Tuesday, July 22, 2014
Saturday, July 19, 2014
|Chester T. Raymo—Chattanooga, 1927.|
Why did he keep it in the basement? Why not in a place of honor, on the bookcase in the living room, for example. I never asked. I would never have dared to ask. But I had an intuition that it had something to do with my mother, perhaps her claim of priority in matters of domestic decoration.
They were married in September 1935, almost exactly a year before I was born. She was the girl from across the street in Chattanooga, the oldest of nine children, eight girls in a row, then a boy. She too had recently lost her father, to pneumonia. Of the Dietzen siblings, my mother was something of the intellectual prodigy, the only one of the girls to go to university, where she majored in English literature and graduated in three years. Her intellect and her independence were formidable, and it appears she had some difficulty adjusting to the sometimes dreary plod of wifery and motherhood. Perhaps banishing Dad’s model ship to the basement of our new house in the Chattanooga suburbs established a bit of territory she could claim as her own.
Their honeymoon photograph shows a handsome smiling couple. They went off to Schenectady, New York, where my father took a job as an X-ray technician with General Electric, and was most proud, he later told me, of inventing a new kind of versatile mount for the X-ray machine. The stay in New York did not last long. Was it the cold weather or homesickness that send the newlyweds scurrying south? I suspect it was the latter, on my mother’s part.
The best record I have of this part of their lives is a little account book kept by Dad’s mother. On the inside cover is written: “Chester, as you know, our rule was, one family fund for all income and all expenses, until each child reached his or her 21st birthday. Here you will find a strict account of all loans made to you, and all credits due you, from your 21st birthday to date. I have kept a similar account for Arthur, Roger and Charlotte. Love, Mum.” Most of the early entries are outgoing expenses to my father, mostly “Cash for school” and small regular amounts for life insurance. There’s $25 for Tau Beta Phi, the engineering honor society, and other advances for suits, shirts and shoe repair. In December 1932 his mother writes, “Finished school, Thank God!” Still, there follow four months of advances while my father was out of work due to the Great Depression. In June, 1933, he starts working again for American Lava Corporation and regular monthly payments of $5 or $10 start flowing back into the family account. Then, more advances as the wedding approaches in September of 1935, including $25 to Father Sullivan of Saint Peter’s and Paul’s Catholic Church in Chattanooga for performing the ceremony. The ledger is blank for the next three years, as the young married couple struggles to survive on their own, but in 1938, two years after I was born, Dad’s “Mum” is still paying her son’s laundry bills and advancing 50 cents for a blue shirt and $1.53 for a lost library book. The Second World War and the industrial needs of the military seems to have at last conferred financial independence on my engineer father. The account book records that he was advanced $960.19 more than he paid back.
In 1941, on the eve of the war, my parents moved into a spanking new house in the suburbs of Chattanooga, Tennessee, the quintessential American dream house of the 1940s. A half-acre lot on a quiet street with a bus stop on the corner, white asbestos shingles, blue shutters, dormer windows upstairs, detached garage—what every middle-class American aspired to. In 1948, RKO released a popular comedy called Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, with Cary Grant and Myrna Loy; our house was a more modest version of what Hollywood in the 1940s imagined to be ideal. My father even had a little room upstairs for his photography hobby (which would soon be taken over as a bedroom for his growing family). I dare say he would have liked to have built the house himself if he had had the time, which he didn’t. But he did have the big backyard that he could improve at his leisure.
|The Raymo house—Chattanooga, 1941.|
The backyard would also be the American dream. A white picket fence around the whole thing. A badminton court. Rose bushes. A barbecue pit. Brick pathways. A Victory garden. I remember the tools. A manual lawnmower (was there any other kind?). A roller for the badminton court that you filled with water. A hand-pushed plow for the garden. There were lots of odd bits of wood too, leftovers from the picket fence, from which I could bang together toy boats and airplanes. The backyard was, for the duration of the war at least, a handyman’s heaven, for father and son, with lots of projects going on at once. I’m puzzled at this late date how he managed to get the wood he needed for the picket fence. Wouldn’t that have been hard to come by during the war? The bricks for the paths were no problem; on the vacant property next door was “The Brick Pile.”
A rather substantial home once stood where building lots were now being sold by the family that had once owned all the land thereabouts. The house had been demolished before my parents’ arrival on the scene, and the materials stacked and stored in “The Brick Pile,” “The Wood Pile,” and “The Shed”—all of which lay just beyond our picket fence. There was no end of things to do with the bricks, but most of what I built with my neighborhood pals had to do with the war—pill boxes, forts, gun emplacements. “The Wood Pile” became a battleship or PT-boat. “The Shed” was supposed to be off-limits, but we found our way in, and snitched ex-banister posts to use as machine guns. If my father wanted to pass on to me his handyman skills, he could not have chosen a better place to build his house.
As a promotion for the film Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, RKO built seventy-three full-scale replicas of the eponymous house in cities around the country and raffled them off. One of the replicas was just a few blocks from our home in Chattanooga. It was quite the hit when it opened, with half the city driving by to see. It was classy, all right, but it didn’t have a “Brick Pile” or a “Wood Pile” or a “Shed”. Or a workbench in the basement made from a dismantled coal bin. It’s hard for me to imagine Cary Grant as a handyman, although I’m sure he could have played one if the role required. He was just a bit too suave to do for himself what he could hire professional craftsmen to do. By the time the landscapers had finished with the Hollywood dream house around the corner, our backyard was already starting to show the first signs of a genteel decrepitude, a slight fraying of the American dream, but everything there—the brick paths, the picket fence, the badminton court, the Victory garden—was the product of a handyman’s hand.
Saturday, July 12, 2014
My engineer father, like his two brothers, Arthur and Roger, one older, one younger, seem destined for engineering from the first glimpses we have of them in the family records—handy, deft, intrigued with toys that test mechanical skills. There was a sister too, Charlotte, who became a bookkeeper at the Chattanooga Public Library.
Nature and nurture are always tightly entwined, perhaps especially so for handymen of my father’s generation. Boys got Erector Sets for Christmas and girls got dolls. It was assumed that boys would go to college and study technical subjects, and girls stay home and learn domestic arts. But was culture responding to innate male and female predispositions, or was “the handyman” a purely cultural construction? In either case, the word “handywoman” wasn’t in the dictionary. Like all questions of nature and nurture, then or now, the threads are devilishly difficult to pick apart. My father’s propensity for engineering, and that of his brothers, could have come from their own father, Arthur Elsworth Raymo, by either corridor.
Arthur Elsworth was a self-made engineer who grew up on a farm in Nankin, Michigan. In 1905, he married Margaret Merrow, the daughter of a tugboat captain on the Great Lakes, and four children followed in quick succession. The earliest census records show my grandfather as a “farmer,” but by the time the second of his children came along he is listed as “bookkeeper.” He had no formal training in engineering, but somehow his innate technical skills were apparent enough to win him a job managing a phosphate mine in Mount Pleasant, Tennessee, a typical small town of rural mid-America to which he brought his young family. Their snug, wood-framed home was not far from the mine, from which surface phosphate was extracted hydraulically. Photographs show the kids playing barefoot in the sluice water with the hustle and bustle of extraction going on in the background.
|Chet's father, Chester (third from left) and siblings, Arthur, Charlotte, and Roger—Mount Pleasant, Tennessee, ca. 1915.|
By all accounts, Arthur Elsworth was a consummate handyman. He made much of the family’s furniture—chests, dressers, tables and chairs—and play equipment for the children too—merry-go-round, seesaw, swings, climbing bars, doll houses, sleighs, kites and scooters. It would have been hard to grow up in that environment, I suppose, and not pick up some mechanical skills. Especially if you were a boy. Sister Charlotte had a role model too. My grandmother Margaret Merrow Raymo made all of the children’s cloths, from pajamas to Buster Brown suits for the boys and frilly dresses for Charlotte. Whenever she made a dress for Charlotte, she made one just like it for Charlotte’s doll. She was a good cook too, who always came up with special food and decorations for holidays. It would seem from the photographs that have come down to us that she was adept with a camera too, at a time when the Kodak Brownie era of personal photography was just beginning. Meanwhile, Arthur Elsworth proved he was not just a whiz with material things. He was a pretty good self-taught musician too, who entertained the family with violin, harmonica and organ. The family’s most cherished possession was an early Edison Phonograph, with cylindrical wax records and a diamond needle that never needed changing. Records cost 35 cents apiece or three for a dollar. The family bought six recordings each month, patriotic, humorous and musical. The kids learned from the recordings how to recite Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Longfellow’s Paul Revere’s Ride. I have a photograph of Chester as a nine-year-old boy, spiffily attired in a homemade outfit, proudly displaying an airplane he has made from a construction kit supplied by his father, a young budding engineer no doubt hoping his mechanical skill will please the paternal critic. Nature or nurture? In that place and that time it was all part of being male.
|Chester T. Raymo Sr.—Chattanooga, Tennessee, 1918.|
With a father who made chests and chairs for the family home, doll houses and scooters for the kids, and blasted phosphate out of the ground with water, it was perhaps inevitable that the boys would grow up to be engineers, or at the very least to carry on the handyman tradition. But if nurture inculcated mechanical aptitudes, nature had an anti-mechanical surprise in store.
In the summer of 1917, Arthur Elsworth moved his family to Chattanooga, a bustling industrial railroad center on the Tennessee River, just where the river makes an improbable deviation from its south-tending course along the East Tennessee Valley and cuts a deep gash westward through the Cumberland Plateau. He was hired to help build and operate the Southern Ferro Alloys Company, which would manufacture ferrosilicon for use in the production of hydrogen for observation balloons during World War I. My father was seven years old.
Ten years later, Dad was a seventeen-year-old student at Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga when his father, a farmer/bookkeeper now turned superintendent at the Southern Ferro Alloys Company, snagged the glove on his right hand under a moving conveyor belt. His body was thrown forcibly against a post and the arm ripped off at the shoulder. He was rushed to the hospital for surgery. A blood transfusion was desperately required, but by the time a suitable donor was found the patient had died, at forty-six years of age. Was my father there at the deathbed when his father died? Did the seventeen-year-old boy rush from school (it was a Friday) with his brothers and sister to join his mother at the hospital? I try to imagine how this traumatic turn of events must have affected my father, a bright, handy high-schooler who lived admiringly in the shadow of his father’s many mechanical gifts. Now a machine had cruelly wrenched his father’s arm and life away. One might think this tragedy would cause the son to foreswear anything to do with machinery. But no, a year later, as a new high school graduate, he gave up the promise of a good job and rapid advancement at the Chattanooga Boiler & Tank Company to go off, at his mother’s insistence, to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville to study mechanical engineering.
Arthur Elsworth Raymo’s death came out of the blue. One moment he was a promising young man with a fine job, a loving wife, four bright, healthy children and a world of promise before him. Then—a slip, a patch of cloth caught in a whirring machine, he turned to look, his arm running away with the conveyor belt, his shoulder gushing his life’s blood. The accident occurred at 10:30 in the morning; by late afternoon he was dead. Presumably, throughout those few hours he was in a state of shock. What thoughts flashed through his mind? For whom did he call out? My grandmother was left to see four children into the world, three boys and a girl. All were bright students at Notre Dame Academy. It seems to have been a foregone conclusion that the boys would go on to the University of Tennessee to study engineering, the profession their father excelled at even though he had not had a university education. A poignant letter remains in our possession from my grandmother to a Mr. Walsh, a person of some importance at the Chattanooga Boiler & Tank Company, where my father worked part-time while attending high school. Apparently, Walsh wanted to apprentice my father as an eventual replacement for his own job, and had made his wishes known to my grandmother. College was not in Walsh’s plan. In the letter, written not long after the death of my grandfather, my grandmother insists it was her late husband’s wish that his boys go to college, and she vows to spend whatever money her husband left to see that wish fulfilled.
All three brothers received engineering educations at the University of Tennessee, by taking cooperative courses—three months working, three months in class. Chester and Roger, the youngest boys and only a year or two apart, worked for the Chattanooga Boiler & Tank Company and the American Lava Corporation. They alternated on the job—one would work while the other went to school. In this way they were able to keep the same employment in Chattanooga and living quarters in Knoxville. Roads were bad in those days, and the 120-mile trip between the two cities in the family car took five or six hours. In spite of all the back and forth, my father was elected to the university’s honorary engineering society and served as editor of the Tennessee Engineer. If there was a mechanical gene in the family line, it expressed itself fully in the subsequent careers of the three Raymo boys.
Meanwhile, Charlotte, the second oldest child, was required by her gender to forgo a college education to support her mother. She was bright, but there is no evidence I know of—and I remember her lovingly and well—that she possessed the boys’ mechanical aptitude. Nature? Nurture? Either way, theirs was the last generation bound so severely by convention. All of my own siblings—including four girls—went to college, and in recent months I have been watching my own scientifically-educated daughter building decks and remodeling her kitchen, expressing “handyman” skills that may or may not have flowed down to her in Arthur Elsworth’s genes.
|Chet's grandfather, Arthur Elsworth Raymo, at the phosphate mine—Mount Pleasant, Tennessee, ca. 1914.|
Wednesday, July 09, 2014
Saturday, July 05, 2014
What went into the cells of his “spreadsheets”? Horizontally, the days; vertically, the hours. He carefully entered: the times he received each medication, with notes on pain and sense of well-being. A code for each medication. PK=painkiller. C=cortisone (a steroid hormone). V=Valium. SP=sleeping pill. Then there was the morphine, and the laxative—a veritable pharmacy of pills and shots. He had no control, of course, over his mix of medications, at least not at the beginning; that was determined by his doctors. And initially no control over when he received them. What he wanted to know was their effect. From his spreadsheet he hoped to discover the patterns—the causal relations between pills and pain—that would yield the most beneficial effect: when, what, how often, in what measure. Even in those first weeks it is clear (to a reader of the journals now) that his disease has the advantage. His neat engineering script wavers in and out of legibility; for some parts of his medication cycles it is precise and familiar, at other times barely readable and full of misspellings. As the days pass, he adds more and more information to his tabulations: position of his body on the bed, food, drink, degree of paralysis, stools, urinations, flatulence (his euphemistic term is “degas”). And so the data accumulates, becoming, I would suppose, ever more intractable because of its sheer volume, and hiding the patterns he sought like the proverbial needles in a haystack, those correlations and consonances that would lead (he believed) to ultimate recovery.
Meanwhile, my mother was there at the bedside, spending most nights in the hospital room on a cot. She wasn’t under any illusion of light at the end of the tunnel; she was smart enough to know that the tunnel was a dead end. The last years of their marriage had not always been smooth. There had been a lot of sniping between them, and apparent resentment on my mother’s part. But now she was at his side, participating in his engineer’s illusions, helping him with the flexings, and pushings and pullings, and “log-rolling” of his body, cleaning up the messes that sometimes accompanied his barely controlled bowels. She may not have been exactly Mrs. Congeniality or Clara Barton, but she understood the obligations that come with forty years of marriage and six children. And he too shows nothing but tenderness in his journals, no doubt recognizing the emotional constraints of all those years together, of sharing the same bed, of following with the same attentive concern the lives of their children. “Margaret did a PERFECT job in turning me over by holding knees high and ‘logrolling’ entire body,” he writes, as always emphasizing her solicitation.
If he had had a laptop there by his hospital bed, with spreadsheet software, he would only have had to click a button to run the numbers, to look for the correlations. What he had instead was a red book with blank pages, which he filled from edge to edge with notes and numbers, continuously, day and night. On a typical page one might find entries for 6:40, 7:01, 7:05, 7:08, 7:14, 7:20, and 7:30. These might be as simple as “Mom in washroom. My back is tired. Legs out straight. Flat on back.”, or as quantitative as “Took PK at 7:13. Head 3" from top of bed.” It was all grist for the unceasing mill of his mind. He might have been Galileo taking down distances and times for a ball rolling down an inclined plane. Galileo’s data-keeping was more focused, and from it the Florentine scientist derived laws of motion. My father’s data-keeping was helter-skelter; he knew what he was looking for, but had no idea how to find it. The machinery of his disease was invisible and inaccessible; there was no way he could take the aberrant cells apart to see how they work. And so the journal fattens, line by line, entry by entry, page by page, and somewhere in all that tidy engineer’s hand or drug-induced scribble was hidden (he believed) the sort of miracle that might have taken a more pious seeker to a shrine of the Virgin, Lourdes perhaps. He believed in God, and he believed that God had a plan for his life, as he notes in his journal. But his God was not the sort who goes in for flashy showmanship, the throw-down-your-crutches-and-walk sort of thing. His God was the Great Engineer who had designed the whole shebang and set it going, the clockwork-maker of Isaac Newton, the deity who set the planets moving in exacting courses, for whom fixing a patient’s body would be as everyday a thing as repairing a short in an electric lamp.
Tuesday, July 01, 2014
Saturday, June 28, 2014
|Chester T. Raymo Sr. at the American Lava Corporation, Chattanooga, Tennessee—ca. 1950s.|
It was not as a literary document my father wished to share his journals, but as science. He thought the value of the journals lay in the record of his illness, that the exhaustively tabulated data might be of use to medical science. In this he was certainly mistaken; no doctor would be likely to find a cure in his mass of numbers, graphs and diagrams. Yet there is something in the journals worth sharing, worth putting into the context of a life, something that will be recognized as brave and true by anyone who has ever had a mechanical or quantitative bent. If you have ever used a hand plane on a piece of timber, replaced a tube in a radio, gapped a spark plug, computed with a slide rule, or taken a course in statistics or algebra, my father would have recognized you as a kindred soul. If you have ever had motor oil under your fingernails or sawdust on the basement floor, if you have ever smelled burning rosin as you soldered an electric iron or ran your hand lovingly over a piece of tissue-thin graph paper, you will recognize something of yourself in him. If you have ever taken something apart just to see how it works, you will understand what motivated my father when faced with the malfunction of his own biological machine.
I have told parts of his story before, in essays and books, and always the response of readers has been positive, not because there is anything heroic or particularly poignant about my father’s life, but because his life encapsulates what is heroic and poignant in the lives of every handyman and engineer. Chester Theodore Raymo Sr. loved the world. He loved the “thingness” of the world, the bits and pieces and the way they fit together. He loved the world especially when it was running smoothly, like the engine of the family Ford when he had finished a tune-up, and when the world did not run smoothly, as when sickness or violence or natural tragedy intruded, he aspired to be Mr. Fix-it, God’s local repairman. Find the cycle, figure out where synchronicity has gone astray, twiddle, fiddle, adjust and jiggle—then, when the metaphorical spark-plug spacings and carburetor settings were optimized, whatever knocks and backfires this poor world experienced would go away.
Saturday, June 21, 2014
Handy. Homo. Habilis. His. Himself. All those Hs with their feet planted firmly on the ground, hands upraised, ready for work, ready to knap a flint or dig out marrow with a twig. We were, apparently, habilis before we were sapiens, at least in nomenclature.
Some years ago, a treasure trove of prehistoric art was discovered in a cavern near the town of Vallon-Pont-d’Arc in southern France. The cave contains multiple images of horses, bison, bears and rhinos, in red, ocher and black pigments. These exquisite drawings appear to date from around 20,000 years ago, long after Homo habilis disappeared into the fossil beds of East Africa. Whoever painted the cavern at Vallon-Pont-d’Arc was us, Homo sapiens, but still handy. No, handier. The animal images are accompanied by stenciled hands. Lots of hands. Some anthropologists say the hands are a mystery, but I think not. The animal drawings at Vallon-Pont-d’Arc are similar to those at other caves in southern France and Spain (I once visited with my children the exquisite galleries at Altamira). The images of animals probably had something to do with religion or the magic of the hunt. Collective things. Congregational things. But the stenciled hands seem to spring from something prior and private. Warm flesh pressed against cold stone. Spontaneity. Individualism. The stenciled hands are not abstract works of the mind; they are immediate projections of the body. They are the physical self making contact with the stuff of the world. They remind us that behind the wonderful animal art there was mortar and pestle, pigment and torch, stone and spear.
|Stenciled hand at Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc cave. (Photo by Laurent Chicoineau / CC BY-NC-SA)|
Anthropologists endlessly debate the proper place of the various hominid fossils in the human family tree. But no one I know of doubts than we became human when we became handymen (and handywomen). Yes, chimps and crows and a few other animals use tools in certain instinctive ways. But there must have been a moment when the characterization Homo became definitive. I try to imagine squat, long-armed Homo habilis crouched at the side of a stream looking at his cupped hands leaking water, say, and that little anachronistic light bulb goes on over his head, and he conceives, dimly, but irrevocably, the idea of a bowl, an emptied shell, perhaps, or a broken skull, or a hollowed-out stem, but something made, something shaped by the hands to a purpose. And, as long as we are fantasizing, let’s be even more hypothetical and imagine him jumping up, pumping the air with his fists. H. Eureka! Handy and sapient.
Of all the artifacts of pre-Columbian America culture that I have seen, the one I like best is the life-sized “Hopewell hand,” a silhouetted human hand cut from a paper-thin sheet of mica by a craftsperson who lived a thousand years ago in southern Ohio. I saw the hand more than half-a-century ago in the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. For years, I had a colored transparency of the hand taped to the window of my office, glowing in the sunlight. Something about those long, slender fingers, the delicate crook in the thumb. The people of the mica hand were ancestors of the Algonquians, Iroquois, Cherokees, and other Native Americans. They lived in river valleys of central North America from 200 BC to 1000 AD, and left behind impressive complexes of burial mounds, temple mounds, hilltop ramparts, and earthen walls. They are generally called the Mound Builders, and builders they certainly were, and fine handymen too. Many of their ancient sites were excavated a century ago to provide an archeological exhibit for the 1893 Chicago world’s fair. One of the richest sites was on the farm of M. C. Hopewell in Ross County, Ohio, and the Hopewell name has come to signify the culture of the people who built the mounds. The mica hand was found in a burial mound on Hopewell’s farm. It is flaky-thin and subtly tinged with color. That it survived unbroken in the earth for a thousand years seems little short of miraculous.
|The Hopewell Hand|
As infants, it is hands that tease us into our humanity. “Gitchy-goo,” we tickle. “Itsy bitsy spider went up the water spout, down came the rain and washed the spider out. . . .” We begin our expressive lives with our fingers. Tugging. Sucking. Wriggling. We begin our social lives stroking and grooming. Before we made looms and potter’s wheels, we made cat’s cradles. Before we invented geometry and algebra and calculus, we counted on our fingers. Before we made harpsichords and flutes and tambourines, we put blades of grass between our fingers and blew. It is our hands we fold to pray. It is our hands that make us artists and athletes and musicians and carpenters. It is our hands that make us handymen.
Computers may one day equal human intelligence in rational thought, but the light that turns on in a child’s mind with “Itsy bitsy spider” is viscerally human in a way that programmed thought will never be. Computers can presently play chess at the level of grandmasters. I can imagine that someday computers will put mathematicians and composers and even psychologists out of jobs. But its hard to imagine a computer ever taking up a sheet of natural mica and scribing it with a sharp tool in such a way as to make a hand of such exquisite loveliness as the one found in the mound on Mr. Hopewell’s farm—mind and flesh working together, each instructing the other, thought and matter in a mutual unfolding in a handyman’s hands.
Tuesday, June 17, 2014
Saturday, June 14, 2014
My father died of cancer in 1974 at age 64. During the final ten weeks of his life he kept a journal in which he recorded every detail of his inevitable decline, five volumes of mostly quantitative data and diagrams from which he hoped to distill a solution to his predicament. When he died, the journals went home with my sister Peggy, where they stayed until recently when she passed them to me at my request. It is the journals that inspired this reflection on the handyman’s way of living—and dying.
They are remarkable documents, for reasons that will become clear, perhaps one of the most detailed quantitative records of dying ever compiled by a patient. Fruitless, yes, and a bit quixotic. But full of hope. The journals express an engineer’s confidence that there is always a technological fix, no matter how dire the dilemma. Record the data. Plot the graph. Discern the patterns. Design a solution. At one point in the journal my father writes: “In all of my data, I try to stick to habits that I have used all my life.” He died as he lived, by the engineer’s creed.
By “engineer” I do not mean only the man who took a degree and makes his living in engineering. I mean to include every person who is good with mechanical things, who loves to tinker, who has a workbench in the basement or at the back of the garage. Yes, my father was a professional engineer; he was chosen Engineer of the Year by the Chattanooga Engineer’s Club in 1965 for his pioneering work developing statistical methods of quality control. But he was not an engineer on the grand scale. He didn’t design ocean liners, throw suspension bridges across yawning chasms, or invent life-transforming appliances. He tinkered. He fiddled. He had his finger on the mechanical pulse of the world. He was one of the many men of his generation who had a sense of the way the world was put together, the last generation, perhaps, of the Renaissance engineers and scientists who imagined the world as a clockwork designed and set going by the Great Clockmaker. His universe was one of tension and balance, friction and lubrication, levers and fulcrums, cogs, escapements and cams, of Hooke’s Law, Mohs scale, and the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics. There is a famous six-volume compendium of 5,000 mechanical devices by the Russian engineer Ivan Artobolevsky, written in the spirit of tinkerers everywhere. I don’t know if my father ever saw it, but he would have been very much at home.
And yes, it is almost entirely men I am talking about, as the word “handyman” implies. My father’s was the last generation, by and large, who could gap a spark plug, tune a carburetor, detect and replace a gassy radio tube, solder a broken electrical connection in a toaster, build a tree house for the kids out of scrap lumber, or install a deadbolt lock. I don’t mean to suggest that many men (and women) today are not equally handy—there are doubtless handy men and women reading these words—but handiness no longer serves as a defining element of maleness as it did in earlier generations. Nor are there today as many opportunities to be handy. Mechanical carburetors are things of the past. Radios and televisions have done away with replaceable tubes. Electronic chips are pervasive and impervious to repair. Everything from telephones to toasters are now “unfixable”; when they malfunction, we toss and replace. What’s a handyman to do?
My father lived just at the end of what might be called the Golden Age of Engineering Optimism, a century-long era of supreme confidence that tinkering on any scale—from domestic to global—would be met with unqualified success. No isthmus too rugged to be breached by a canal. No stream too broad to be bridged or too deep to be dammed. No widget so complicated that a machine cannot be designed to make it. No broken household contrivance that a little ingenuity can’t fix. It is not the ubiquity or quality of engineering that has changed; buildings get taller, roads get wider, airplanes fly farther and faster. In many ways our lives are more beholden than ever to technology. What has changed is the presumption of optimism. We are no longer so certain that technology is benign. We live in an age of unintended consequences. Ever taller buildings become tempting targets for terrorists. The deepest offshore oil wells become sources of intractable spills. Our electronic webs become so massively interconnected that a glitch in Singapore can cause a market crash in New York. Waste mounts to alarming proportions as more and more of our “stuff” becomes unrepairable. So overwhelming has become our dependence on carbon-based technology that the Earth’s climate is in jeopardy.
Of course, there are still optimists who believe whatever problems technology presents will have technological fixes. But the optimism of an engineer like Isambard Kingdom Brunel—who built the biggest railroad and steamship of his time—or a clever inventor like Thomas Alva Edison—what didn’t he invent?—seems conspicuously absent from our public discourse. This faltering of optimism on the national and international scale carries over to the domestic scene. Without any scientific data to back me up, I will assert that the handyman who has a basement workshop where he spends hours in solitary male repose is a threatened breed.
I don’t presume to write about my father because he was in any way unique, but because of what he represented to a fine degree—a man for whom part of his maleness was proficiency with a slide rule, a micrometer, graph paper, a soldering iron, a fine-honed chisel, socket wrenches, and a drawer full of discarded gizmos, thingamabobs and doohickeys that might someday come in handy. These were the things that defined my father and so many of his male contemporaries as wage earners, householders, husbands and dads. When cancer came to cut his life short, it was the tools of the handyman and engineer with which he battled his inevitable fate—at least those tools he was able to marshal at his hospital bedside. He was to the end confident in numbers, measurements, graphs and gadgets, comfortable with things that clicked, cogged, ratcheted and whirled. He was, to be sure, a bit bewildered and ultimately overwhelmed by the invisibly small cellular machinery of his body that was in such desperate need of repair. I offer this story of the way he lived and the way he died because I believe there are still handymen (and women) like him, although perilously close to extinction, who will recognize something of themselves in him.
Thursday, June 12, 2014
Tuesday, June 10, 2014
Saturday, June 07, 2014
My boyhood home in Chattanooga, Tennessee, was built in 1941, and like most other homes in the city was heated with coal. It had a coal bin in the basement, and a big galvanized metal furnace with cast iron doors and grates and air ducts sprouting from the top like the hair of Medusa. Keeping that furnace going during the winter required a lot of shoveling, and riddling, and hauling ashes. It was the first thing my father had to do in the morning and the last thing at night. If the flame went out, getting it started again was an awful chore, involving newspapers, kindling, and whatever else might start a fire. The system had no such thing as a thermostat; instead there was a dial-like mechanism at the top of the basement stairs that controlled by a chain linkage the air intake to the firebox. Humidity was maintained by an attached basin that had to be kept filled with water. All this my father bore with about as much grace as you could expect of a young man with a brand new house and a growing family.
Chet with his parents, Chester and Margaret, in their partially constructed new home in Chattanooga, July 1941.
My father ripped out the basement coal bin and used the timber to build a workbench. A real doozy of a six-footer, with a double-planked top and a backboard for hanging tools and an overhanging shelf under which could be tacked the screw tops of a dozen peanut butter jars containing screws, nails, washers, nuts and bolts. Even at that young age I was astute enough to know that the workbench fulfilled an ambition of my engineer father, the ultimate expression of secure, middle-class, male, suburban life. All that time spent shoveling coal and riddling the grate and hauling ashes could now be spent fiddling and tinkering and mending. My quintessential memory of my father from that time is of him hunched over the workbench with white shirtsleeves rolled to his elbows, his tie tucked into the buttoned front of his shirt, a dismantled lamp or toaster on the worktop, a soldering iron sizzling in his hand.
Here are some things that were essential to a good handyman’s workbench, of which I take my father’s as exemplary:
- It had to be in a basement or garage or other space separate from the house. It was, after all, an altar for male liturgies, like the sanctuary of a Catholic church, from which, in those days, women were excluded, an escape from the perplexing entanglements of matrimony.
- On the shelf above the workbench there must be a pile of Popular Mechanics and Popular Science magazines, with their tips for home improvements, Saturday projects, and news of innovations for the tinkerer—multi-tipped screwdrivers, leaf-proof gutters, self-rosining solder, jigs, rigs and thingamabobs. The magazines offered a vision of a future that the basement mechanic could aspire to at least in dream: oceangoing hovercraft, folding-wing airplanes for the family garage, radio transmissions with pictures, colonies on the moon.
- At the corner of the workbench there must be a vise. The right vise must be neither too bulky nor too delicate; it was an extension of one’s own hands. My father had a dandy, with shiny steel jaws, that he kept nicely lubricated; you could open or close it with a twirl of your little finger.
- The location of tools on the backboard must be marked by painted silhouettes—hammer (claw and ball peen), hacksaw, pliers, screwdrivers, brace, rasp, wrenches, etc.—a shadow tool kit. Somehow the silhouettes on my father’s bench were always empty of their residents. A tool was never where one needed it.
- Wood chisels were kept wrapped in oiled cloth. A whetstone in its homemade wooden cradle kept the blades shiny and sharp. Ditto for the blade of the hand plane.
- Somewhere nearby there must be a cabinet with a big drawer in which anything could be thrown that didn’t have an assigned place on the workbench. Nothing was discarded: odd screws, clips, springs, brackets, bits of metal, lengths of wire, broken tools, slightly bent nails. You never knew when you’d need exactly that thing.
- There must always be a project pushed to the back of the bench at an indeterminate state of completion. A pouty wife might lock herself in the bathroom; a sulking husband needed a more manly retreat.
Dad’s workbench served us both. He taught me how to use my hands, to value craft, to relish the touch of wood and metal, to respect the heft, hardness and edge of a tool. It is the brain, they say, that defines our humanity—that gray stuff locked out of sight in the strongbox of the skull—but it is with our hands that we make practical contact with the world. I learned how to repair an electric iron, change the washer in a faucet, and stay married to the same woman for fifty-six years. The surface of a good workbench is akin to the bench in a science lab; it is a place apart, disentangled from the complexities of the emotional life, where one can take apart bits and pieces of the natural world and put them back together again in working order. My father’s workbench was a magical icon of the handyman’s skill, and an appropriate place to begin a consideration of his handyman life, which in the end was all too short.