The Rock Tumbler

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, March 14, 2012

I come from a long, distinguished line of Dutch rock hounds. My paternal grandfather followed General Patton from Algiers to Tunisia through Sicily to Rome, decided he'd seen enough of the world and spent the rest of his life vacationing only along the southern shores of Lake Superior, hauling away buckets of agates and pink-speckled granites and a few cherished Petoskey stones. My grandmother still has a glass-topped coffee table displaying a selection of polished semi-precious stones from their lifetime of beachcombing. My uncle took up the call at some point and the soundtrack to every visit to my cousins' house was the churning drone of the rock tumbler in their garage. I swear that thing ran continuously for years.

We've hauled back our share of rocks carefully culled from thousands of others along the big lake where we've rented a cottage two summers in a row. They've been sitting in our basement in an old beach pail. Every month my daughter asks when the rock polisher I ordered will arrive. I must have told her I ordered one once to get her to quit hollering (hoping she would forget about it). I never really intended to buy a rock polisher; that seemed sort of like paying $150 for the sonic equivalent of a migraine (we do not have a garage for exiling unwanted noises). I knew we would have to live with this hypothetical rock tumbler the way horses learn to live with eye flies and Canadians learn to live with Nickelback. I figured I still had three or four more lies left in me about the postman dropping the last tumbler or a major grit shortage in Panama when I saw a brand new kid-size rock tumbler for sale in the toy department at Value World right before her birthday. Finding anything that doesn't look and feel like it's been dipped in maple syrup in the toy department at Value World is about as common as finding a cache of raw diamonds on the shores of Lake Erie. I always stand my kids before that massive, sloppy menagerie of mute Dora the Explorers, nude faux-barbies, ammo-less Nerf guns, and stuffed versions of characters from three dozen animated movies they've never seen and benevolently announce, "Anything you want, kids! Anything at all!" There's nothing like the toy department at Value World to discourage any desire my children might have for new toys. They always walk away dejected, sort of how I felt whenever I left my rock-tumbling uncle's house after spending a few hours in the basement room they'd turned into Scrooge McDuck's vault with broken toys instead of golden coins. My four rock-tumbling cousins were all boys, and plastic toys in their household had a shorter lifespan than the mayfly, which may have something to do with why my uncle sought the invulnerability of stones. The toy department at Value World, like my cousins' basement, is where Christmas dreams go when they die.

I had just seen the same Smithsonian-brand Rock Tumbler at the real store for $49.99. This one was marked $1.80, and inside my heart a dozen tiny little Dutchmen suddenly held hands and circled gleefully while kicking their little wooden clogs high up in the air. Huzzah! I opened the box: everything was there except one missing bag of grit. Whoever had donated the toy also mysteriously included a half-empty tub of Vaseline. I didn't think much about that until the rock tumbler was in the back of our station wagon on its way to its new home. I assumed that petroleum jelly was part of the polishing process. But if that was the case, why did it appear that the rest of the set was intact, while the Vaseline itself was half gone? I knew it was too good to be true. It turns out you really can't buy anything in the toy department at Value World that won't leave a greasy film on your fingertips.

So I left the rock tumbler in the car for a few weeks because it creeped me out. On my daughter's birthday I said, "Oh yeah, I got you a rock tumbler, too. It's out in the car and I am afraid to touch it." A few weeks later during a spell of deep winter doldrums, I finally dragged out the rocks and daintily set up the tumbler in our downstairs bathroom. What I'd hoped would be an engaging full-afternoon activity with the kids took about fifteen minutes before we were done and even with the door closed it  sounded like someone was working an open-pit gold mine in our bathroom. To dispel my children of their mistaken belief that they would have polished sapphires and emeralds running through their fingers within the hour, I explained that we were speeding up a process that might take thousands of years in nature and we had to be patient. Not knowing exactly how patient we had to be, I turned to the printed instructions and read that the first stage took 2-4 days, the second 12-14, and the final polishing stage 7-8 days.

"Well, shit," I thought.

You know those polished rocks they sell by the bagful at Ye Olde Tourist Traps around the country for $4.99 a bag? I did the math. Totally a good deal. After a few days, the constant sound of the rock tumbler really put me on edge. I was mumbling to myself like a Poe character. While trying to sleep at my night I would just sit there listening to it. I imagined sinister dwarfs churning out mysterious, evil mechanisms in a nightmarish factory. I shoved the rock tumbler deep into one of the drawers and closed it but I still heard it turning and rumbling and turning. I thought about unplugging it but remembered the warning in the instructions that if unplugged, the grit mixture would turn to concrete. Like sharks, rock tumblers must keep moving. I could not let all I had suffered be for naught! While doing the recycling I saw the cardboard box it came in. Make Beautiful Jewelry! it said. Rough Rocks Tumple Inside Until Smooth and Jewel-like!" Enjoy your handful of worthless polished rocks after one full month of insanity-inducing noise that also runs up your electricity bill! the box should have said. A dozen tiny, dispirited Dutchmen clutched each others' shoulders and grieved inside my heart. 

Still it churned and churned.

After 22 days of tumbling and polishing, we unplugged the tiny machine and absorbed the silence. We opened the barrel, washed away the milky polish, and dried the handful of tiny rocks in a towel.

"Wow," one said. "Oh, cool rocks," said the other. Then, in unison: "Now can we go out to play?"