Friday, June 18, 2010

Handyman -- Part 2

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 the 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 high Cumberland Plateau. He was hired to help build and operate the Southern Ferro Alloys Company, which would manufacture ferrosilicon for use producing hydrogen for observation balloons during World War I. My father was seven years old.

Ten years later, he was a seventeen-year-old student at Notre Dame Academy in Chattanooga when his father, a farmer/bookkeeper 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 years of age. 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 away his father's arm and life. 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 and Tank Company to go off, at his mother's insistence, to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville to study mechanical engineering,

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 six of my father and mother's six children -- two boys, four girls -- went off 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.

(These familial reflections have been inspired and informed by Tom's historical researches, some of which can be followed here. Thanks, Tom. Another family blog is daughter Mo's beautiful evocations of the arts and crafts, here.)