostic.

I went clothing shopping with my father exactly once. When I was about to begin high school, Dad took me to our local JC Penney to get me outfitted for this exciting new chapter.

As we passed the shoe section, a particular set of footwear caught my eye. It was a pair of square-toed pull-on boots that were made of suede that were the color of a cloudless summertime sky.

Blue is my favorite color, and I knew in an instant that I had to have those boots. The Elvis tune “Blue Suede Shoes” may have also been an influence.

I wore those boots all the time. Sadly, my feet weren’t done growing, and the boots eventually became too small. I don’t recall what happened to them, but I’d like to think that they were handed down.

Even though we no longer have kids at home, my wife still likes to go rummage sailing every so often. I think she simply enjoys the thrill of getting something for nearly nothing.

Whenever she goes on these expeditions, I have but one request.

If she happens to find a pair of men’s blue suede shoes in my size, buy them. And then don’t step on them.

If you'd like to contact Jerry Nelson to do some public speaking, or just to register your comments, you can email him at His book, “Dear County Agent Guy,” is available at and at booksellers everywhere.