The benevolent voyeurism of the flea market

By Jayson Jacoby July 06, 2012 12:30 pm

By Jayson Jacoby

Baker City Herald Editor


We drove up to Sumpter on a mild first day of July that could easily have passed for the cusp of October.

Except for the firework stands doing a brisk business back in Baker, anyway.

The sunshine fell with pleasant warmth on bare skin, but the wind, a fresh one from the northwest, carried the tinge of autumn.

We hiked the trails at the Sumpter Valley Dredge State Park.

Although we had done this once before, our July 1 trek seemed to me a revelation.

The reason is simple: Our initial foray into the park took place in mid-winter, when the tailing piles — the stacks of rocks the dredge expectorated in its search for gold — were covered with three feet of snow and so looked about as interesting as white humps can look. 

Which is not very.

Olivia learned, in a manner of speaking, to pan for gold. Like many an argonaut before her, she was deceived by the glint of pyrite.

Later we strolled over to the flea market to acquire kettle corn and, potentially, some less perishable, if also less tasty, kitsch.

A few years had passed since I last visited the flea market. But after walking by the first booth that peddled both new sunglasses and ancient crosscut saw blades, I instantly felt the familiar but queer sensation of the place.

Which is that a flea market is like nothing so much as raiding every garage, attic, barn and lean-to in a good-sized county, and then displaying the whole mass of debris in a single venue.

And serving strawberry lemonade and deep-fried cheese on a stick besides.

To describe a flea market’s wares as eclectic is to say Bavaria’s King Ludwig had a thing for castles.

You go to a flea market to find everything — literally, everything — that you absolutely don’t need and absolutely must have.

Because, well, you can dicker for it.

And very few people can resist the lure of believing they drove the hardest bargain of the day.

This is, it seems to me, one of the few universal truths of human personality (another is that we all are convinced we have a great sense of humor): Each of us is sure we are clever enough to negotiate deftly with even the most seasoned seller.

(The entire automotive sales industry. I believe, depends upon this faulty premise.)

We came away from Sumpter with only a couple jars of seasoned green olives, which I don’t much care for but Lisa adores.

I enjoyed myself, even if I didn’t at long last dig up that Hardy Boys lunchbox I’ve coveted since third grade.

There is a sort of benevolent voyeurism that infuses the flea market, a sense that here, arrayed on cheap tables, lies the true story of actual lives.

As I walk between the rows of jumbled goods I am, inevitably, consumed by the deepest sorts of ruminations.

Who is this person, and how did he come to possess so many shot glasses?

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As a casual reader of mainstream military histories, I have a skim of knowledge regarding the similarities between the First World War and the Second.

Indeed, many of the epochal events of the latter war have antecedents, of a sort, in the former.

A compelling connection can be forged, for instance, between the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France, in 1944, and the failed Gallipoli campaign of 1915.

The rudimentary Zeppelin raids over London during the First World War foretold, albeit in an almost quaintly anachronistic way, both the London Blitz and the firebombings that nearly obliterated many German cities a generation later.

And before the unimaginable horror of the Holocaust there was the Armenian genocide in Turkey.

The book I recently finished, by contrast, reminded me of the vast difference between the two wars.

The book, by British historian Ian Kershaw, is “The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler’s Germany, 1944-45.”

Kershaw shows, with an irrefutable avalanche of statistics, that quite a lot of the sheer awfulness of World War II in Europe, and particularly in Germany, was crammed into the conflict’s latter stages.

The author focuses on the period from the failed plot to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944 (effectively dramatized in the Tom Cruise film, “Valkyrie”), to Germany’s surrender in early May 1945.

It’s a hefty piece of work — 400 pages of prose plus 100 or so more of footnotes.

Yet it was a single, relatively brief paragraph that prompted me to put down the book and reflect on what I had just read.

During the final 10 months of the war in Europe, Kershaw writes, 2.6 million German military men were killed.

That’s almost as many as the 2.7 million who died during the nearly five years between the start of the war, on Sept. 1, 1939, and the July 1944 attempt on Hitler’s life.

To put those stark figures in strategic terms, soldiers, sailors and airmen of the Third Reich were much less likely to die while conquering the greater part of Europe than they were while defending the comparatively diminutive borders of post-Versailles Germany.

In this strictly military sense, World War II could hardly have been more different from World War I.

In the latter, the army which attacked almost invariably shed more blood than it spilled.

In perhaps the most egregious example of this calculus, the British sacrificed 20,000 men in the attack on German trenches on July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, in Picardy.

There is no definitive death toll for the German defenders that day, but by all accounts, both contemporary and post-war, it’s highly probable that fewer than half as many Germans were killed.

Twenty-nine years later, weaponry was so much more lethal — in particular, tanks, aircraft and portable machine guns — that sheltering in the relative safety of trenches and dugouts, and waiting to mow down infantry as they crossed no man’s land, simply wasn’t practical.

This is, in a morbid sense, a good thing, as it allowed the Allies to defeat Hitler’s regime with what was, by First World War standards, amazing speed.

But that end, as Kershaw eloquently describes, must have seemed excruciatingly slow in coming for millions of Germans, whether they wielded weapons or sheltered, helpless, in the rubble that the B-17s and the Lancasters had made of their once great cities.