Friday, November 22, 2013

The Dawn of the Hex Wrench

We were changing the oil in the old wagon.

"Go upstairs and ask your mother for a butter knife," Dad told me.  I looked at the Hulk and felt a sinking in my stomach.  I could already hear the response, the refusal, the retort (Mom makes a thhh sound, and sends me back with a challenge: "Mom says to say what are you using it for and can't you use something else").

Then my dad would heave himself out from under the car where he was lying on flattened cardboard instead of the "slick" rolling car mechanic's "creeper" he desperately wanted.  Upstairs three at a time he'd go.  The Hulk and I would be on our knees, one to hold the light directly in Dad's eyes, the other to slide him poor excuses for tools.

While he was away we'd pass any gas we'd been holding ("the LAST thing I need is for you boys to be pooting in my face while I'm trying concentrate," my dad would say if we'd do it while he was struggling with something that would have been done in a snap if he'd had the correct tool).  And we'd hear a quick, quite direct exchange between the lords of tools, then Dad would slam the door and come bounding downstairs with the desired--but definitely not sufficient--butter knife.

I'd seen this happen enough that I learned to simply steal the butter knife from my mother. 

Surely this is what my father wanted, despite his carefully worded direction to me "ask your mother." 

Still, my theft and drama-free bringing of the butter knife never led to Dad's rejoicing.  It was, after all, not really the right tool for the job. 

"Jesus Jenny," Dad would say as I slid him the knife on the cardboard. "If only. I had. The right tools."

This was the usual Saturday morning in my childhood.  One of his sons holding a flashlight directly into Dad's eyes, he struggling with one of infinite household mechanical challenges and all of us in mental anguish, possibly involving the stealing of silverware.
fix the lawnmower...
split firewood...
patch a hole, from my head, in the drywall (I'd been "acting the fool")...
tightening a belt...
wiring a ceiling fan.

How many tools we lacked!

Good tools were "slick."  "Look at that!" Dad would point to a guy using an appropriate tool, a tool we never had.  "Slick!"

Over time, things changed. 

Our familial development, as users of tools, resembles the progression of human history from Stone Age to information age:  bashing things with blunt instruments until very recently.

From Paleolithic 1970s through the Neolithic 1980s we slowly progressed toward a fully contemporary familial toolkit.

In our Stone Age we had to do everything with about ten devices, all of which fit in a metal toolbox  child could carry (and we did): a couple of screwdrivers, an old beer can, a ball peen hammer and channel locks. We had a wood maul whose handle usually held firm.

Gradually, enough Christmases passed where Dad was blessed with vise grips and screw guns and Dremels, where we built a wooden worktable with shelves, and we scored a large tool box--a plastic tray thing with room for old screws and finishing nails and rusty nubs of things.

The most glorious development was the peg board.  Up went the 4' level, the hack saw, the miter saw, the drywall and mason's trowels, the claw hammer, the carpenter's square, the circular ratchety thing that gripped the oil filter, and a dowel for a blue roll of paper towels that was my dad's special "howyoulikemeknow!" to my mom, who resisted the appropriation for man-use her kitchen supply of paper towels like they were gold foil.  I can still recall my dad's satisfaction mopping up some oil with his big blue towels.  "Oh yeah.  Go ahead.  Unroll that blue.  Good stuff, isn't it?  Better than your mother's." 

When it came to tools and our lack of them, the woman was always "your mother."

Historians point to the printing press as the sole inspiration for the Reformation, suggesting that, without it, Luther's radical ideas would not have been spread.  But they forget a second element: increased literacy, allowing folks to read what Luther wrote.

A similar confluence, the creation of eBay and my father getting a new, higher paying job, led my father on his own Reformation.  It was quite interesting. I'd come home from a semester and find huge floor to ceiling bins with sliding trays--each tray packed with perfectly aligned sockets in both metric and inches--and workbenches and another lawn tractor.

"Picked up the whole cabinet for nothing, tools included.  Had to drive down to Ohio to get it [he was living in upstate New York at the time.] These old guys die off and their kids put their stuff up on eBay."
Dad now has a triple-wide garage and three floor-to-ceiling tool cabinets.  He has an air compressor with dozens of attachments, including a paint gun, with which he has stripped and re-painted two lawn tractors, slathering more coats than the space shuttle received to insure safe re-orbit.

The lawn tractors themselves are tool planets around which smaller tools orbit: tillers, mowers, lifts, and other attachments, including a wagon he built with his welder.

Yes, he has a welder and a torch.  One Christmas he practically forced me into fusing two metal plates together.

Last year we bought him a bike, and he soon acquired a Sheldon Brown-esque bike tool kit.  Working on bikes in Dad's garage is fantastic.  That bottom bracket tool, that's slick.

The one tool that remains, the one he's saving for retirement, is a Bobcat. 

A Bobcat will complete his tool collection; it will mean very few jobs on earth remain, for which he is not equipped, tool-wise. 

Me, I'm still in the Stone Age. So many tools to hanker over.  So many butter knives to steal.  Or I can just hope Dad moves nearby and we can rip through the neighbor's landscaping on the Bobcat job, lickety split, with those front and rear attachments. 

You've never seen anything so slick.

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