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Monday, June 01, 2020
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A Tinker's Dam

Maybe, like me, you have heard the reference to “a tinkers dam”. I never thought a lot about the phrase or where it came from. I did a little research and discovered that the phrase means basically what I thought it did. 'A tinker's dam Is a small dam created by a nineteenth century tinker/repairman out of bread dough for the purpose of constraining solder used to repair a metal object. Once used, the small amount of dough cannot be used again and has no worth. Hence, a tinker's dam suggest something that has little or no worth and can be done away without regret.

    Another similar commonly used phrase is the well known Gone With The Wind movie line ,“I don’t give a damn”. This phrase came into popular usage in the late 1930s after Clark Gable issued the now famous  line, Frankly Scarlet, I don’t give a damn!”. The word “damn” was and is a powerful term of condemnation or rejection. It’s usually expressed in times of frustration or anger.

    In my childhood home, my parents were very strict about cursing for any reason. Yes, the word “damn” was heard from time to time by my parents and myself. I recall my mother saying that people who cursed regularly had a limited vocabulary. I was always told to have a broad vocabulary so that I did not depend upon cursing to express myself.

    Somewhere along the way during my early teen years, I adopted the phrase, “I don’t give a dime.”  It was a phrase of derision but one that did not get me into trouble with either of my parents. I came to realize that a dime and a tinker's dam are somewhat the same terminology. Both phrases conveyed the same disdain for someone or something. In my childhood a dime was a meaningful amount of money that allowed me to purchase more than one piece of candy or a soda pop. By my teenage years, a dime had lost much of its value due to inflation and could only be used when combined with larger coinage such as a quarter or fifty-cent piece.

    Sometime around 1998 or 99, I was walking one of our boundary fences here on the farm. It was summertime, and we had experienced one of those hard summer rains that was affectionately referred to as a “gully washer". The storm had included wind that left me concerned about whether fences had been compromised by fallen tree branches. As I walked the fences I happened to look on the ground just inches away from the old line fence. Lying ere on the ground was a small round shaped object. I stooped to pick it up and examine it. As I rubbed the dirt away from it, I realized that it was a small engraved coin. I spat on the coin and wiped the spittle and mud away. As I held it up close to my eyes, I realized that it was a half dime dated 1867.

    In those days the U.S. mint issued half dimes instead of nickels.The half dime became a subject of my conjecture as to how and why that small coin was lying at the edge of this old fence row. The date of the coin suggested that it had been there since the 1870s or 80s. Since the farm has been in our family since 1862 I suspected that it might have been lost by my great grandfather Jacob.  I imagined that he too might have been walking that fence many years ago repairing the wire as I was doing. He reached in his pocket to retrieve a fence staple and the half dime spilled from his work pants pocket and fell to the ground without his likely having known he lost it. And somehow it remain there for more than 100 years.

    “Tinkers dam”, “I don’t give a damn” and “I don’t give a dime”. Is there some connection between these three phrases? Maybe there is. maybe not. Vulgar words or still just words. Spoken aloud they cause others to think that maybe the speaker’s vocabulary is limited. But an ancient half dime is something else. Even without its story, it is a rarity. With the context of a great grandfather and its residence along a muddy fence-line, it becomes a family heirloom. It’s one of those finds that I count as a treasure far more valuable than a mercury dime, a Roosevelt silver dime or a tinker's dam!