Saturday, August 16, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 11

He liked things. Mechanical things. Things he could fix. Toasters. Wheelbarrows. Table legs. Picket fences. There was that big black cabinet in his basement workshop, with the two voluminous drawers at the base full of discarded what nots—stuff that might come in handy. Where did that cabinet come from? I do not know, but I suspect from his father. His father would have needed a big black cabinet. Every handyman needs a big black cabinet.

He worked for a company that made ceramic insulators, tiny ones mostly, the kind of things you’d wrap wire around to make an inductor or resistor. It was his job as a quality control engineer to make sure that the parts of each kind were interchangeable, to exacting tolerances. He never doubted, I think, that the world was made the same way, of precisely interchangeable parts. The atoms of creation may have been smaller than my father’s ceramic chips, but the Creator would have insisted on quality. Some of us marvel that the rich diversity of the world is put together from just a handful of different kinds of parts—protons, neutrons, electrons. My father would not have had it any other way. The Creator was the mechanical engineer par excellence. The Ultimate Handyman.

On the shelves of the big black cabinet were piles of magazines, Popular Science and Popular Mechanics. These were the Holy Scriptures of handymen of his generation, the sources of my father’s prodigious inspirations, the muses that inspired his many projects. A clever way to keep the gutters from clogging up with leaves. Advice on the most efficient way to rotate the tires on the car. A new jig for cutting pickets for a fence. Popular Science and Popular Mechanics kept my father on the cutting edge of gimmickry. To his pile of well-thumbed magazines I often retired for entertainment. During long afternoons I sat huddled under the basement stairs reading about the latest innovations in high and low technology. As I recall, cover stories almost always featured some futuristic mode of transportation: electric automobiles, oceangoing hovercraft, folding-wing airplanes that would fit in the family garage. News-notes featured such things as multi-tipped screwdrivers, self-flushing toilets, and sprayed-concrete houses. It was from these magazines, also, that I first heard about computers, radio astronomy, atomic energy and space flight. That nook under the basement stairs wasn’t a bad place to get an education.

Recently, as I began writing down these memoirs of my father, I purchased copies of Popular Science and Popular Mechanics from the newsstand. I hadn’t read these magazines for more than half-a-century, not since my teens. Back then, I read them religiously. I suppose, they were part of the reason I decided to study science and engineering in college. Now, as I peruse current issues, I’m delighted to see that not much, really, has changed. They still contain the ample mix of slick technology and serious science that inspired the teenager. Here too is the same gee-whiz utopianism that fed a teenager’s sense of optimism and wonder. And here too is the same eclectic mix of gimmicks, gadgets and practical hints for the handyman. A few of the items featured in recent issues of Popular Science and Popular Mechanics:

  • A Space Pen, guaranteed to write in freezing cold or boiling heat, under water or upside down.
  • A Rogue Wallet with curved edges, that fits stylishly into a side pocket, thwarting thieves who might slip your wallet off your hip.
  • A NASA-designed personal vertical takeoff aircraft that flies horizontally, with just room enough for you.
  • Advice on how to get rid of squirrels in the attic and cat urine on linoleum flooring.
  • A Popular Mechanics book of “MANCrafts”—leather tooling, fly tying, ax whittling and other cool things for a man to do.
  • How to build a mini-workbench charging station for your cordless tools.
  • A page of projects for Saturday afternoon.
  • Ads for FrogTape, Gorilla Glue, and suspenders with “patented no-slip clips.”

Popular Mechanics was founded in 1902. Popular Science goes back to 1872. The 30th Anniversary issue of Popular Mechanics, published in the depths of the Great Depression, contained articles on “Machines to Raise Wages” and “Luxuries for Everyone.” As far as I can tell, both magazines have maintained a clear sense of their mission since issue number one: praise the practical, exalt American ingenuity, and keep an upbeat attitude about the future. Yes, there is something vaguely jingoistic, middle-class and decidedly male about the magazines, but you won’t find politics in their pages, or racism, or macho-swagger. Just contrivances, contraptions, widgets, doohickeys and a hearty celebration of practical science and state-of-the-art technology. In my father’s deathbed journals he makes a note: “Dr. Brennen visited—will bring Popular Science magazines.” He lived by the handyman’s code to the very end. Happiness is unclogged gutters and spark plugs that are perfectly gapped.