Saturday, June 28, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 4

My father entered the hospital in early December 1973, for what he optimistically hoped would be a short stay. Unfortunately, his prostate cancer had metastasized, and radiation treatment failed to stop the aggressive progress of the disease. Even this distressing state of affairs did not dampen his optimism. My sister Anne gave him a blank book and suggested he keep a journal. It was an inspired idea, and for the next ten weeks Dad kept meticulous records of his symptoms and treatments, an exhaustive recording of every pill and pain, every bowel movement and letting of water, every twist and turn of his body, a mass of quantitative data from which he imagined would emerge a remedy for his misfortune. Eventually, he filled five notebooks with numbers, drawings, analysis, and theories of disease. For most of his adult life he had worked as a quality control engineer for the American Lava Corporation, a manufacturer of ceramic insulators in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He had been something of a pioneer in applying statistical methods to the maintenance of a quality product. Now, in the hospital, it was the quality of his body that he sought to insure. In the end, the data he kept and analyzed with such indefatigable diligence proved ineffectual. His cancer was no respecter of numbers. The rampaging cells outraced the upward-tending trends he sought in his measurements and graphs.
Chester T. Raymo Sr. at the American Lava Corporation, Chattanooga, Tennessee—ca. 1950s.
I am now older than my father was when he died, by more than a decade. When he passed away I was just beginning my career as a writer, mostly writing about science and nature, and I regret that he did not live long enough to enjoy my success. I am not sure why it occurred to me at this late date to retrieve the journals that I had seen briefly in the days after his death. Perhaps it was some premonition of my own approaching mortality. I wanted to read them again, and learn from them whatever I could about his calculus of dying. He seems to have anticipated my interest. In the final journal, as the cancer wrapped its ugly tentacles around the last undefiled bits of his flesh, he wrote: “It is very difficult to wake up in the morning and face ‘nothing’ to do. Writing this diary has been a ‘life’ saver to me. If I live long enough and manage to develop a degree of ‘balance’, I think all the important, valuable, impressions, and sensations that I have experienced can be made available to the public—if I can’t do it maybe CHET will be good enough to do it for me.” I take this as an instruction from beyond the grave, and this little memoir is my attempt to honor his wish.

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.

As I look back on my father’s life, certain themes loom large: family, community service, church—ordinary things, things he shared with so many of his contemporaries. But what makes his story worth recounting was his conviction that there are defining patterns in all things—cycles, rhythms, repetitions—that lend themselves to quantitative analysis. He was never happier than when he had a fistful of razor-sharp colored pencils and a piece of Keuffel & Esser graph paper spread flat on the dining room table. He might be plotting business cycles, the weather, family finances, moods, or dreams; if there was a pattern he would find it, and finding it, he would understand a little bit more of how the world works. Behind the apparent chaos of things was an order that an engineer was particularly trained to grasp; it was an axiom of his engineer’s faith that God too was an engineer. With slide rule, three-sided architect’s rule, micrometer and vernier calipers he had the tools he needed to do his job as chief of quality control at the American Lava Corporation; these tools served him equally well as an observer, recorder and quality-maintainer on the everyday, everywhere assembly line which (in his view) is God’s ongoing Creation.

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.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014


Click to enlarge Anne's illumination.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 3

Handy. What a useful little word. The sort of word you could carry in your pocket like a jackknife or a ball of twine. One of the earliest members of the genus Homo is called Homo habilis, handy man. Skulking around in the savannahs of East Africa two million years ago with a bit of sharp rock in his hand. Maybe a pointed stick, too. Or a shell. And who knows what other crude tools he contrived from what he could find. He was short, with long arms dangling at his side, and a cranial capacity only half that of modern man, but wherever his bones have been found there are tools too. Hand and mind working together: He knew what he was doing.

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)
Homo sapiens. Knowing man. By most accounts, it’s our brain that defines our humanity. But it’s with our hands that we make physical contact with reality. Our hands are our emissaries to the world. If I learned one thing from my father, one thing I have carried with me through life—one thing I hope to have passed on to my children—it is a respectful consonance of hand and mind. From an early age he taught me 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 was his conviction that the best way to understand how the world works is to take it apart and put it back together again.

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
Perhaps the Hopewell hand represents the universal symbol of amity—raised palm turned outward, no weapon, “I come in peace.” Certainly, its gracile elegance evinces the life of the mind, not war. Or perhaps, like the stenciled hands in the cavern at Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, or the traced hand that a child might make with a crayon, the mica hand was a craftsperson’s was of saying, “Here I am.” Whoever made the Hopewell hand was a handyman (I do not dismiss the possibility that it might have been a woman). He (or she) was our contemporary in every biological way.

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

In the news

Chet's father receiving the ‘Engineer of the Year’ award as reported in the Chattanooga Free Press—1965.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 2

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

Father's day

Click to enlarge Anne's illumination.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

In the workshop

Chet in the basement workshop, February 1951.

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 1

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.
Then, at war’s end, came gas, and a furnace conversion. Perhaps no single technological development of the last century made a greater change in a man’s life than the automatic gas or oil-burning furnace. For me—ten years old—the real import of the conversion was the workbench.

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.
That workbench in our basement was my refuge too as I entered adolescence, a place to learn and hone my masculine skills, following my father’s lead—mechanical, electrical, plumbing, woodworking. It was a place to subdue my adolescent hormonal ragings in a balm of solder splatters and sawdust. Yes, it was a male thing, hard, and bright, and suffused with the smells of burning rosin, wood chips and oil, guaranteed to hold at bay—for at least an hour or so—the softer, gentler puzzlements that attached themselves to the feminine, never, ever to be understood.

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.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Google Earth

Although the main action is now going to be on Saturday, I’ll be occasionally posting on other days of the week; perhaps Anne or Tom too. What follows is a few words on Chattanooga, where Mr. Fix-It takes place, setting the scene, so to speak.

East Tennessee is topologically a series of parallel northeast-southwest tending ridges and valleys, a continuation of the Ridge and Valley Province of western Virginia and central Pennsylvania. The Tennessee River, as a well-behaved river should, flows down along one of these valleys, meandering this way and that along the valley floor.

Then, at Chattanooga, my old home town, the river does a most surprising thing. Instead of continuing down the valley and making its unimpeded way to the Gulf, the river makes a sharp right turn and carves its meandering way through the Cumberland Plateau, eventually swinging north and spilling into the Ohio River.

This is the sort of improbable puzzle that geographers and geologist thrive on. In this case, of course, the answer to the riddle has been around for a long time: the river was there before the ridge; as the plateau went up, the river stubbornly kept to its course, chewing down into the sandstone rocks.

That river gap in the ridge gave the place a strategic importance, and was fiercely fought over during the Civil War. The pointy mountain just below the southwest corner of the X box is Lookout Mountain, scene of "The Battle Above the Clouds." The narrow dark band that passes between the t and a of "Chattanooga" is Missionary Ridge, successfully stormed by the bluecoats. And the dark rectangle almost halfway between the t and a and the bottom of the image is the blood-soaked ground of Chickamauga.

All of this was an integral part of my growing up, and still haunts my dreams. There is a story for every square mile of the image above – a hike, a swim, a spelunk, a fright, a misdemeanor, a kiss. Continents collide. Mountains rise. Rivers bite and roll. Hundreds of millions of years to shape a geography. Twenty years for a geography to shape a man.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

In the air mail

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.