Jan/Feb 2004 Miscellaneous

The Tool Chest

by Paul Sampson

First, an announcement of sorts. With this issue, I assume the (not very burdensome) duties of Nonfiction and Miscellany Editor of Eclectica. This means I get to look over all the odds and ends of prose that come in and decide which of them to use. More positively, I get to beg all the writers I have ever known to let me have first shot at their best essays.

This time, I asked a lot of people for some essays on tools. I thought this would open a sluice gate and I would be drowned in stories of tools and their users. No such luck. But I did get a couple of very provocative short meditations and remembrances about people and their tools, and by sheer luck we received an interesting piece involving the maker of a great astronomical telescope, so I am able to give you this little section on these objects that are supposed to differentiate our species from the others.

I'll open with my own take on tools:

My grandfather was a master carpenter. He was born in Denmark, on the tiny island of Bornholm, a dot in the Baltic. Somewhere in the late 19th Century-around 1890 would be a good guess—he left home as a ship's carpenter on a schooner. When they called at Charleston, South Carolina, he jumped overboard and swam ashore. He wanted two things: a new start in fabled America, and no part in the Danish Army, into which he was due to be drafted when he got back to Bornholm.

So my illegal-immigrant draft-dodging Grandpa, who managed to wangle U.S. citizenship eventually, became a carpenter in America. He was a superb craftsman: a cabinet maker, a designer and builder of such masterworks as a circular staircase, sought after for his skill by the rich and famous of his time. During Prohibition, the head of a steel company hired him to build a hidden liquor cabinet, a paneled wall that opened at the touch of a secret catch to reveal an enormous stash of Canada's and Scotland's best. The seams in the paneling, I am told, were invisible. From other work of his that I saw myself, I believe it.

My father, growing up in this presence, of course was good with tools too, but the dilution was evident. Dad was a first-class handyman, but no one would mistake him for a journeyman carpenter. Nevertheless, he had all of Grandpa's tools and plenty of his own, and he took good care of them and showed his sons how to use them.

Or tried to, anyway. Both Grandpa and Dad generously gave me and my brother Dan tools of our own. Grandpa made us each a beautiful tool chest; these boxes survive in my brother's basement, ready for use today. Before we started school, we could saw a reasonably straight line, knew the difference between a crosscut and a rip saw, could drive nails without bending too many of them, and (very important) could straighten out a bent nail and re-use it. (Straightening nails also taught us what a blood blister looks and feels like.)

But neither Dan nor I had the real gift. We could (and did) make things that didn't fall apart, but they were useful at best, not beautiful. Still, we learned to use and respect tools, and for this I will always be grateful.

Over the years I have tried to use tools beautifully, with a few little successes. I went through a phase of model building in my early teens: railroad models, since trains were my childhood obsession. Once I won a prize for a locomotive I built from a kit and dolled up with obsessive details; I was dizzy with pride. Later I carved the stock of a rifle from a rough blank. (I somehow had the sense to keep the lines simple and clean, within the range of my skills; someone is probably still firing that old Springfield, and someone has probably asked him who made it.)

But skills, unused, decay. As I learned other trades, I lost the knack for cutting-and-fastening tools. Living in rented quarters, I had nothing to fix. My stock of tools dwindled to a few emergency-repair items, and I seldom used even them.

Around twenty years ago, I had a flare-up of tool using that still astonishes me. I had made a lot of changes in my life, all for the better. The most dramatic was quitting drinking (another story, one I have no inclination to tell). This brought on a truly insane burst of determination to change EVERYTHING that was wrong. I joined do-gooder groups, I restarted abandoned writing projects, and, to my own surprise, I started making things. I bought a whole lot of power tools, things I had no idea how to use, including a router. Luckily, I didn't start any projects that needed a router, so I still have all my fingers. But I did find uses for a circular saw, a miter saw, a jigsaw, a drill press, and all sorts of neat little specialized hand saws, including a Japanese one that cuts in the "wrong" direction-sweet!

For a while there, the sawdust was a-flyin'. I was a one-man construction company. None of the things I made had much reason for being, except to use all those tools and all that energy. The only project that survives is an oak case for a cap-and-ball revolver (target shooting was another rediscovered passion) that has lots of clever little compartments for all the tiny accessories that go with an antique pistol. It's really neat. It's also about the last thing I completed before the fever abated and I found fewer and fewer uses for my tools. They're out in the shed now, except for the router, which I gave to my neighbor. He is an actual professional craftsman and will use it without removing any skin.

Since then, age has closed this chapter. I have arthritis in my fingers and a damaged nerve in my neck that makes my hands numb. This keyboard is about the only tool I'll be using from here on out.

But I will always stop and look appreciatively at a good tool. I will hear my Grandpa say, "A fellow could do a job of work with that."


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