By John Niolon
I imagine it's a natural part of getting older and I'm sure we've all done it. You start considering your mortality and the inevitable distribution of your "stuff". For years I've scrimped and saved and swapped and inherited and appropriated my stuff. And, in my own humble opinion it's a formidable pile. And it's kinda scary sometimes when I realize that I've left my shop unlocked for three days.
I've been through several hobbies and usually sold out of one to buy into another. Model airplanes, bicycles, cars, ham radio, cars, woodworking, cars, metal working, trucks… and on and on. Each hobby necessitated the purchase of a sometimes unique set of tools. Through the buying and selling and swapping of all these endeavors, the one thing that has remained in place was the tools.
I've always had a morbid fascination with tools of any kind and a great respect for those people who can use them to create what is in my opinion…art. Whether it's a fine piece of furniture, a remote control airplane or a nicely done piece of fabrication and pipefitting on a steam generator; when it's done properly…it's art, and those who do it are artists. There are a lot of machinists, fabricators, pipefitters, maintenance-utilitymen that are on a level with daVinci when it comes to taking a spark of an idea and creating something unique, useful and beautiful. But I digress…..
So, I've collected all these tools and tried to emulate these artists. Sometimes it was successful…..sometimes not. Wrenches, sockets, hammers, saws, tig, mig and stick welders, plasma cutters, torches, transits, yard tools, tractors, meters, gauges, mics and calipers and in multiple quantities sometimes. Hell, I've got more vice grip pliers than some people have total tools. Several thousand dollars worth of "stuff". There is also a value that can't be calculated in dollars here. Some of these tools belonged to my grandfather, my dad and favorite uncles. Just by the simple act of holding them, I can be in a place or a time that was so special to me, a feeling that I can't duplicate any other way. I have a transit that belonged to my father… it's over a hundred years old and we used it for years in his business. Years of memories with him, both good and bad, but more good than bad. I can just set up the tripod for this instrument and have the most wonderful comfortable feeling you could ever imagine. A simple Lufkin 50 foot metal tape in my hand revives thoughts of times with my uncle, the brick mason, laying out a foundation for a block wall. I can still feel the cold on my face from that January morning. I didn't really enjoy being there freezing then, but I'd give a months pay to have him here now and measure that same foundation. No one can appreciate that but me.
A good friend forwarded to me an article by Peter Egan. I'm sure you recognize the name and his insightful writings for many different automobile publications. He is a man who appreciates and understands tools. He was writing about going to an estate sale that offered a life-times collection of a man's tools. Now this isn't something I'm rushing toward as an experience but it has caused some major reflection… What to do with my stuff. It's a weighty question.
I have a son and daughter. My son is not mechanically inclined, being a psychologist, his major tool is a computer. He builds one hell of a web page but he'd probably drive nails with a pipe wrench. I tried to interest him in mechanical things when he was younger but his interests were in other things. It's sad in a way, for now he pays greatly for someone to install a light fixture or a dishwasher in his condo in Chicago.
My daughter while producing beautiful grandchildren tends to soil her hands only with chocolate. A late arriving possibility was my son-in-law, and while he is a willing and able helper, by his own admission his mechanical abilities are limited and golf is more of a passion for him. The outcome was looking dismal and I had a clutching pain in my chest as I envisioned yard sale vultures grinning and slobbering over my "stuff" as they pay my wife pennies on the dollar value. This feeling prompted a video tape inventory and a notebook listing the major pieces of the collection and their approximate individual value. I've also tried to impress on my wife and children the emotional value of the inherited tools. I hate to admit it but it's falling on uneducated ears. Not deaf… but not knowing enough to understand. Perhaps if I equated it to the quilts that her Granny made….But anyhow, Bill Gates' money can not pay for that emotional value.
I think that Egan's idea while altruistic wasn't realistic. He being childless, decided to leave all his stuff to "…some youngster he comes upon who has a rusty screwdriver in his pocket and maybe a worn-out pair of pliers trying to work on a lawnmower engine; whose eyes light up when he hears a motorcycle pass by or sees a set of wire-wheels flash in the sunlight". I think he might waste his collection there… chances are as good as not that the gleam in the child's eye for the wire-wheels is only for how much they will bring at the pawn shop.
I've had friends suggest leaving them to a tech school or high school shop. I hesitate at that idea, wondering if any of it would ever get off the teacher/administrator's truck… It's a shame that there isn't a master craftsman somewhere who teaches young mechanics/fabricators/welders/etc, who has a place that needs this type of donation and would utilize this collection to produce more artists and artisans… it's still perplexing…. There used to be an older Italian gentleman, I think his name was Mario Capotosio (?) who used to write simple basic instructional articles for Popular Mechanics. "How-to" articles like using a file, drilling holes in metal, how to use a handsaw. That's the kind of guy that should have the tools to bring up these youngsters in the 'tool-using' trades. Good apprentice programs are vanishing like smoke on a windy day.
While I was sitting in the waiting room last week, anxiously awaiting the birth of my first grandson, thinking of the future, and all that waited patiently for him, my new plan unfolded. If I can't FIND a beneficiary, I'll BUILD one. I think now my best option is to take all the time I can with my newly born grandson…let him hold the tools and explain them to him… let him hammer two pounds of 8 penny nails into a two by four until it will hold no more and brag on the three that he hammered in straight. Gently guide his hand and teach him the proper way to use the tools… to appreciate them. Teach him about safety glasses and ear plugs so he's not as deaf as his grandpa. Hopefully more nails will be driven straight, fewer nuts cross threaded.
I'll spend hours wandering around hardware stores with him. Real old dusty hardware stores with sweeping compound on the floors !! Not the mega-million dollar "home improvement centers", but places that sell hammers, axes, plow line and hame straps, barbed wire, stovepipe and dampers, nails from big ole rotating bins with heavy paper bags and a hanging scale to weigh them and tomato plants out front in the spring. They're getting harder to find, but there still out there in small towns where no Home-Depot dares to tread (weak customer base and all…) And, the trip will be an adventure and hopefully a memory he can pass down to his son with these same tools. We'll start his tool collection while he is young, with his own locking toolbox and he has the only key (except for the spare that I have hanging on the back of a shelf).
I'll enjoy watching him smile and shake nervously as he burns his first piece of steel with a torch. I'll laugh at his newly created and completely original 'dance of the welder with hot metal in his sneaker'. I'll tell him the stories about his great-grandpa and the transit, his great-uncle Bud and laying out foundations. All of this over peanut butter sandwiches eaten with greasy hands in the shop. I might not be able to make him a auto mechanic, hell… he'd need a degree in computers and a EE to do that now a days. But, I can help him understand when it needs to be fixed and what he CAN do on his own. How to change a tire and jump a battery… check the fluids and know when a mechanic is trying to screw him.
As I sometimes sit in my shop staring at my truck project, frustrated with my progress on my '53 F-100, I wonder if he'll have to help me finish it. . At the rate I'm working this could be true. It's going to belong to him someday anyway.
Young Cole lives in Mobile for now, but I hope in three or four years we'll be closer geographically and I'm sure we will be emotionally, I'll see to that part for sure. My dad and I worked together from the time I could hold a level rod plumb until his stroke three years before his death at seventy eight. Over 30 years. He taught me so much, but I grieved for all the knowledge, memories, recollections that were lost when he died. I didn't realize until much later how much he did teach me. A lot by lecture and a lot more by example. He probably only taught me ten percent of what he knew, partly because he knew so much, but mostly because I wasn't always the most attentive or willing student. There is an old saying about young boys.. "When they get the smell of gasoline and the taste of lipstick, they're ruined"… that was true in my case…severely. At least till I met my wife. Maybe I can be half the teacher he was and Cole can be twice the student I was.
So my plan is forming in my mind and before I know it young Cole will be visiting and following me around the yard and shop. I can put my plan to action. I hope I'll have the answer to the three million questions he'll have. Hopefully by then, I can ride him around in one fine yellow '53 F-100. And when (far off in the future) the time comes, HE can drive ME to a hardware store in it. I'm not wishing my life away but I'm looking so forward to that and can't hardly wait.
This plan might not suit your situation at all and the neighborhood tech school might be a good one that would appreciate your donation. Perhaps your son or daughter has had the instruction from Dad about tools and the wonderful things they can do. I'm pretty sure though that the thought has probably crossed your mind and if by some chance it hasn't, I hope my ramblings here give you reason for it's consideration.
I think I'll call my daughter and see how my new grandson is doing.
Copyright © 2000 John Niolon, All International Rights Reserved. This document may not be copied or published without prior written consent of the author.