It’s one of the apparent contradictions of life. Some small things aren’t worth worrying about; others might appear to be miniscule, but are of vital consequence. Knowing how to tell the difference is sometimes difficult, though vital. Which brings us to another wise saying: Choose your battles.
But instead of going off on a rampage on the subject, I’ve decided to share with you a portion of a chapter from one of my unpublished novels that illustrates how sometimes, a minor detail can become unexpectedly significant. There’s no moral to this story, it’s just a fact; something as small as a missing horseshoe nail can cause an army to lose a war.
This is from an early version of Mom’s Mirror. You’ll notice a lot of “telling” rather than “showing.” The protagonist, born in 1919, is speaking with her daughter, reminiscing about a childhood incident that changed her life forever. That’s why it’s so “telly:” I imagined the mother sitting down and telling the story to the daughter and thought of the story as dialog rather than action. I’m not saying this is the best way to do it, but I was a newbie when I wrote this, and it made sense at the time.
Okay, no more excuses/disclaimers; let’s get on with it! Sit back, listen, and enjoy hearing Mom tell her daughter about how, when she was ten years old, she went on a road trip with her family to visit her uncle in Virginia:
The trip took three days, during which my impatience grew. We spent our last night in Beckley, West Virginia, in a motor hotel. The boys had one room and I shared another with our parents.
We awoke in the morning to the sound of thunder—distant, but getting closer. Mom scurried about, urging us to leave before the storm hit.
My brothers took forever getting packed, so I went in to spur them along. Somewhere in my harangue, I commented that my suitcase was heavy, like a ton of bricks.
Gerald said his was heavier. I lifted his bag and scoffed. “That’s not a ton of bricks, it’s a ton of feathers!”
Thus ensued one of the stupidest debates you’ve ever heard: which is heavier? a ton of feathers, or a ton of bricks? How could those boys insist they weighed the same? Everyone knows bricks are heavier than feathers.
The discussion grew heated. Dad came in to see what the ruckus was all about, and we appealed to his authority in settling the argument. Once he got me to understand that a ton was two thousand pounds no matter what that ton was comprised of, I felt pretty foolish.
My brothers chortled with glee. “You lose! You’ve got to carry the suitcase!”
I sputtered my objections, and they brayed all the more until Dad broke in. “I don’t care who carries it. Just pack it up, and let’s get out of here. It’ll be pouring rain any minute.”
He was right. It was growing dark and the wind was gusting. I voted for everyone to carry his or her own suitcase, but with my brothers’ insistence and my parents’ prodding us to hurry, I relented. Generous brother that he was, Gerald crammed as many of Gregory’s things into his suitcase as he could in order to make it heavier. At a loud clap of thunder, everyone scurried out to the car. Gerald, of course, left his bag behind for me.
I couldn’t carry both my ton of bricks and Gerald’s ton of feathers at the same time, so I took my own out to the car first, threw it into the trunk, and ran back to the room to get Gerald’s just as the rain began. Then I thought I’d better use the facilities before we left, and the storm hit with a fury while I was in the bathroom.
Dad laid on the horn and I ran down to the car through the storm, forgetting about Gerald’s bag. We traveled for several minutes through the torrent, thinking of little but the violent storm. After that, all we could think about was breakfast. At breakfast, I remembered the suitcase.
The sensible thing would have been to confess my mistake before we got any farther down the road. But I knew my parents would be sore, and my brothers would be contemptuous, so I didn’t say a word. Just let us continue on our way with the suitcase falling farther behind.
I don’t mean to say I never said a word. I said plenty of words, but none of them were the right ones. After the storm ended, the sun broke through and it grew unbearably hot. No air conditioning in those days, of course, and even with the windows open it was a miserable, sticky ride.
But I was miserable for reasons other than the temperature. Gerald’s suitcase was back in Beckley, and no one knew it but me. The difficulties I’d caused compounded with every mile, and that secret knowledge made me even more irritable than the weather. I’m afraid I wasn’t a pleasant traveling companion.
By the time we pulled into Uncle Teddy’s tree-lined lane, we were a soggy, sorry lot, having spent the sweltering hours since our lunch break in hot close quarters and hot disagreement about everything. We were relieved to abandon the car for the relative coolness of Teddy’s spacious house and refresh ourselves with Mary’s iced lemonade.
“What do you say you folks freshen up, then we can have an early supper,” Teddy suggested. “After our food’s settled a bit, we can go for a nice evening swim. How’s that sound?”
Mom and Dad agreed, and my brothers and I clamored with excitement. We didn’t get to go swimming very often at home.
“Well then, good, it’s settled. But for now, I’m heading out to the barn to see to the horseshoeing. I left the farrier out there alone, and he might need my help. I’ll see you back here for supper at six.”
Teddy’s house was a veritable mansion. His servants had already carried the bags to the guest rooms, and we all trooped up the winding staircase to sort things out. I didn’t scamper up with my usual tomboy gusto, though, for I knew my hour of doom approached. The missing bag was about to be discovered.
As indeed it was. What a howl Gerald let out, and what a row ensued. A phone call confirmed the suitcase was left in the motel room, but Dad wasn’t about to drive back to get it that day. The proprietor agreed to hold it until we passed through on our way home later in the week. Meanwhile, Gerald could make do with what remained in Gregory’s suitcase. Except for swimsuits—both the boys’ suits were in Gerald’s bag in West Virginia. There was nothing for it but to drive to the nearest town and buy the boys new swim trunks.
My family was thoroughly disgusted with me. I felt bad about it, but being in the wrong made me angry, and I refused to apologize. I couldn’t bear the thought of getting back into that hot, smelly car with them again. I fumed and pouted, and they readily agreed to leave me at Teddy’s and go buy the swimsuits without me. They were no more eager for my company just then than I was for theirs.
I sat at the top of the front porch steps and watched the dust billow from the tires as our car sped down the lane. The engine’s rumble grew distant and the dust drifted in gentle swirls as I sat and scowled. I’d been so looking forward to coming here, but things sure had gone sour. The more I thought about it, the angrier I got. Angry with myself for letting the suitcase get left behind, angry with my family for making such a big deal out of it, angry with the world for being so unfair.
From my private gloom, I observed the blacksmith leaving, raising another cloud of smoky dust as if the heat set his tires aflame. And then Uncle Teddy emerged from the barn.
He headed toward the house with a purposeful stride that I found acutely unsettling. Although he hadn’t witnessed the recent events, I knew Aunt Mary had promptly and dutifully apprised him, in painful detail, of everything that had transpired.
I was in awe of my uncle and considered him one of the greatest living Americans, but he was a no-nonsense kind of guy. He had definite ideas about discipline, and as I watched him approach, looming ever larger—and he was a big man—my worry grew in proportion.
Neither Mom nor Dad was strict with us, and that lapse of theirs was something my uncle made no bones about: he didn’t approve. It was possible that, since this problem had been quite literally set on his doorstep, he might desire to deal with the matter in his own way. Favorite uncle or not, my heart quailed at his approach. I was tempted to get up and run, but I had nowhere to go. So I sat tight and braced myself for whatever might come.
Rattling something absently in a loosely clasped hand, he stopped when he reached the porch and pinned me to the step with a riveting blue stare.
“Ghaaanevieve,” he said, drawing out the first syllable of my name.
[Blogger’s Note: her name is Genevieve, pronounced the French way, like Jahn-vee-EV.]
I felt I should jump to attention and salute with a sharp Yes sir! But instead, I tore my eyes away from that penetrating gaze, looked down at my feet, and returned, “Uuuuncle Teddy.” It was hardly the appropriate response, and I expected him to come up and belt me.
I waited, feeling his looming presence at the bottom of the steps. After an agonizing pause, he slowly mounted the stairs.
I tried not to wince.
But he merely settled himself on the step beside me. “So tell me, Miss Genevieve, why was it you who forgot your suitcase, but your brothers who are missing their swim trunks?”
Expecting wrath, I was surprised at the question. “Because it was Gerald’s suitcase, not mine.”
“But I thought you forgot the baggage?”
I explained about the argument. But I still didn’t look up. His boots looked positively enormous next to my little shoes on the step.
“And what was this fight about, may I ask?”
With considerable embarrassment, I told him about the ton of bricks versus the ton of feathers. He laughed, until he saw I was offended. Then, to my surprise, he put his long arm around my shoulders and hugged me to his side. I liked his horsey smell.
“Well, Miss Genevieve, it seems to me that if it was Gerald’s suitcase, Gerald should have seen to it that it got loaded. Don’t you agree?”
I nodded, relieved by his unexpected understanding but still burdened by the guilt of unconfessed sin. After all, I had remembered the bag early enough in the trip that we could have gone back for it, but I’d neglected to say anything.
“Sounds to me like a classic case of much ado about nothing,” Uncle Teddy said. “When your family gets back, I know you’ll apologize to all of them for your forgetfulness. And for being so pouty. The way I hear it, you haven’t exactly been a sweet little thing through all this, have you?”
I shrugged. “Mebbe not.”
“And that should settle the issue. Am I right?”
“Yes, sir.” I wasn’t too keen on the apology part, but I supposed I could muster something.
“Attention to detail, though,” he went on. “That’s something that can’t be neglected. Sometimes it’s the little things, the things that don’t seem so important, that can make all the difference.” He opened his hand to show me what he was holding. “Know what this is?”
“Looks like a nail.”
“That’s right. The kind that fastens the shoe to a horse’s foot. Do you know the rhyme about the horseshoe nail?”
“I don’t think so.”
He recited: “For want of a nail, the shoe was lost. For want of the shoe, the horse was lost. For want of the horse, the rider was lost. For want of the rider, the sword was lost. For want of the sword, the battle was lost. All for the want of a horseshoe nail.”
He put the nail in my hand. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do with it, so I just looked at it.
“Do you understand what that means, little lady?”
I nodded. “A nail was missing so the horse threw a shoe, so the guy who was gonna ride it couldn’t, and the battle was lost ’cause that guy couldn’t fight in it. But couldn’t he have got another horse from somewhere? And how come they lost the whole battle just ’cause one guy wasn’t there?”
Uncle Teddy laughed. “You just might be too smart for your own good.” I’d been told that before, but the way Teddy said it, it sounded like a compliment. “The point is, you never can tell how one little thing out of place might affect the final outcome. Attention to detail is very important. As we found out with the suitcase. Right?”
“Well, no harm done this time. You just make a nice apology like a good girl, and by this time tomorrow, it’ll all be forgotten.”
But Uncle Teddy was mistaken about that.
Somewhere between his house and Lexington, there’s a place where the road winds down a hill, with a railroad crossing at the bottom. It just so happened that on that evening, a delivery truck lost its brakes while going down that hill. And it just so happened that my family’s car was stopped at the bottom, waiting for an approaching train. The truck plowed into the back of the car, ramming it onto the tracks just as the train reached the crossing. The car was flattened, along with everyone in it.
For want of the brakes, my family was lost. But as far as I was concerned, it was all for the want of a horseshoe nail—the suitcase—that I had left behind.