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.