Tuesday, April 26, 2011

If I Had a Hammer

I use a screwdriver every day. It adds the necessary 4-6 inches I need to lift the latches on the irrigator. I look up over the top of my glasses to focus on the hose clamps that keep the latches in place. I get real irritated if the screwdriver is not in its accustomed place on the seat of the step stool.

This is a comfortingly familiar looking screwdriver. It is a medium long regular with a grooved black and green handle. Some company has been making screwdrivers with virtually the same handle for at least two generations. I know this because, aside from the opaque rather than translucent composite material of the handle, my father has screwdrivers of the same pattern in his tool shed to this day. I know my screwdriver is nothing fancy; I would be happier if the blade were tarnished and matte rather than shiny and chrome. But I love my tools and want them in their place, even as they must be tough and perform in less than ideal conditions and storage.

I derive from a family of work benches and tool boxes. My mom's father was a woodworker with an entire wall in his basement devoted to cabinets, cubby holes, and mysterious tools, old but oiled. There were chisels and files and planes that were works of wood worker's art in themselves. I know now that he had a lathe and router and bandsaw because those tools now reside in my father's shop. I was fascinated by the row upon row of baby food jars full of tiny little unknown items; they reminded me of nothing so much as my mother's spice rack and I thought of the contents in the same way....a pinch of that, a bit of this, to make the finished product just right. My grandfather's creations are sturdy, but even more, they feel and look warm. The way he finished the wood makes its beauty more than skin deep: 'Age cannot wither her...' as Shakespeare so aptly says and the maple desk I use every day is ample evidence.

My other grandfather's shop was steeped in the fumes of the small engines he utilized in his orchard and garden. His pith helmet and post office blue shirt and shorts bespoke his job before retirement, but work with his tiller and various push mowers left oil stains and grease stains to such an extent that he changed into these work clothes in the morning and changed out when he headed back to the house for suppertime. Saws and hoes were sharpened before use, but the shed served another purpose: the fishing poles lived in the shed and buckets for worms often stood outside the door of the garage ready to head to the pond. My folks inherited Grandpa's old tiller, but they passed his garden cart on to me. It is nothing fancy: just a home made rounded tub like an old washing machine on wheels and a u shaped tube for a handle. I've replaced the wheels on it twice, but I'm sure those are not the first nor the last it will need. The galvanizing is in pretty good shape on the outside, but I've treated the interior with Rustoleum. That in itself is part of my gene pool. My dad was a stickler about metal....I think I spent most of my childhood stained the rust red hue of Rustoleum, either sticking to myself, looking like I'd been in a BB gunfight, or reeking of the gasoline it took to clean the splatters off. We were an anti oxidation family.

Tools were a big deal back then. My day had his toolbox tools, but that was just the beginning. He had one room in our house devoted to ham radio equipment and his guns. The tools he used for loading shells were fastened to the lip of his quarter sawn oak desk. The mysteries of the radio equipment were beyond us, but I loved to watch him solder and noted with curiosity the myriad of little resistors and other colorful parts with wires poking out like insect legs. The ham shack was a place of lights, dials, beeps, whines, and scratchy voices fading in and out of the ether. Often we would fall asleep to the sounds of Morse code or the verbal shorthand hams use to exchange information.

When we moved to the farm, the tools for the job got a home in the little building behind the carport. Laura and I were apprenticed as carpenter's and mechanic's helpers, a job with a certain amount of pressure. I never wanted to look stupid or forgetful, so I seldom asked twice what I was supposed to be looking for in the tool shed. What quaking of knees and breaking out of sweat when I could not figure out what item or part I was supposed to be bringing back to my father in the alloted amount of time! I don't know what life lesson I learned from the experience, but I did learn the distinctions between screw drivers, bolts, nuts, sockets, wrenches, etc. Elementary as it seems now, this part of my vocabulary would never have developed without the pressure exerted by these tool runs. When you're young, you don't know whether you'll have a life of the mind, work with your hands, or some combination of the two. It doesn't hurt to prepare for each eventuality.

I have a little tool box of my very own. Blake bought me a nice little wooden box for a birthday present a year or two ago. It would never survive a harvest season and the rough treatment it would receive in the front or back of our old pickups. But I have a little set of sockets, a set of wrenches, a tape measure, screwdrivers, and other absolute essentials. I always know where they are, the principal reason for a tool box. I keep the rain gauges there over the winter and a stash of hose washers, as well as the deck screws I use to hang picture frames on my plaster walls. These tools have a good home.

The tools I use the most don't have a box of their own at all. The trowels, garden gloves, hand hoe, pruners and like live in a cheap blue plastic bucket on the back porch, ready at a moment's notice to head out to the yard. The bucket is convenient, small enough to move everywhere but large enough to hold the essentials. If I don't carry the bucket, I have a dreadful absent minded tendency to set my pruners, trowel, or precious hand hoe down somewhere in the yard, mayhap to be hauled to the compost heap or stick pile and lost forever....

....and I hate it when I can't find my tools.

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