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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

© Tom Lowes

August 2004

How now, Frau Blau?

Skullduggery at a country auction.

Dave Crehore



Illustration by Tom Lowes

"Hey, c'mere. Look at this!" Dad said.

He crooked a finger at me. I followed him around the corner of the old farmhouse to see what was up.

"Look at the privy," Dad said. "Mrs. Blau is in there, Tuba doesn't know it, and he's got her trapped. I hope he isn't going to sell it right out from under her!"

At the age of 13 I didn't have a well-developed sense of drama – that would come later in my teens – but I could sense that the curtain was going up on some sort of farce featuring two classic Manitowoc County characters of the early fifties: Colonel Tuba the auctioneer and Mrs. Blau the antique dealer, in and around an outhouse near Menchalville.

Tuba was the local nickname for an auctioneer who flourished in eastern Wisconsin during the fifties, selling off the old pioneer farms. He was a short, waddling flamboyant man, ringed with rolls of fat like the coils of a sousaphone. And he did in fact play the tuba in a polka band. On Friday nights his oompah riffs could be heard right through the walls of the country taverns and dance halls where his band played. Tuba sat at the rear of the stage with the drummer, his bulk dwarfing the dented old Elkhart horn he played, his chubby little fingers manipulating the valves with lightning speed.

On Saturdays, however, he was all business. He had the essential tools of the successful country auctioneer: he was funny, he knew the secondhand price of everything from a Wedgwood teacup to a silo filler, and he had a voice that could carry across two plowed fields and a woodlot. As did many auctioneers in those days, he called himself "Colonel" and affected a cane, cowboy boots and a huge white Stetson.

I knew a little about Mrs. Blau already, and Dad had told me more that morning while we were driving to the auction. "She's an antique dealer," he said, "strictly small-time, but she's as honest as the day is long, which is rare. She goes to all the auctions, and she really knows her stuff. She's about seventy, skinny as a rail, always wears black and always carries an umbrella."

Dad was furnishing our old house on the edge of Manitowoc with antique chairs, tables, dressers and cabinets that had been brought to Wisconsin by the first settlers. What he couldn't buy at auction, he bought from Mrs. Blau. And from time to time he furnished our gun cabinet as well, bidding cautiously on the classic Ithaca, Fox, Lefever, L.C. Smith and Parker side-by-side shotguns that occasionally turned up in basements and barns. Dad would take them home, clean them up and then resell them, squirreling the profits away for the day when one of the high-grade Lefevers called an "Uncle Dan" would show up on an auction block. As far as Dad was concerned, the Uncle Dan Lefever was the ultimate shotgun, and he wanted one desperately.

As we watched, Tuba and a small crowd of farmers moved ever closer to the outhouse. It was situated in a clump of overgrown lilacs against the back fence, and was surrounded by old farm machines parked there to be sold. At the moment, Tuba was only 20 feet away, trying to unload a rusty little Farmall Cub tractor on one of three interested bidders among the crowd.

"Come on, boys," Tuba said, impatiently. "I can't let this machine go for three hundred and fifty dollars. They don't make them like this any more!"

"Good thing, too, 'n so?" said one of the farmers. Tuba ignored this sally. "Three-fifty I got. Who'll give me four hundred, four, four, four?"

"Three seventy-five," said the current high bidder, a rangy Norwegian with a cheek full of Copenhagen. Tuba shook his head. "Thank you, Nils, but we're going fifty dollars a throw today, just like the big city. And besides, you're bidding against yourself. Who'll go four hundred?"

The second of the interested bidders raised his finger and then quickly withdrew the gesture. But Tuba was too fast for him. "I saw that, John," Tuba said. "C'mon, John, he who hesitates is last!"

John slowly withdrew a small spiral notebook and a stub of pencil from the pocket of his bib overalls. He licked the lead and wrote down some figures. Then he began a problem in long division, out loud and in a worried, muttering tone: "Twelve into 40 goes, um...well, 10 into 40 goes 4, so 12 would be about...what?...three, something..."

"Thirty-three and change, John," Tuba said. "Thirty-three dollars a month, if that's what you want to know. Beer money for you, John!"

John wrote this down and then began to multiply it by twelve to check Tuba's mental arithmetic. "OK, thirty-three times twelve. Lessee, two times three is six..."

Tuba rolled his eyes to amuse the crowd. Then he spun around and pointed his cane at the third interested bidder, a man of about eighty in a snap-brim straw hat. "OK, Romy!" he boomed, "don't go playing deaf on me now, I know you can hear me and I know you're interested, so let's get off the pot, here. Now's your chance, Romy. It's four hundred to you."

"But will it start?" Romy asked.

"Will it start? Of course it will start. It started the last time it ran!" shouted Tuba.

A titter of laughter ran through the crowd of onlookers, but Romy couldn't hear it.

"Well..." Romy said, tentatively.

"Sold!" said Tuba. He slammed his cane down on the tractor's worn leather seat, which split open at the blow and sent shreds of horsehair padding drifting away on the May breeze.

"Sold for four hundred dollars to Romy Pankratz, item number 176 the Farmall tractor," Tuba intoned. He tore a sheet of paper off a clipboard and handed it to Romy. "There ya go, Romy," he said. "Signed, sealed and delivered. Just take that around to the cashier on the porch." Convinced that he had a bargain, Romy smiled and tottered off to the front of the farmhouse.

Tuba shook his head and chuckled. He clapped his hands to regain the attention of the audience. "OK," he said, "right over this way, item number 177, the disk harrow, believed to be a John Deere – at least, it's green – so who'll start me out..."

Tuba stopped in mid-sentence. He was standing in front of the outhouse. "What the heck, boys, the lady said sell it all, so by God I will!"

He gave the side of the outhouse a resounding whack with his cane. "What am I offered for this survivor of a simpler time, made of solid red cedar, don't hardly stink at all, she'll come in handy when the septic tank freezes up, just pull out them bolts and you can take her right along, who'll start me out at twenty-five dollars..." Tuba smote the privy a second time and started looking rapidly back and forth at the crowd for signs of interest.

"Judas priest!" Dad said.

He and I had been looking on, open-mouthed, as Tuba sold the Farmall Cub, wondering if Mrs. Blau would summon the courage to exit the outhouse under the eyes of all those men. We never believed Tuba would actually try to sell the outhouse, but now that he was, Dad knew it was time to step in. What if the door didn't latch from the inside? What if an interested party decided to check out the accommodations before making a bid?

"Hold on a minute!" Dad shouted, and elbowed his way through the audience. He bent down and whispered into Tuba's ear.

Tuba turned and gave the outhouse a close look. Then he turned back to Dad. He snorted incredulously. "Occupied?" he asked, in a low voice. "Old Frau Blau?" Dad nodded. Nothing happened for a few seconds. Then Tuba's multiple bellies began to shake. He began to alternate between fits of laughing and coughing. Finally he caught his breath and shook Dad's hand.

"You, sir, are a real gentleman," Tuba said. "I was about to open the door." He laughed again, helplessly, for about half a minute. "Oh, God, I wouldn't have missed this for the world!" he said. He saluted Dad with his cane and cleared his throat loudly to reassemble the audience, who had begun to scatter.

"Now, then, item 177 the disk harrow. Who'll start me out..."

When the harrow was sold, Tuba led the crowd to the barn to inspect the hay. He kept talking breathlessly as he walked. "OK, boys, I'm told it's all good stuff, first cutting from last year, and no, Nils, I ain't going to sell it a bale at a time!"

Quiet returned to the outhouse and its clump of lilacs. Dad tiptoed up to the door and tapped gently. "It's all right, Mrs. Blau, you can come out – they're all gone," he whispered.

The door eased open about an inch. The metal ferrule of Mrs. Blau's rolled-up umbrella appeared first, followed by her prominent nose. Then she scuttled out, jabbed the umbrella into the soft earth and smoothed down her long black cotton dress.

"Woo!" Mrs. Blau said, exhaling sharply. "That was a close one. I was watching through a knothole and I saw what you did. I owe you one, Mr. Crehore. If I can ever do you a favor..."

"Mrs. Blau, call me Dave," Dad said, smiling. "We haven't got any secrets from each other any more."

"All right," said Mrs. Blau, "then you can call me Mary."

Dad took his pipe from his shirt pocket and filled it with Walnut. As he did, Mrs. Blau instinctively pulled a crumpled pack of Chesterfields from the pocket of her dress. "Need a light, Mrs.– um, Mary?" Dad asked. Mrs. Blau nodded and leaned forward as Dad thumbed his Zippo.

Mrs. Blau dragged deeply on her cigarette as Dad lit and tamped his pipe. They smiled at each other through the smoke.

"You know, Dave, I said I would do you a favor, and I think I can, right now," Mrs. Blau said. "You asked me once to let you know if I ever saw an Uncle Dan Lefever shotgun in my travels. Well, there is one here at this farm and it's a beauty. There's a nice Parker too, and Tuba has got both of them hidden away. And yes, I know what I'm talking about. My father was a gunsmith in Germantown and I used to help him. I grew up with those guns."

Mrs. Blau glanced disapprovingly over at the barn where Tuba was still selling off the hay. "According to the ad for this auction," she said, "there are supposed to be three shotguns here, but there's only one tagged for sale, and it's an old Crescent Arms wall-hanger. So when I was in the farmhouse looking over the furniture yesterday, I poked around and I found the other two behind an old ironing board in the kitchen closet. I'll bet Tuba will pretend to discover them after the auction is over and make some kind of a low-ball offer to the widow that owns this farm."

She looked up at Dad with a half-smile. "Oh, yes, it happens more often than you'd think. I've got to make a phone call, and I'll see what I can do." She took a final pull on her Chesterfield, ground the butt into the grass with her heel, winked at Dad, and strode purposefully to the back door of the farmhouse.

"Good grief," Dad said to me. "You come out here in the country for a little light entertainment on a beautiful spring day and all of a sudden it's high intrigue! I thought Tuba was a jolly fat man like Mr. Pickwick, and instead he's a conniver. C'mon, let's eat our lunch before the egg salad sandwiches go bad."

Our Studebaker station wagon was parked along the road in front of the farmhouse. We ate sitting on its tailgate, where we had a good view of the front porch. Something clearly was going on – there were some raised voices inside, including Mrs. Blau's raspy tenor, and for a moment we saw her nose-to-nose with Tuba's cashier.

Finally she emerged backwards through the screen door, carrying two shotguns that she laid on a table with the Crescent Arms gun, an old Atwater-Kent table radio, stacks of dishes and some cardboard boxes of kitchenware that were to be sold from the front porch. She saw us and made a quick thumbs-up gesture. Dad nodded, opened the passenger door of the Studie and removed an envelope full of twenty-dollar bills from the glove compartment. It was his Lefever fund.

A little while later the auction started again. Tuba disposed of the dishes for seven dollars, and Nils walked off with the Atwater-Kent for a buck seventy-five. Then Tuba looked down and saw three shotguns where there should have been one. He turned to the cashier and berated him in an agitated whisper. The cashier shrugged and nodded toward Mrs. Blau, who stood in the front row of onlookers with her arms folded. She fixed Tuba with a gimlet-eyed stare.

Tuba recovered his voice. "All right, what's next?" The cashier handed him the Crescent Arms gun and Tuba brandished it over his head. "Nice old American gun with Damascus barrels," he said. "Lotta life left in this old girl. Let's start her out at ten dollars." But there were no takers at ten; in the end Romy Pankratz bought the gun for $4.50. "I got a lampshade at home that will just fit this baby," Romy said, and everyone laughed.

"OK," Tuba said, "back to work." He walked past the remaining two shotguns and picked up one of the cardboard boxes. "Here we got everything you newlyweds need to get started out in life." He rummaged in the box and started pulling things out. "Colander, eggbeater, spatula, lefse roller. Who'll start it out at a quarter."

"Hey, wait a minute!" came a voice from the rear of the crowd. Everyone turned. A mousy little man with a tweed cap was holding up a newspaper clipping. "It says here there are three shotguns for sale, so sell 'em!"

Tuba glared at the mousy man and picked up the Lefever. "All right, he says sell 'em so I will. This here is a Lefever of some kind, looks like a fancy one, so we'll start her out at fifty bucks. Who'll give me fifty?"

"Here!" said a middle-aged man in a brown fedora.

"OK, fifty I got, who'll go a hundred?"

"One hundred," said Dad.

"One-fifty!" snapped the Fedora.

Dad thumbed quickly through the twenties in his envelope. He counted under his breath: two-forty, two-sixty, two-eighty.

"Two hundred," Dad said.

The fedora jumped back in. "Two-fifty!"

"Three hundred," said the mousy man. A stunned silence fell over the onlookers. No one in Manitowoc County had ever paid three hundred dollars for a shotgun. Dad's shoulders slumped; he was out of money. In the distance you could hear crows cawing and the complaining squeak of a windmill.

"Three hundred is bid!" said the mousy man. Up on the porch, Tuba's face turned from its usual pink to an ugly crimson. He looked at the man in the brown fedora and shook his head almost imperceptibly.

The man in the fedora turned away. "All done?" said Tuba, scanning the crowd. "All done? Sold! The Lefever shotgun for three hundred dollars to the man in the back there with the cap. See the cashier when we're done."

"There it goes," Dad said to me. "That's about as close as I'm ever going to get to an Uncle Dan."

Up on the porch, Tuba picked up the Parker. All his professional bonhomie was gone. "Now here's another nice one," he said in a gritty voice, "a real Parker, the Old Reliable, nice VHE grade, partridge season comin' up before you know it. Gotta start this one out at a hundred."

Dad raised his hand. "One hundred," he said.

"One-fifty," countered the Fedora.

"One seventy-five," Dad said.

The Fedora raised his hand. I saw Tuba give that quick shake of his head again. The Fedora lowered his arm. There were no other bidders.

"All done?" Tuba shouted. "All done? All right, SOLD for one-seventy-five to the man in the crew cut!" He waved his hand and stalked into the farmhouse, the high heels of his cowboy boots thudding on the worn floorboards.

The auction was over. Everyone started talking at once. Suddenly Mrs. Blau was at Dad's side. "Hurry up, hurry up, pay for it. Right away!" Dad went up to the cashier's table, counted out twenties from his envelope, got his change and a receipt, and grabbed the Parker.

We walked out to the car. Dad raised the shotgun to his shoulder and looked down the barrels. "Shoot!" he said. "I never should have bid on this thing, but I just got the fever. It's in beautiful shape, but the stock's got way too much drop – doesn't fit me at all. I'll never be able to hit anything with it, and now I gotta find somebody who'll pay me a hundred and seventy-five bucks for it!"

"I'll give you that for it," said Mrs. Blau, who had walked up behind us. "See, what you don't know – and what Tuba didn't know – is that this Parker has never been fired. I gave it a good looking-over at lunchtime, and it's mint. This is a collector gun, whether it fits anybody or not. I was ready to go up to two-fifty for it."

Dad leaned forward and gave Mrs. Blau a resounding kiss on the forehead. "Mary, now I owe you one," he said. "You saved my bacon – more important, you saved my Lefever fund!"

"Oh, that's right, you wanted that Lefever, didn't you," said Mrs. Blau, her wizened face wrinkling into a smile. She turned toward the farmhouse. "Henry!" she called. The mousy man with the tweed cap started toward us, carrying the Uncle Dan. "I'd like you to meet my husband, Henry Blau – Henry, this is Dave Crehore and his son," Mrs. Blau said.

Dad shook hands with Henry and then looked from one Blau to the other. "What is going on here?" he said.

"Well," Mrs. Blau said, "the way I figure it, Tuba wanted both of those guns, and the way the bidding went, it looks like he was willing to pay $250 for the Lefever and $150 for the Parker. The man in the brown hat was Tuba's shill. Henry and I forced Tuba to auction those guns, so the shill's job was to bid and get them for Tuba. Now most of these people are farmers, and they wouldn't dream of paying more than fifty bucks for a shotgun. Tuba knew that, and he figured he'd get both guns for a song. But he didn't figure on us!" Mrs. Blau laughed a hacking cigarette laugh, like the crumpling of tinfoil. She linked arms with her husband. "If Tuba can have a shill, so can I!"

"Dirty work at the crossroads," Dad said.

"Yes, there are wheels within wheels, even in Menchalville," Mrs. Blau replied, with another hack. "So – let's get down to business," she said. "Dave, you've got a hundred and seventy-five in the Parker, and we've got three hundred in the Lefever. That's a hundred and a quarter difference. How much have you got left in your envelope?"

"Hundred and five," Dad said. "OK," said Mrs. Blau, and took the envelope. "You're twenty bucks short. Do you think we can carry Mr. Crehore for twenty bucks, Henry?"

I had a sudden inspiration. "I've got twenty bucks!" I said. In fact, I had twenty-two and some change. It was what remained of my leaf-raking money, my birthday money, my Christmas money and my snow-shoveling money. I pulled out my wallet and counted out twenty singles and handed them to Mrs. Blau.

"Thank you, sonny," she said. "Let's swap over." Dad and Henry Blau exchanged guns. "OK, done and done."

Mr. Blau spoke up for the first time. "I suggest we all get out of here before the wrath of the Tuba descends on us," he said.

Dad shouldered the Uncle Dan, and then lowered it and looked it over. "There's a little wear," he said, "but it fits like a dream." He put the gun in the empty case he always took to auctions – the "just in case case," he called it – and laid it on the back seat of the Studie. Then he turned and took Mrs. Blau's skinny hand in his. "I can't thank you enough, Mary," he said.

"Dave – the pleasure is all mine. I was almost caught with my ... well, I was almost caught."

She looked up at Dad and smiled. "Where were you when I was thirty?" she asked.

"I was two years old," Dad said.

"Well, there is that, I suppose ... See you next Saturday!"

Dad started up the Studie, but before he drove off he reached back and patted the gun case in the back seat.

Then he laughed, let in the clutch, and we started for home.

Dave Crehore writes about hunting, fishing and enjoying life near his childhood home in Manitowoc.