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Tales of a Sharp Trader And His Day at the Fair

EVERY morning as I thump my egg with the back of a spoon, to subdue it for excoriation in readiness for alimentary uses, I reach across and press the button that activates my National receiver so I can hear a radio station, which, a female soon assures me, is located in Barstin.

Lately, about the time I replace the salt and pepper shakers, a gentleman appears with a frantic voice that couldn't sell popcorn at a ballgame and assures me rapidly that something I don't know about and don't want can be had, if I hurry-hurry, for ''only'' $199.

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It has been at least a half-century since I have seen anything priced around $200 that is worth more than 75 cents, and the ''only'' in this pitch causes me unfailingly to reach over and press that button again. An egg, at my breakfast, commences in a raucous hullabaloo and finishes in blessed silence.

I realize that the day has gone when Steve Mitchell sold a stove-lid lifter and gave you a free lead pencil, all for 14 cents. And the day has gone when we had a Steve Mitchell who knew what a stove lid was. But that's no excuse whatsoever for a radio station to spoil my breakfast by belittling $199.

A loaf of Ward's top-quality store bread retailed for 8 cents, and if it laid overnight in the store, you could buy it for 7 cents. Nobody even tried to imagine how much bread you'd get for $199. Anybody whose memory goes back to 8-cent bread will be unable to comprehend why $199 can be ''only.''

My grandfather had a neighbor, Reuben Small, who was a sharp trader, as was my grandfather, and they had a gentlemen's agreement (although this challenges the word gentlemen) that they would not pit their wiles one against the other.

Every evening, after chores and supper, they would meet either at Reuben's or at Gramp's and play three games of checkers or draughts. Reuben insisted that in 45 years he had won every game. My grandfather said, ''Well, you know how Reuben is prone to exaggerate everything, but this time he may be right within one or two games.''

So they never haggled over a sheep or a wheelbarrow, and kept their friendship strong for the checkerboard. Grandfather frequently told of the time Reuben, as a young man, went to the state fair ''without a cent in his pocket that ever was made.'' He didn't have money to buy a ticket at the gate, and had to sneak under the fence. This did save him 10 cents, which showed Reuben's frugal nature.

In Reuben's time, the fairs were annual gatherings where farmers exhibited and sold their farm products, and the women offered fancywork and jars of jelly. My grandfather used to take a colony of his bees and sell honey. He had a large screen-wire cage with the beehive inside, and a sugar-water feeder so the bees would fly to entertain the crowd. From his apiary at the farm he would bring pound boxes of comb honey that could be had for (may I say ''ONLY''?) 25 cents.

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The year that Reuben crawled under the fence, Reuben's ''only'' asset was his ''swapper'' jackknife. Every boy in those days had two jackknives; the one for paring apples, making willow whistles, dressing trout, and playing mumbletypeg, to name a few. Then he had a swapper, which he kept ready should another boy propose that they swap jackknives.

The swapper was rusted and beat up, and might even have lost its blades. You never showed, but kept it covered in you palm. There was no point in swapping swappers, so you had to put on a big act and convince the adversary that your swapper was worth ''boot.'' If you could swap your swapper even Stephen with a one-cent boot, you'd maneuvered a magnificent victory. And there was always the chance the swapper you got was better than the one you gave.

So Reuben Small was at the fair with only his swapper, and he began operating by the cattle sheds. He stepped right into good fortune. He swapped his swapper for a better swapper and a lead pencil to boot, and then he ran into a cattle judge from the state university, who had just lost his lead pencil. Reuben got 10 cents in money for the pencil, and settled down to a serious day's work.

Methodically, he worked the crowds at the exhibition halls and sheds and had gone up and down the midway by noon, when he moved to the beef- and lobster-stew tents to catch folks who hadn't brought a basket lunch. There had been a faker giving away Swiss cuckoo clocks if he didn't guess your weight, and Reuben now had 24 cuckoo clocks, which he swapped for a wagon to put his other things in.

So the day went, and besides a large inventory of odds and ends, Reuben had gotten his own swapper back and two dozen other swappers. That's the kind of a trader Reuben Small was.

Just about dark, Reuben came by our place and stopped in for his three games of checkers with Gramp.

Reuben had swapped the wagon for a Nova Scotia cradle hayrack, and the hayrack was full of churns, separators, corn planters, stakes for tomato plants, berry baskets, maple-sap pails, shingles, two McLellan saddles, a scythe with grain cradle, vinegar jugs, and random items too numerous to mention. Even a box of slate pencils.

Pulling the rack was a handsome yoke of Red Durham oxen. My grandfather asked Reuben what he planned to do with the slate pencils. Reuben said, ''I don't know; I just thought I should get all I could.''

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