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Battle Cry of an eBay Warrior

Sometimes a man has to fight
for what he thinks is right

eBay logo It's 3 a.m. and I've still got my computer mouse in a death grip. The poor thing's been there, locked in my sweaty paw for hours now. It would take a tiny jaws-of-life machine to pry it free. Five minutes more to go. My body may be permanently contorted, tilted toward the glaring computer screen, shoulders hunched and frozen. It feels like someone tucked a baseball under my right eyelid. My neck throbs, My butt aches. I haven't had this much fun in ages.

In four minutes and 37 seconds it will all be over. Winner take all. Either I will own this authentic 1815 letter signed by Washington's secretary Tobias Lear, or some geek in Ohio will get it. There's only two of us left in the bidding war on eBay.com and this is a duel to the death. I've registered a maximum bid of $65, but the total is holding at $59.

What's left of my good eye is trained on the timer. I tap RELOAD and - horror of horrors - the guy, or maybe the lady in Ohio has upped the ante. The computer now shows a high bid of $64, but it's my money, I know because my eBay password is still on the screen. Mr. Ohio bid a few bucks and the automated systems took a bigger chunk of what I had secretly set aside. But there's three minutes left. Plenty of time for my nemesis to pop in another offer. The veins on my neck are as taut and thick as a Cardassian warrior on "Star Trek Deep Space 9", but this is no time to relax. I tune my muscles even tighter. My left eye begins to flutter and my leg, which went numb hours ago, begins to twitch like it belonged to a sleeping dog. All the while my cat, curled up at the back of the computer table, does not move or make a sound.

Penny Dreadful What I win, if I win this auction, is a chunk of local history. It will be mine, all mine -- not something in a glass museum case. To be honest, I'm not much of consumer. I don't even own a TV and have gone years without a car, decent clothes and most major appliances. I don't own a DVD player, a Garden Weasel, a power lawnmower or a bagel toaster - but I want this Tobias Lear letter bad. It's dated October 11, 1815, exactly one year before he committed suicide for reasons unknown.

I'm not an online auction addict. I got over that. I don't read eBay Magazine, wear their logo T-shirts or have a surgically implanted wireless remote bidding device. I don't sport a bumper sticker that reads "I sold my soul on eBay." I've never sold a thing there and I'm not inclined to bid on human sperm, levitation exercises, pheromone oil or pay millions for a new web address. There are, at this moment, 4,212,508 items for sale on eBay in 4,320 categories, and right now -- I only want one.

It's all about sensation, really, not possession. I am what you might call a history hedonist. I enjoy experiencing the past. I like movies that are expertly set in other eras. If there were time machines, I'd never log on to the Internet again. So I travel, whenever possible, to local historic places to catch the feel and scent and fading images of the past.

Last weekend I was in Salem with a friend, climbing up the secret corkscrew stairway behind the central fireplace in Hawthorne's "House of Seven Gables." We did the shabby witch museum and watched a mannequin tableaux as a spooky narrator talked about the witch trials of 1692. The week before it was the Harvard Museum in Boston and before that a tour of Longfellow's birthplace in Portland, Maine. I draw a lot of energy from the historic houses of this region, but in the winter, most are buttoned up tight, forcing me, to seek my hedonistic thrills elsewhere.

And so I have been driven, much against my will, to the electronic shores of Ebay where I angle for thrills, waiting out the last days of winter and the return of the historic house season. Even as a sportsman, I'm here for the sensation, not the kill ; I'm more the catch-and-release kind of guy. Someday, when I am done with this Tobias Lear letter, it will find its way to a local historical archive. The same is true for my collection of John Paul Jones ephemera, including the recent acquisition of a Scottish "penny dreadful" from the 1850s called "Paul Jones the Pirate." In this very rare and fragile little booklet, Jones is described as having come to "Piscataway in New England." That's us. That's here. And that's where this little volume will remain long after my electronic angling days are done.

John Smith Doll Sometimes I get nuts, like anyone. There was the time, in my John Smith phase, that I bought a John Smith doll. Last week I bought a lobby poster from the 1959 movie version of John Paul Jones. It's on its way now from Mexico City, and it's all in Spanish. I've purchased old postcards, a couple of coins, trinkets from the Isles of Shoals, a century-old glass paperweight of Kennebunkport. They lie strewn around the office like trophies, and each time I touch one, the thrill of the conquest returns.

I must have dozed! With less than two minutes to closing the bid has jumped to $75, and worse, two new bidders have appeared. They must have been camouflaged in the underbrush waiting to ambush me in the final seconds. I've seen it happen before. You can watch an online auction languish for a week with no bids at all, then see it shoot to hundreds of dollars at the last instant. These new guys appear to be working in Pacific Time, hoping to catch me nodding in the East, but it's not going to be so easy. Yankees can endure untold amounts of boredom and discomfort. We're bred for it.

It's time to pull out my secret weapon! I've already created a backup higher bid by opening a separate window on my high speed browser. My special Ebay password and User ID were pre-loaded with a new maximum price. I have another, even higher bid in readiness. I know I am mixing my metaphors, but I am too pumped up to care. My partner has taped a message to the computer screen that says "Breathe". I try, but it is not possible.

And I wait. This is what being a man is all about. I tap the RELOAD button methodically every five seconds, watching the clock wind down. The current bid lies motionless with 55 seconds to go. Not yet. I wait. With my partially mangled left hand, I manage a sip of GatorAde from a squeeze bottle. RELOAD. There are 45 seconds left-RELOAD --- 25 seconds left... then.... I strike!

Before you can say "George Washington" I've tapped in a higher offer of $81.50. My hand nearly slips off the mouse, slick with perspiration as the clock ticks down to the wire. RELOAD. My User ID and bid pop up on the screen, obliterating the previous bidder. I can hear the agonized cries as the truth ricochets around the planet, striking my doomed opponents one by one.

3, 2, 1, RELOAD. The blazing red font appears on the screen. "Auction has ended." It's all over. Another Seacoast trophy will be on its way home in a few days by snail mail.

"I'm coming for you Tobias!" I shout, and the cat wakes so suddenly she falls from the computer table where she has been sleeping for hours. The cat glares up angrily, watching, as I struggle to rise, peel my fingers from around the plastic mouse, and breathe the sweet stale air of victory.

By J. Dennis Robinson

Click to see the ACTUAL Tobias Lear Letter!

Copyright 2000 SeacoastNH.com
All rights reserved

Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.

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