Surveying `Da Situation: An Unexpected Gift

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I believe we have all heard stories or had personal experiences of feeling as though someone close that we have lost reached out to touch us in some way. I had just that kind of experience recently.

Back in the mid 1960s, my Dad was a deputy in the local sheriff’s department. He had that job for several years until he found another one that paid a little better and freed up his weekends. Well, the county jail during this time was built in the 1890s and in everyone’s eyes had outlived its usefulness. A new jail was being planned and the old one would be torn down. The sheriff told my father to get a work crew of some of the "guests" of the jail and start cleaning out the basement of the 80-plus years of accumulation. While Dad was doing this, he spied something mostly buried in one of the corners. As he dug around a little bit, he discovered it was an old slot machine with markings from the early 1920s. It wasn’t in very good shape and was missing its handle, but Dad saw a project in the making.

He went to the sheriff and told him about what he found and wanted to know what he should do with it. The sheriff didn’t know it was there and it more than likely had come from some long ago raid and he didn’t want it around. It was almost reelection time and he didn’t need any of the churchgoers finding out there was a one-armed bandit (minus the arm) residing at the county jail. He told Dad to just get rid of it and that’s how it showed up at our house that afternoon. I don’t believe Dad was too worried about churchgoers.

He spent a fair amount of time working to get the machine back in running order. He had a friend who had worked on old slot machines in years past and they found a handle that wasn’t the right one, but it fit, and eventually they got it working. I can still remember the old machine in our family room ready to receive any stray nickels from your pocket. As grandkids came along, it became a favorite of theirs to sit with "Grandpa Poncho" and play the slot machine. Dad always had a plastic bowl with nickels for the grandkids, but the rule was all nickels won went back in the bowl for the next visit.

The slot machine hummed along for many years and kids and grandkids alike spent time learning about the finer points of slot gaming. In the late 1980s it stopped working once again and even though he tried several times, Dad just couldn’t seem to get it working again. So, it sat in its rightful spot in the family room more as a reminder of a different time than anything else.

I lost my Dad in 1995 and while he wasn’t Ward Cleaver, he taught me a lot of things. Besides all things outdoors, he taught me the value of hard work and that of a dollar as well as not being afraid to help friends. I remember sitting around the kitchen table with my family shortly after he passed away and my mother out of the blue looking at me and saying, "Dad wanted you to have the slot machine." Stuff was the last thing on my mind and I really hadn’t given the slot machine two thoughts for many years. I was about to offer it to one of my other siblings when my Mom spoke up again and said, "It was one of the few things he spoke of, but he wanted you to have it." That was enough for me and home it came. It has lived in my workshop under a sheet since 1995 until just recently.

Over the years I did some research on it as well as places to repair it, but I just never seemed to follow through, until this year. For some reason, a few months ago, I thought about that machine sitting in my shop all covered up and decided it was time to make it right again. I actually found a restoration expert who was only about an hour away from me and after emailing him for a bit, I knew he was the right man for the job. He was very upfront on the timing and the cost and after he heard the story of its history, he too felt it needed to be back in working and restored order. When I told him I planned to take it back to the Upper Peninsula to be at my place on Lake Gogebic, he thought there was nothing more appropriate than to take it home. I agreed.

About two months or so after I dropped it off I received an email telling me it was complete and ready for pickup. Along with the email were several pictures of the restored machine and it looked great. Steph and I went down the very next Saturday to pick it up. When I got to Bill’s shop and saw his work firsthand, it looked even better than the pictures. He had done a superb job and it worked beautifully. I was thanking him for all his hard work when he asked if I knew about the note. I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. He told me he found a note in the machine and wondered if I knew it was there. I am not sure I was ever inside the machine, so I knew I had never seen a note. Bill smiled as he unlocked the back and pulled out a cigar box full of nickels that had been in the machine for some time. In the bottom of the box was a folded up piece of paper that was beautifully handwritten and simply said, "Boys, there are exactly 9 rolls of nickels in this box and they are worth $18. There had better be the same amount in this box the next time I check it." It was signed "Dad" and was dated January 30, 1981.

I guess Dad was just protecting his investment. It brought a few tears to my eyes as all the memories of the work he put into the machine over the years, and of all the work he put into me as well came flooding back. I am not sure why I chose this year to have the slot machine restored or why I didn’t go through it myself, but I suspect there was a reason. I also believe Dad still isn’t done teaching me a few things and I can’t wait for the next lesson.

And that’s the situation as I survey it . . . .

John Matonich is the President and CEO of Rowe Professional Services Company, Inc. and is a licensed surveyor in Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin. He is Chairman of the Joint Gov’t Affairs Committee of ACSM, Past President of NSPS and currently an At-Large Director of the Wisconsin Society of Land Surveyors.

A 269Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE