By John Niolon
Does that term sound familiar? It’s a computer term. It means to unload what is stored in memory and protect it. Copy it to a floppy…. Back up your hard drive….. zip it down and put it on tape… all terms we hear and many of us live by day after day… literally a matter of life and death in a business sense at least. I’m sure at least one of you has failed to do this and received that dreaded message… bright white letters on a cold black screen.. “Unable to read Drive C:\”. Sometimes it’s accentuated by grinding and thrashing sounds made by your p.c.’s hard drive. Remember ? It is a terrible feeling. The sense of frustration and loss, the aggravation at yourself for not taking that few minutes to do the backups.
How much information could you lose ? It could be one easily replaceable file or it could be months or years of data that is irreplaceable or even erased from your other backup system…your own memory, the soft one in your hard head. Personal computers are very able extensions of our own brain and its collected information. But, as efficient as they are at storing data they still can’t begin to emulate the human brain and its capacity or it’s ability to capture and hold a scene that flashed before our eyes for a fraction of a second. A fleeting scent or a soft breeze can be the key to a flood of recollection of events we witnessed or things we’ve done. Remember that marble game you lost in third grade… you lost your ‘favorite’… and you can still remember the shot you missed to lose it ?
Now, think about what you had to do to build that database. How many times did you have to pick up a piece of metal you just torch cut to remember it was hot ? Only once, I hope. How many pieces of crown molding have you cut wrong to get the piece to fit right in the corner ? How much of this type “stuff” is learned by experience and not from books ? In my experience it is quite a bit. Some of it was a good experience and fun. Some of it was not…. remember that hot piece of metal ? Wouldn’t it be a shame to lose that information.
This is where the idea of mentoring comes in. Webster defines mentor as a “wise and trusted counselor or teacher”. We’ve all had mentors but more importantly we all need to be mentors… to counsel and teach those coming behind us. I’ve written before about my Dad and all the things he taught me. I mentioned how much I grieved for all his experience and memories and recollections that were lost when he died. Things that he either never told me or assumed I knew. Painful lessons that life taught him could have been shared with me to save my pain. “Don’t pick that up son, it’s hot !!” Those years and years of experience, ideas developed into practice, and dreams realized all vaporized when he died; the same ideas and dreams that I might have someday and work out on my own, duplicating his hard efforts and energy.
Anyone who works with their mind or their hands develops shortcuts and techniques that are as individual as they are. Two carpenters can build from the same plans with the same finished product, but use totally different approaches to the end result. This is also why a real craftsman can build a beautiful piece of furniture and my efforts look like an apple crate with varnish on it.
This is the kind of information that is irreplaceable. When we die, if we haven’t “backed up” this data, it’s gone forever. This gives us all a wonderful opportunity to do something worthwhile. In a previous article I used up 2000 or so words on what to do with our “stuff” when we die…how to distribute our accumulation of tools, hardware and such. Now the thing to think about is what to do with the knowledge that goes with the stuff. As I said in the other article I hope to “build” a beneficiary for my tool collection using my grandson. I hope to not only give him the tool collection, but the miniscule amount of useable knowledge I’ve accumulated over the years on their care, purpose and operation. And, hopefully these tiny seeds I plant will grow and inspire him to learn more and never stop searching for better ways to do things.
Think about who got you interested in cars or metal work or carpentry or whatever your passion might be. Who showed you how to use the tools, how to weld or solder, how to saw and keep your fingers on your hand ? Then, look around you at the generation of young men and women coming up behind us. Most are only concerned with keeping their cell phones charged and how to talk Mom into buying that new Tommy Gear. How many of these kids can’t check a circuit breaker when the lights go out ? How many even know what a circuit breaker is ? We’re raising a generation of “connected” kids. They’re hooked up…they’ve got Beepers, they’ve got cell phones, e-mail and voice mail. What they don’t realize is that their virtual world is supported by a physical world and most don’t have a clue about how it works. When their car won’t start they don’t flip up the hood, they flip up the cell phone cover and call someone. They could probably find a plumber on the internet before I could… but they wouldn’t know what he does.
I think we need to start passing down this knowledge we’ve worked so hard to gather. Considering how hard we’ve worked to learn this ‘stuff’…isn’t it worth passing on ? Do you want your daughter to pick up that piece of hot metal ? If you are like me and don’t have kids that show an interest, widen your search area. Look for neighborhood kids, cousins, nephews and nieces. There are kids out there still that are taking the toasters apart, or their dad’s cordless drill. These are the kids that will soak up all you can pour on them and beg for more. Find these young men and women and “waste” your time with them. Now I’m not naive enough to think that we’ll build a new world of master craftsmen. But we can develop some people with enough sense to maintain their homes and shops, to put the wheels back on their lawnmower instead of buying a new one.
Some of the home improvement centers have programs where kids learn to build a bird house from a kit or learn how to make a towel rack for Mom. These programs teach basic skills using basic tools. Nothing fancy. But they light a spark. They show the kids that they CAN do things with their hands other than swipe that credit card . I’ve talked to the guys who teach these programs and they love it. Some don’t even have kids of their own, they just enjoy passing along the knowledge and looking at the faces of the kids while they work and when they complete their task… it might not be the prettiest bird house but it is THEIR birdhouse and the next one will be better and prettier. Then they start thinking… “if I can build a birdhouse, I can build a dog house for Spot !”… and the sawing starts. Think about the last time you saw a small group of boys dragging scrounged lumber and tin and rope toward an old oak tree and a week or so later you see something that vaguely resembles a tree house. It’s been a long time for me. (Now you just see kids on $100 scooters.)
From the limited amount of experience I’ve had with these programs, I can assure you it’s worth more to you than shooting par. If you’re proud of the 8 point hanging on the den wall, just imagine how proud you’ll be of your grandson’s first mount that you taught him how to hunt and shoot. When the engine you built with your niece fires off first time…look at her face. That’s the look you’ll never forget !!
I was fortunate to have a Dad that shared what he knew, Scoutmasters that offered hours and hours to boys who wanted to learn, a friend’s Dad that I’ll never forget or be able to repay. He helped me earn a whole mess of merit badges. He taught me about plumbing, carpentry, how to clean a paint brush properly and how to string fence. He had the tools and the knowledge and he shared it. He taught me how to do things correctly and safely. When to wear gloves and safety glasses.. what happens when you hit something hard enough to break it. And, sometimes we broke things just to see what would happen…then we figured out how to fix it. He’s in his late seventies now, but if I took a project to his house today and needed help…he’d stop what he was doing and help me figure out how to do it….then offer to do it for me knowing that I wanted to do it myself. He never refused to help someone, especially a youngster who wanted to “do it” but didn’t know how. I’ve tried to be that kind of person when I could. I think we’d all do well to try and be that way.
There are good teachers out there; in the tech or vocational schools or teaching in apprentice programs. They turn out some very able craftsmen who fill much needed trade jobs and continue the learning practice day after day. These students go on to perfect their techniques and someday become the masters. Everyone is a master at something…. Ok… if not a master, at least really good… good enough to teach someone else who wants to learn. These tech school teachers can only reach so many young people…those that have the money and time to go to school. We can reach many more of these young people by giving our time to teach them…both the things they can learn in school and those all important things they never hear in school. “Don’t pick that up, son,…it’s hot”. We also have the opportunity to reach them sooner than the schools. And, because we can make the learning experience fun they will retain more.
Mentoring can take many forms and isn’t limited to the young. I belong to a couple of user groups on the Internet… one is for Ford Truck Enthusiasts (ford-trucks.com) and the other is a shop and tool related site called shop-talk.com. These guys never cease to amaze me. When a question is offered to the group, they will go to whatever means necessary to help someone understand what needs to be done and how to do it. They will even go so far as to make long distance phone calls, fax pictures or depending on geography..meet for coffee and talk about the problem. Parts are swapped, sold or given freely to help out a fellow truck owner or “shop” buddy. I’ve never failed to get some help when I asked for it and I owe so many in these groups…. Well, I could never repay them. If there’s a guy down the street who needs that lawnmower frame welded or who’s trying to build a storage shed and is a little lost… help him out.. and teach him as you go. I promise you’ll get more from it than he will. It doesn’t hurt to be the neighborhood handyman or helper. You’ll make a friend and share the knowledge. Who knows, he might have a brother-in-law with whom he can share what you taught him…and the chain of knowledge gets another link.
My old mentor I mentioned before… worked the 11-7 shift in a steel mill for 35 years and he slept during the day. Everyone knew when his garage doors were closed he wasn’t available for a drop in repair request. He was sleeping or tending to his family. But, when the double garage doors were open he was always available to help someone or just to visit. Many afternoons you could see him working on someone’s project. You could see a hood up and two or three heads stuck under it, a lawnmower up on sawhorses and a welding arc flickering brightly or the framework for a rose garden trellis being fabricated. Sometimes there were just folks sitting on stools in the sun talking and drinking iced tea.
Years after I was grown and gone, I came back for a visit, and I asked him if he had ever gotten tired of keeping the neighborhood running. He laughed and said he didn’t know if he was responsible for that, but helping people was something he enjoyed doing. He had more friends than he could count and it helped him keep in touch with everyone around him. He got to watch his neighbors kids grow up and mature and he knew every child’s name and disposition. Make up basketball and baseball games were always at his net or in his field, long after his kids were grown and gone. The bats, balls and gloves were kept in a storage box “outside” the garage and were always returned when the play was completed. Another benefit he pointed out to me was his “magic back door steps”. He called them that because in the afternoons when his sleeping was finished and he came outside to work in the shop or his garden, magically there was a basket of corn or tomatoes, a bundle of welding rods or a box of nails waiting there. He’d never take money, but he’d tell you today he was paid much too much. He’d help you fix anything he could and when you left you understood how he did it. He was also like a lot of Dads. He was smart enough to know that mischief has a gravity that attracts the energy and curiosity of young boys. And their enthusiasm can get them in trouble. There was always something around to “work on”. For a long time it was a ’32 Model-A Ford Roadster, with a “parts car” out back. That’s where I picked up a lot of automotive knowledge. Other times it was a David Bradley walk behind garden tractor (we built a trailer for it to haul vegetables from the garden and ride through the neighborhood) or a riding lawnmower that needed “working on”. They were activities that kept a boys mind occupied and kept him off the street. I can name 4 boys that learned a lot and never got in any major trouble. They are all grown now with grandkids and have always been hardworking, family men that are self-sufficient. Something else t
You don’t have to limit your mentoring to just the young. There are folks of all ages that want to do things but just need someone to get them started. I had a boss a few years back that had a sign in his office that said “Just Start…the rest will be easy”. That’s all most people need…the start… and maybe a little instruction and help. Share that knowledge !!
Call it what you want… passing the torch… teaching the young… training your replacement…helping a neighbor… it doesn’t matter. It helps to strengthen the infrastructure of this country. It builds character and self-reliance, it’ll make you feel good. And, it’s the best way to preserve what’s in memory. Besides when you’re 85 years old and can’t change out that flood light bulb on the end of the house, you’ll need some one to reach it and to know which way to turn it.