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.