Thursday, June 17, 2010

Handyman -- Part 1

Is a handyman born or made? Nature or nurture? Are little boys born with an innate desire to take things apart and put them back together? Is tool wielding, as gun-toting seems to be, enshrined in the male genes?

My father Chester, 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.

Nature and nurture are always tightly entwined, perhaps especially so for handyman talents in 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 tug boat 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." There is no evidence I know of of any 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 barelegged in the sluice water with the hustle and bustle of extraction going on in the background.

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 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 the girl'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, 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 very young boy, spiffily attired in a homemade outfit, proudly displaying an airplane he has made from a construction kit presumably supplied by his father, a budding engineer no doubt hoping his mechanical skill will please the handyman parent. Nature or nurture? In that place and that time it was all a part of being male.

(More tomorrow.)