Tiny Pieces of Childhood

I stood in the childhood driveway of my best friend’s house and simply marveled at what was before me. This is how a pirate must feel after digging up a lifetime accumulation of treasure, long left in its chest and now excavated in preparation of a well deserved retirement. I don’t know for sure, but it felt like my eyes might actually be twinkling. It was that kind of a moment.

“Wow” was the best I could pull off.

The Doctor smiled on and basked in the glow of a happy friend.

“Enjoy!”

The happy moment I now lived had begun decades ago, but its fruition had only been set into motion two years before…

It had been a beautiful summer day as Action Girl and I drove along the winding roads of New Hampshire, Short Stack snoozing heavily behind us, strapped into his car seat. The trees were deep green and broad leafed and overhung the rural roads with muscular ancient branches, turning our drive into an undulating and twisting tunnel, dappled with the light of the sun. Being native to this part of the country, my wife and I have an abiding love of it and miss it quite a bit. It’s the type of place where we feel instantly connected with the land. I love where we live now, but being “back home” makes me nostalgic and drunk with memories.

Lost in my own private thoughts, Action Girl jolted me back to the moment at hand by reminding me that I was under the gun, so to speak, and totally unprepared. We were almost to the place where my all-but-blood brother would soon be married. The Doctor and I have been best friends since the third grade and this being his wedding, I was the best man, and as such, I was going to have to speak publicly about him at length during the reception.

Naturally, I had done nothing in preparation for this moment.

That’s how I roll.

Since it seems to be a spouse’s job to try and save their significant other from making a total bumbling ass out of themselves, she decided to see if she could help me overt a verbal train wreck that was looking all the more likely as the miles ticked off and we got closer to our destination.

“Okay.” Action Girl pulled out an old scrap of paper and pen from the car console. ”Give me some facts about your friendship”

As I ticked off various points, thoughts and entertaining moments from our long friendship together, Action Girl scribbled them down in the form of a bullet list. I’m pretty good at talking off the top of my head and rather than reading from a scrip, a good list like the one being compiled would be just what was needed. Most of the items I recounted barely got a response from her, until one in particular made her stop writing and look up at me.

“Really? Wow! That’s the one. Talk about that, for sure.”

We pulled into the parking lot and roused a sleeping Short Stack from the comfort of his seat and strapping him to my wife’s back, headed down the beautiful carriage road that lead to the idyllic, garden setting of the wedding.

The choice of venue was beautiful, as was the bride and the ceremony as well. Things went off mostly as planned and I got to spend a wonderfully surprising amount of time with The Doctor just prior to and after the nuptials. It was a perfect day.

We sat back to enjoy our after “I Do” meal and after a fashion, staff appeared dutifully filling our empty champagne glasses, Action Girl gave me a gentle prod.
“Now’s probably good.” A smile and then, I’m fairly sure, a silent prayer that I wouldn’t make an ass out of my self.

Show time!

I’m not a bashful or reserved person when it comes to the public, which can surprise some people since I’m not normally interested in being in the thick of what ever is going on. I’m a periphery sort of guy and prefer to watch than direct. When I get to talk, however, it can be hard to get me to shut up again and go back to listening. My dear wife has pointed this out roughly fifty-two thousand four hundred and sixty five times. With a reassuring gulp of beer, I stood up to address the crowd of friends and family.

I don’t recall a lot of the specifics that I spoke about, drink in hand and mind wandering. I can recall the smiles and various heads bobbing in agreement as I described my extra-familial little brother and I took that to be a good sign that I was neither boring nor off track. I forged ahead.

“I could tell you that The Doctor and I have been close and constant friends for years, but that’s really a cliché that we’ve all heard before at occasions such as this. What I want is to give you an idea of just how deep our loyalty to each other goes.” I scanned the crowd of wedding guests and took in a vista of scientists, engineers and other proud nerds. They would understand.

“I’ll just say this: We pooled our Legos.

Gasps and murmurs bubbled up from the guest tables. Perfect! I had read my crowd correctly.

Legos, for those of you who somehow do not know, are those little, multi-colored, interlocking bricks that have become the ultimate prized item for any geeky child and the ultimate bane of their parent’s. Filling the categories of being tiny, easily lost, both painful and likely to be stepped on and, oh yes, unimaginably expensive, amassing a good Lego collection can take a lot of convincing on a kid’s part. In the end however, they are totally worth the work.

When The Doctor and I first began our friendship, we were only half way through grade school and our own individual caches of plastic mini-bricks were modest, but adequate. As I look back, now as an adult, I marvel at how much of their discretionary income my parent’s spent to feed their son’s Lego habit. Legos have always been pricy and for the money spent, you didn’t get a lot in the way of pieces. It’s a testament of their devotion to a happy child that I had what I did. They didn’t have a lot of money, but I did have a nice little bucket of Legos to play with.

Then, The Doctor started to come over to play.

The two of us spent innumerable hours on our hands and knees, driving our creations across floors in both his house and mine. So, many, in fact, that I can, to this day, clearly remember the pattern and texture of all the rugs throughout each of our homes. Whole days may have passed when neither of us were more than a foot and a half off the ground. T was what we did. Eventually, as the years passed and our friendship came to be an obvious rock of permanence in our lives, we dared to do something that only people who were close as brothers would ever consider.

Through years worth of birthdays and Christmases, each of our collections was something to be proud of. They were impressive in terms of both diversity and scale. Together though, it would be something of childhood legend: A resource that would enable a Lego builder to construct just about anything. Possibly two of anything!

And so, we did it.

One day, into the hopper they all went and from this mountain of plastic, we extracted the materials for one wondrous project after another… for years. Just about every weekend, we built together and creating a cornucopia of beweaponed space ship fleets and mighty fortresses to do battle with. Then we’d break them down and start again. It was wonderful.

As time moved along, Legos, like so many focuses of childhood, moved to the back burner and then off the stove completely. Eventually, our huge collection of plastic bricks was packed away and forgotten all together. We had moved on.

Then, the day of my friend’s wedding came. After I had wrapped up my soliloquy with the necessary champagne toast to the bride and groom, the cake had been cut and eaten and things calmed down to chatting and strolling, I couldn’t help by find The Doctor and ask.

“Hey, what ever happened to all those Legos?”

He grimaced a bit as he thought about where they could have gone.

“Eesh. I think they went to my cousin. You can ask her if you want. She should be at table four. I doubt she has them any more though.”

It was worth a shot. I looked over at my little boy playing in the grass with an adoring wedding guest and guessed that someday, he too might get the Lego Fever. When I found the cousin, the outlook got worse.

“Oh, wow. My mom never hangs on to anything like that and I haven’t seen those Legos in ages. I’ll ask though, if you want?”

Over the years I have learned that in situations like this, you say, “Yes” to questions like this. You’ll regret it later for sure if you don’t and I wasn’t going to regret not trying this time around. I didn’t expect anything to come of it, but hey, why not?

Two years later on a visit back to my hometown, I was reaping the benefit of my inquiries.

“Are you sure? Don’t you want to hang on to at least some?”

The Doctor just smiled back and shook his head. There they all were. A huge box, filled to overflowing was in my arms and I honestly wondered how I was going to get it in the car. I’d find a way though!

The pile has now been passed on and happily, is in the very capable hands of one Short Stack and is appreciated just as much by him as it was by us. It has in fact, become part of my life again as well. After Lulu Belle is put to bed, teeth have been brushed and jimmies put on, it’s time to break out the Lego box.

I’ve built him a new one just for this purpose and it is the size of his mattress and just barely clears the bed frame. Inside are thousands of little pieces of memories of a happy childhood from long ago as well as the fuel for one being woven today. Just about every night, the two of us play and build and as I lay on my side on his bedroom floor, I can just about see the world through the eyes I once did. The Doctor might not be here to build and play with me anymore, but Short Stack makes a great playmate. I hope that he thinks his dad does too.

Now if you’ll excuse me, there are some space ships that I need to get back to constructing. You see, we have a launch schedule to keep…

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Well Used Hand Tools

As I sit here and type this, I can look down at my hands and see a least three cuts or abrasions in various states of self-repair. If I turn them over… I can’t type any more.

I could also find three or four more.

This is not an uncommon state to find my hands in. Bandages are a common accessory and the scars that criss-cross my fingers, palms and forearms are plentiful and, to me, read as some of my life’s stories. I can’t say that remember where all of them came from, but I can tell you about some of the major ones. The long curve between two knuckles on my left hand made by a slipped screwdriver, the three parallel lines on the outside of my right thumb from the hand saw that I didn’t see until it was too late or the blobby one on the back of my left hand made by the hot lead dripping off the soldering iron. They make me think of the projects that I’ve tackled and that tackled me back just a bit.

I work with my hands a lot and to any one who takes a moment to notice, it shows. I’ve always been somewhat proud of that. When I was a child, I remembering looking down at my soft, doughty hands and then at my father’s and marveling that someday, they might look like his. Mine seemed impossibly soft and round. The backs stood up like little hills and the mole that sat like a small bug on the back of my left hand was the only mark of distinction that I could find. Other than that, they could have been anyone’s. Any kids, at any rate.

Dad’s hands however had veins that stood out boldly as they twisted over knuckles and the scars dotted here and there, made them unique. On one hand, the size of a shelled peanut is a little mound of smooth flesh, devoid of any hairs and a slightly different hue than the rest of his skin, browned in the summer sun. Being the sort of kid who asked questions unabashedly, I inquired as to what happened here. Being the sort of Dad who indulges, he told me:

Many years ago, while he sat in high school chemistry class, the teacher was doing a demonstration. This particular experiment involved a Bunsen burner, a beaker and a small amount of sulphur. What ever the experiment was meant to show, the lesson that my father took away with him was that, A: melting sulphur can and will at times jump out of the beaker and, B: if it lands on your skin, it will immediately burn a hole through it until it cools off enough to stop. Then it will crystallize.

To this day, a small yellow-green patch sits at the bottom of my Dad’s scar, a memento of his school career. I was always taken by both the story and the mark it left and recall many instances of sitting in my Dad’s lap or near enough to touch him and quietly poking the scar and looking for the yellow-green at the bottom.

Since those days, my own hands have taken a lot of use and abuse. Though my love of collecting and using tools has taken its toll, the hardest work they ever put in was when I had my own manufacturing business. It was very hands-on type of work and the thing that my hands were on was clay. Lots and lots of clay. ;

Clay is insidious stuff. It’s smooth to the touch, cool and mushes easily in your hand. Other than being heavy to move around, it’s pretty simple stuff to work with in a lot of ways. What it also does is suck the moisture right out of every pore you have. Add to this that hand lotion and clay do not play well together, and you have a recipe for some seriously dry hands, especially come winter. The other thing about clay is that it’s like semi-liquid sand paper. It might be a very fine grit, but it still scours away at your skin. Do this for about ten years, and the result looks like this…

hand

That’s my hand just a few days before I sold the company and decided to do something else to earn my cookies and milk. I tell you honestly, there is not enough moisturizer in the world to heal those cracks. Ten months later, they look much happier, and so, by the by, am I.

Over the months I’ve been home, I’ve bent my will and tools to making our house look more like we want it to and less like a pile of lumber and shingles that have been dumped into the approximate shape of a house. My hands have been working hard, and Short Stack has noticed.

Like most children, he is obsessed with Band-Aids and will cry for one to cover the most minor of abrasions. To a kid, putting a Band-Aid on something is almost a magical experience and is viewed as a near panacea for all woes. When he spots some cut or blister on my own hands, his first inclination is to take me to the bathroom to get a Band-Aid for it. Some times I agree and we head off to cover the damaged digit with a dancing Snoopy or other cartoon emblazoned sterile strip. Other times, I tell him that I’m fine and that it will heal on its own. That doesn’t seem to bother him too much but I can see him think about it and wonder.

I look down at his hands and then at my own. Devoid of any obvious and permanent marks, they are pretty much as they were meant to be. My daughter, Lulu Belle’s are the only ones in the house that are cleaner and softer. Not even two years old yet, they are delicate, smooth and puffy, the knuckles existing only as dimples. Both of them will see many changes in their hands as time goes by. The thought of scars marring their tiny hands turns my stomach, even as I look at my own scars with pride. How funny.

I’ll happily show them someday how to use their hands to build and make things, though I know it will inevitably result in skun knuckles, scrapes or worse. That’s a given. It’s part of using something whether it be a machine that gets dinged and scratched with use or our own bodies. I still feel that it’s important to use them, though.

I’ll just try to keep them away from the clay. That and teachers with shaky hands and Bunsen burners.

Tool Junkie

As I looked into the empty, steel box, a very faint memory flitted through my head, just at the edges of my ability to reach it, like an escaped pet that manages to stay just beyond your grasp. In the box, there should be an electric saw perfect for the construction job that I was neck deep in. Instead, a terrified spider stood guard over a few burned out blades and the ancient sawdust left from previous battles waged with my house. The saw was nowhere to be seen. In my mind’s eye, I could envision handing it to a grateful someone who turned down taking it with its carrying case and saying something about getting it back to me later.

The problem here it that I can’t for the life of me, remember who this individual was.

Normally, I take care to reclaim tools quickly and write my name all over them as a precaution lest they be enveloped by some other tool chest and taken as its own. This time around, I had neglected these steps and since the moment of its lending happened well over a year ago. All I am left with now is the metal box and no saw. I think I can safely guess that the saw and whomever I loaned it to are both gone for good. That’s a common issue with the island we live on. The houses here are often in need of extensive repair and the people who live in them tend to come and go as they discover that planning life around a ferry schedule isn’t all that simple. They put the project up for sale and move on. I’d be willing to bet a bag of doughnuts that my saw isn’t even on this island anymore.

Tools are something that I have a weakness for. Places that sell them call to me like the sirens to Ulysses and ever since we bought our first house, I’ve been pursuing my ultimate goal of owning them all. Every tool out there. All of them.

toolchest

Some, I’ll need two of.

Or possibly… three or more.

My tool love was magnified by the fact that I used to own a business in manufacturing that required a pretty sizable array of toolidge, which I happily indulged in. It was kind of like telling a caffeine addicted barista that they had to sample each and every pot of coffee every morning.

The only thing better than shopping for a new tool, is shopping for a new validated tool!

When I sold my shop last year, the contents of the toolbox were not part of the bargain and it all came home with me to happily overflow my basement. I have two complete wrench sets, two each of two types of drills (two battery powered and two half inch corded), two circular saws, two drill presses and more measuring tapes than the mind can comfortably explain the need for having.

Some of these duplicates have gone to my parent’s house to clutter up Dad’s workbench and they have been happily received. For him, it means that he finally had some power equipment that he’s been unable to justify buying and for me it softens some of the guilt I feel for all the hand tools that I borrowed from him in my youth and then lost in the back yard, the woods or simply secreted away to my own house. I’m sure some of his as well as my own tools live, lost and forgotten in various closed up walls or behind built in cabinets with the spiders and old shopping lists that seem to lurk there and reproduce in abundance.

Though I’m a sucker for motorized tools, my real love is with good, old fashioned, cast steel ones. Hand tools have a spirit about them that you just don’t get with anything else. A cruise through a few of my bench drawers or tool boxes will yield you a healthy example of wrenches, screw drivers and saws that are rough, darkened with age and grease and quite old. They date back three or four generations now and some have been used by my family, some still alive, some long gone now. The marks left on them by their past projects are imprinted on each tool like scars of honor.

Many years ago when my Grandfather knew he was dying, he made a request of my Father. He wanted to make sure that he’d take the tools. My Dad was his only son and it was important to Grandpa that his tools continued on in family hands. Naturally, he agreed and didn’t really understand what he said yes to until after his father had passed. Grandpa had worked with his hands his whole life and his years at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Western Electric Company and the farm he had, made him a solid, “fix it your self” kind of person. He had amassed an impressive stable of hand tools as well as a few electric ones (including a truly intimidating looking half inch drill that has to date back to the fifties or sixties). Bringing it all back to our home turned my Dad’s normally well organized work space in the basement into a huge collection of dark, heavy iron, ancient coffee cans filled with various drill bits and boxes of unidentifiable and obviously specialized bench mounted equipment. Later on when my wife and I bought our first house, Dad and I started to transfer some of them to my place.

As you look around the clutter choked area I call my workbench, you might notice that the most used tools are kept within easy reach. My Grandpa’s grey toolbox sits only an arms length away and I paw through it often. When I do, I often whisper through a smile something like, “Ok, Grandpa. Lest see if you have… needle nose pliers / a pipe burnisher / a 5/16ths wrench”… or something along that line. I value the connection it gives me and using his tools makes him feel close by just like it does when I use one of my Great Grandfather’s tools or one of my Dad’s that I have snuck off with when he wasn’t looking. I’ll get it back to him later.

More likely, I’ll use it to fix something in his house at some point soon. I’ll try to remember to leave it on his bench after.

Tools are special to a fixit guy. A wrench stops being just a wrench once you’ve used it long enough, bled on it, carried it in your pocket until the jeans rip where it goes and the metal goes dark with age. It represents the projects you’ve completed and the problems you’ve solved. Its loss would be keenly felt and its replacement would always be just that. A replacement.

There’s a story I’ve heard about a man talking with a farmer who he spotted chopping firewood. The man makes a comment about the farmer’s rather abused looking axe and mentions that he ought to get a new one.

“No sir! This is the best axe I’ve ever had! I’ve been using it for most of my life. I’ve put three new handles on it and two new heads. I just love this axe!”

As you can see, it’s the spirit that carries on. The story is a joke, naturally, but to be honest, I identify one hundred percent with the farmer.

After a trip into town and then to the tool store, I had parted with a sizable chunk of money but joyously clung to my new purchase. In my arms I held not simply a new Sawzall, I held MY new Sawzall.

sawzall

It’s far better than the one I lost and I’m thrilled to state that at the time of this writing, it is already dinged, dirty and well broken in. It’s earned its cookies and an honorable place among the family tools in my workspace.

It won’t last forever, naturally. It’s a power tool after all. You can bet that the motor will eventually over heat and fail or the bearings, filled with the grime and sawdust of a hundred projects, will someday seize, but in the mean time, it’s going to see a lot of work, and it makes me happy! When its day does come, I’ll toss it out and start shopping for a new one. The old hand tools will still be there though and work just as well as they always did and I’ll be working them just as hard.

All I need to do now is figure out a way to keep my own kids from nicking them before I’m finished with my own projects. I’ll probably have to build some sort of giant, locking tool chest and to do that, I’m going to need to pick up some new pieces of equipment!

Hmmm… I’ll need a joiner, a new router, some clamps… lots more clamps! Hmmm….

Tree’s Eye View

“That’s crazy!”

This was put succinctly by one of the three of us as we stared up at the pine tree with a combination of awe, temptation and raw, unmitigated, pounding fear in our chests, thumping like a bag full of jackrabbits. We were kids and as such, mostly immune to things such as common sense and thinking about consequences from our actions. This however, stood over us like an enormous exclamation point of doom. The tree, nearly alone in the middle of a large cornfield, was flanked only by one or two others of shorter stature. None were close enough to touch it and even these mighty neighbors looked foolishly tiny next to the monster we had gathered around. Two hundred years ago, this would have been slated for a ship’s mast, for sure. It would have been back breaking work to get it to the water from its place in western New Hampshire, but back then it would have been worth the effort. In today’s world, it was the single, solitary support for the scariest, sketchiest looking and highest tree house I have ever, EVER seen. Even as a knuckleheaded kid, my brain was screaming, “NO!” and the top of its tiny, imaginary lungs and threatening to strangle me with my own spinal column if I put a single finger on the first rung of the ladder.

Actually, I was up against more than the simple urge to not fall to my doom. This tree house had several strikes against it and though not all of them were structural in nature, those particular strikes did tend to jump out at you. First, there was the most obvious; the height. Most of our tree houses, and we had many, were no more than fifteen or perhaps twenty feet up. The twenty footers were impressive when you got up there and made you consider the soundness of the construction just that little bit more carefully. The one we were looking at now was easily sixty feet or more. As I looked up and tried to gauge the height of the lower deck, I could actually watch the entire thing sway in the late summer breeze. I knew in the pit of my stomach what that must feel like when you actually got up there and the last thing you wanted was to freeze up when it was time to head back down.

The next problem that was presented was a fundamental one. It was a pine tree. Though we had all built forts in pines at one point or another, it was undeniable that they were the least desirable tree to pick. Not only did they ooze sap all over you and your clothes, but their branches just weren’t that strong. You couldn’t trust a pine. They might have been great for masts, but they stunk as perches for tree houses.

Then there was the ladder. Actually, calling it a ladder is giving far too much credit. What we were looking at was the poor man’s tree ladder. Two by fours, cut to about a foot in length and then nailed onto the side of the trunk snaked up its side and the thought of some kid, big or not, left me with a sense of awe. He (and judging on the foolishness of this endeavor, I think we can pretty safely assume it was a he) would have had to cling to the “rungs” that he’d already nailed up with the crook of his arm as he hammered on the next one with swift but careful swings of the hammer. It would have been risky for Spider Man to have pulled off. And speaking of pulling off… that’s all I could envision happening. These rungs were held on by nothing more than a few large nails, pounded into the side of a pine tree. It didn’t take an artist to paint a mental picture of one simply popping off as you clung onto it for the unexpected ride down. The tree fort had been there for as long as any of us could remember and the chances that the whole operation was rotten and ready to fall apart was an easy conclusion to reach.

All this… all these reasons not to go up would not have been sufficient to keep us from putting our tiny lives in danger. As a kid, you’re supposed to look fear (and common sense) in the face and jump, climb or do whatever death defying thing you’re hesitating to do anyway. Otherwise, the risk being branded a “scardy cat” or worse was very real to us and reputations like that are social death to a twelve year old. It’s gotten more than a few an all expense paid trip to the emergency room.

I knew we all didn’t want to go up, but we had to. Or, would have had to if it weren’t for one thing: the little kid / big kid Fort Hierarchy. There was a rule, unspoken but known by all when it came to tree houses. You did not ever, ever, ever enter the tree house of a “big kid.” It was a mark of respect and one that I never saw violated.

The cycle went like this. Little kids built forts on the ground. Anyone could walk through them and we did. It was to be expected. As you got older, you’d build your first tree fort. This was usually only just above arm reaching height and was rarely more than a glorified platform that collected dead leaves and the occasional own pellet.

Tree Fort

Then, as you got older, you would band together with others in the effort of building something grander. These affairs were usually fifteen to twenty feet up, had walls and a roof and some, even bits of homemade furniture. A few even became “super” tree forts, sporting glass windows made from old sashes, trap doors and even a bit of old carpet or ancient chairs. These were castles in the trees and I never heard of anyone braving more than a peek through a window or an open door, but even that was risky behavior. We had all seen how this played out in the movies and TV shows. The second we would have set foot inside to look around, the big kids were bound to come and catch us. It was a forgone conclusion! Nope. You just didn’t go there.

Later on, when the big kids moved away or went to college, the tree fort would stand abandoned and forlorn. They hung there like haunted houses in the air, turning green with rot as their structural soundness melted away. You never used them as your own. You couldn’t trust them and year by year, they slowly fell apart.

From this distance, we couldn’t tell the condition of this particular crow’s nest, but it didn’t look good. The boards that made the ladder looked long unused and some hung at a rakish angle. After the last quiet, “wow” from someone in the group, we looked at each other to make sure that we were in agreement and walked back through the corn to the edge of the woods in search of safer adventures.

I can still picture that tree and it’s little kid built, wooden nest perfectly. I could see it easily from the road every day I went to school and I always marveled that it stood there at all. Even the tree its self looked improbable. Then, one day, it was gone, tree and all. The land was sold and what used to be cornfield became suburbia. This brought other enjoyments but I always missed seeing that tree and fort, towering over us all.
I came home years later and deciding to take a walk through old and familiar woods, I made a discovery. Finding the remains of tree forts that I remembered building was no shock. It was the natural order of things. What caught me off guard was that there were no more being built. Nothing. No little forts in the brambles, no platforms in low branches. Just the rotting remains of boards that I had pulled into the forest my self so many years ago. Kids, it seems, don’t build tree forts any more. We were the last. At least there, we were.

In my yard, we have no tree big enough for forts, but we do have woods near by. Someday, if my children want it, I will happily supply them what materials I can and send them into the trees. It’s dangerous I know, but at least I don’t have to worry about that big pine. Out here on the island, the big ones were all cut down for ship’s masts a hundred or more years ago. Thank goodness!

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