Saturday, March 27, 2010

Tinker Toys


Another pic dug up by Tom, this time of my father -- his grandfather -- Chester Theodore Sr., Chattanooga, Tennessee, age nine, 1918. What interests me here is the airplane. It appears to be made from some sort of construction kit, not unlike the K'Nex kits available today, although the bits and pieces are wood instead of plastic. That my father put the plane together is no surprise; as long as I knew him he was putting things together and taking them apart.

He liked things. Mechanical things. Things he could fix. Toasters. Wheelbarrows. Table legs. I've written here before about his workbench in the basement. There was another piece of furnishing down there -- a big black wooden cabinet, with two voluminous drawers at the base. What was in it? Everything. Nothing mechanical or electrical got discarded at our house. Every nail, every screw, every piece of wire, every replaced part from the toilet tank, every worn-out gasket or hose clamp from the car -- it all got plunked on a shelf of the cabinet or tossed in a drawer. The world was made from stuff like this and you'd never know when something might come in handy.

He was a mechanical engineer by training, an early advocate and practitioner of quality control in the manufacturing process. He worked for a company that made ceramic electrical insulators, tiny ones mostly, the sorts of things you'd wrap wire around to make an inductor or resistor. It was his job to make sure that the insulators of each kind were interchangeable, to exacting tolerances. He never doubted, I think, that the world was made the same way, of precisely identical interchangeable parts. The atoms of creation may have been smaller than my father's ceramic chips, but the Creator would have insisted on quality. Some of us marvel that the rich diversity of the world is put together from a construction kit with just a handful of different kinds of parts -- protons, neutrons, electrons; my father would not have had it any other way. The Creator was the mechanical engineer par excellence.

That big black cabinet in the basement couldn't save him when cancer started ravishing his own parts. There were no replacement bits and pieces for the cells that went haywire, no micrometer or slide rule that could keep their divergence from quality in check. Even as he lay on his deathbed he was measuring and graphing, with the tools of his profession on the bedside table. I think he was a little baffled that he couldn't find among his neatly compiled data the "fix" that he had always been able to contrive on the shop floor or in the basement.

Today is his birthday. He would be 101.