Saturday, October 04, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 18

The bookshelves may have belonged to Mom, but the basement belonged to Dad. And the garage. There was a freestanding, single-car garage next to the house, with slightly sagging doors that didn’t close properly. I don’t recall that my father ever parked the car in the garage. Rather, it was a place for him to store the detritus of the handyman’s life, the stuff too big or unwieldy to fit in the basement workshop—planks of wood, half-empty paint cans, the rusty lawnmower whose blades needed sharpening, the wheelbarrow with the limp left leg. It was in the garage that I participated with my father on the most intense of our common handyman projects: my two downhill “soapbox” racers.

The All-American Soapbox Derby was established in 1934, and reached its heyday in the 1950s, about the time I decided to compete. Soapbox Derby racers were built by kids and powered only by gravity on a downhill track. Standardized steel axles, wheels, and helmets were supplied by the national organization. There was an entrance fee, generally paid by a local business sponsor who got to paint its logo on the car. Local competitions were held in dozens of cities and the winners competed in the nationals in Akron, Ohio.

Chet and his 1948 car.
I was almost 12 years old. I had picked up lots of practical skills from my father, and he certainly encouraged my participation. More than encouraged. He got out his drafting tools and designed me a car, then taught me how to build it. Cars were supposed to be entirely the creation of the boys (no girls in those days)—the proverbial soapboxes on wheels—but by 1948 it was generally conceded that the derby was a family affair. In fact, the cars that won sometimes had the look of being designed by Ferrari engineers and built by teams of expert mechanics in professional machine shops—and probably were. While my father was certainly designer-in-chief of my first racer, he insisted that I do the construction, all with hand tools he showed me how to use. I mastered the usual tools—handsaw, plane, chisels, brace and bit—and became something of an expert with the drawknife. The skin of the car was made from the thin slat sides of orange crates, scrounged from local markets, wrapped around a skeleton of wood salvaged from who-knows-where. The surface was hand-sanded to a fine sheen and given several coats of enamel.

All of that was well and good, but my father’s passion for mechanical tinkering got the better of him. The official steel axles that came with the wheels were three-quarters of an inch square. We embedded them in wood casings, with independently suspended tops and bottoms and drilled-out cylindrical cavities near the wheels in which we embedded coil springs. A coil-spring suspension of my father’s design! The axle casings were four-inches thick, sticking out from each side of the body of the car. I didn’t grasp—at least not yet—that a spring suspension on a smooth track was of little use, and presumably was only there for the comfort of the driver, who hardly needed comfort on a ride that lasted about a minute. Those ridiculously thick axles with embedded springs surely added enough air resistance to slow me down by the fraction of a second that would cost the race. We raced in heats of three. I came in second in my inaugural plunge down Ninth Street.

Chet at the wheel of his 1949 car.
I was a quick learner, however. After the 1948 race it dawned on me that coil-spring suspensions and the ingenious steering and braking mechanisms designed by my father were irrelevant to winning, and might even be detrimental. Wheel lubrication and air resistance: That’s what I would concentrate on. My 1949 car was not the engineering marvel of its predecessor, but it was slimmer and sleeker. The axles were only as thick as the three-quarter-inch steel they encased in a slender airfoil. My father watched these modifications with approval. He grasped the concept of “simple is better,” once he got his gizmo-ization in check. He went out of his way to figure out what might be the very best oil for the wheels. In that second competition, I won my heat, which meant I got to run the hill a second time.

The skills and concepts I learned from my father out there in the family garage have served me well all my life, especially the lesson that the most beautiful contrivances are those that are most perfectly suited to their task. I can’t remember why I didn’t compete again in 1950, probably because I had become more interested in girls than in building racers, or maybe because my father had other projects on his mind. Still, I had learned a lot about what it means to be an handyman, and no doubt soapbox version 3.0 would have been even slimmer and sleeker—and painted and buffed to a fare-thee-well.