Key to the Past

“What are you doing down there?”

This is something I’m completely used to hearing from my wife when I’m at my workbench in the basement. Half of the cellar is my undisputed domain and although my wife has no issue with that, she does get curious and/or concerned when whatever I’m doing isn’t under her watchful eye. It’s not a lack of trust issue as much as making sure that I’m not burning up time on a task that is utterly frivolous and fool hearty. I’d like to say that she has no reason for this concern… but I’d be speaking an untruth to say that my track record is without blemish. I’m rather drawn the overly-ornate-task-for-no-reason, in a moth to a campfire sort of way.

No. It’s worse than that.

A raccoon to a bag full of trail mix might be more like it. Both the raccoon and I know that it’s going to be awesome and it takes some serious countermeasures to keep us away.

“I’ll be right up. I’m… getting a key fob for the spare front door key.”

I wait with head cocked toward the staircase.

There’s a thoughtful pause from the cellar doorway. “I don’t want to know, do I?”

After more than twenty years of this sort of thing, my wife is getting better at reading situations like this.

I put my head down and move faster. The key fob was not lie in the least. It’s exactly what I’m up to. The part that was not proffered was that I was actually constructing one from scratch. It was going to be sort of special actually, at lest to me.

We are going away for a couple of days and our good friend Coley is coming over to feed and water the cat for us. To do this, he needs a key. More accurately, what he needs is a second key since the one we lent him last time we zipped off overnight was regrettably lost. The lost key was really sort of my fault since I had simply slipped the key off our ring and gave it to him all by its self. He had put it in his pocket and at some point, it had slipped out and was gone. For most folks, this isn’t a really big deal. You just go and have another one made for a buck somewhere. What made this a bigger problem than normal for me was that my front door key is the good, old fashioned, skeleton type.

At one time, all keys pretty much looked like mine. It’s long, toothy with a large ring at the back and cast in bronze.

I love it.

When Action Girl and I had bought our house, I was tickled to see that the front door still had the original lock and knob assembly from when it was built in 1900. There was a modern dead bolt carved in above it, but still, after a hundred years of upgrades and remodeling, it was perhaps the only bit of architectural originality still possessed by this pile of timber. It was the last piece that hinted to where it had come from and how far back. Everything else was new-ish. At least it had been new in the 1950’s, 1970’s and 1990’s. A lot of the house was faded and worn, but the beautiful front door still had its lock. What was missing was the key.

I’ve seen a lot of old doors in my time, interior and exterior and one thing is nearly always true: the key is long gone.

Big, jangly skeleton keys get played with by kids, lost out of pockets or worst of all, put somewhere “safe”. Shortly after moving in to our new home, I found myself in the as yet unfamiliar shed out back, rooting through the few items that the previous owners hadn’t bothered to take with them when they moved. I have no idea what prodded me to stick my fingers into the cobweb covered eaves in there on a hot, summer day, but when I came out with that key, the first thing that went through my mind was, “NO WAY!” Without hesitation, I bolted to the front door, completely expecting to be disappointed.

I wasn’t.

This was perhaps the first time in my life that I had ever found a skeleton key that matched some far off lock. Giddy with the discovery, I decided then and there that this would be my front door key form then on. I gleefully put it on my key ring and there it has stayed. The hard part was getting copies made. Pretty much no one can duplicate them any more. Even locksmiths. What I needed was a real, honest to goodness, old fashioned hardware store. The kind with dusty bins of patina covered metal bits and pieces, marked with faded labels written by hand. Luckily, there’s Dupuis’

Dupuis’ is everything a hardware store should be. It’s musty and badly lit. Items on shelves had been stocked easily as far back as the Carter administration. There were unboxed items for sale that probably had gone out of production a decade or more ago, but still had a place of honor at Dupuis’. My eighty-eight year old grandfather calls this place the, “Iron Monger’s Shoppe”.

I call them amazing.

The whole place is like a museum to hardware Americana. Oh… and they can cut skeleton keys. Usually, when I have keys made, I just drop them off and come get them later on, but not in this case. When I saw the belt driven, cast iron lathe that they used, I had to stick around and watch the process. About 20 minutes later, I had two copies and happily forked out the ten dollars per key. It was worth that much just to watch a master key maker at work using vintage tooling. Many years later, it had been one of these copied keys that our friend had lost and now, I was going to do something to help that from happening again.

Embracing my love for the nostalgic, I rooted around in a box down in my basement looking for something special. Long ago now, my other Grandfather, my Father’s Father, had passed away leaving behind a few objects of interest. His tools mostly now hang on nails at my parent’s house but one particular collection went to me. This grandfather of mine had been an avid appreciator of firearms and through owning more than a few, had also embraced the hobby of loading his own ammunition. My own Dad doesn’t have that much interest in guns having gotten his fill shooting at groundhogs and crows on the family farm as a youth and then later, drilling with an M16 in the National Guard. Firearms never really did much for him and so, over time, he drifted away from shooting. For whatever reason though, the fascination seems to have skipped a generation in our family and I happily use the guns that I inherited and even reload just like my Grandfather did, often times using his equipment. This was why I was in the basement. That’s where the reloading supplies are.

At the bottom of the plastic tote I was pawing through, I found the faded, stained and repurposed Schraft’s Chocolates box that had long ago been picked by my Grandfather for a new duty. When my own Dad had been just a young boy, it had been filled with fired, cleaned and de-primed Colt .45 brass. The pistol that had once fired all this brass was long gone before my time, probably traded away for another pistol or rifle that had caught his eye, but being the picture of an old Yankee, Grandpa had naturally not thrown out the brass. There might be a use for it, after all! I doubt that he had expected it to take something in the time frame of sixty years, though. As for the bullets…

In the spring, the ground thaws and burps up all manner of stones and lost items as it heaves. If you happen to be at the firing range and look at the sand berms behind the targets, you can also find loose bullets! Here, having spent a winter or two in the soft sand, they wiggle their way to the surface and glint in the morning light like lost bits of treasure. I can never resist grabbing a few and here, on my reloading bench, I sift through the scarred and dirty projectiles until I find a nice, copper jacketed .45 round. The soft sand had left no mark and the paper target that it had gone zipping through probably didn’t slow it in the smallest way. It looked new aside from the rifling marks on its flanks.

“Okay, Grandpa. You’ve got the brass so you must have the reloading dies too…”

I often talk to him when I’m sifting through his belongings. It’s been twenty-seven years since I could talk to him face to face, so chatting to his spirit will have to do. I like to hope that he can hear me somehow. It would make us both happy, I think.

Sure enough, I find the right bits and pieces and after about 10 more minutes of work, I have a perfect looking .45 round, minus the powder and primer and plus a hole that passes right through the base of the brass to allow the addition of the key ring. I give it a quick buff with some emery paper and… not bad, If I do say so my self!

“Hey, basement troll.” It’s my wife, Action Girl. “If you feel like joining us above ground, Coley’s here for the key.” With not a little bit of triumph in my step, I emerge to a warm handshake and a cold beer with our friend. Coley and we have gone shooting several times together in the past and he laughs when he sees the new key and accompanying fob.

“Well, I guess I can’t lose that one!” he chuckles as he pops it in his pocket.

Our vacation now over, our friend had returned my front door key with my Grandpa’s bullet key chain. Making it probably wasn’t the most constructive use of my time, but it was certainly an enjoyable allotment of some of my minutes. The added bonus is that every time I feel it in my pocket or see it sitting on the sideboard, it reminds me of him, the old style key sort of echoing the history for me. My children will never get to know my Father’s father, hear his voice or see his face form into that crocked smile like I have, but there will be a little bit more of him in my house now, and that’s good.

And the best bit for me is, when I want to do something with him, all I need to do is creep down to the basement and uncover my bench. He’ll be there, waiting in that old chocolates box full of spent brass and reloading dies, and I’ll chat to him a bit while I load up for a day at the range with our guns or just maybe just mess around making another doo-dad to help keep track of one of the keys to my front door.



The Alarm going off at eleven PM felt incredibly rude and distinctly impossible and I flailed at its unfamiliar controls as I tried to get my brain wrapped around where we were and what was next.

We had been in bed for possibly three and a half hours and though Short Stack had been out cold for the majority of that, it had taken me a little while to mentally wind down and then a little longer to find peace with the bundle of knees and elbows that curled up against me in the strange bed. Little kids are notorious in their lack of bed sharing etiquette and my son, as it turns out, is no different. The mental image of sleeping with your child in your arms is just about guaranteed to turn the heart of any parent immediately into sentimental goo, but the reality of the experience is that, even in sleep, your average child possesses ten thousand times the energy of an espresso fueled chipmunk and it will need to be released in wild explosions of sleep gymnastics throughout the entire time.

They will sleep. You shall not.

Oddly enough, the next night, the same sleep deprived and lightly bruised parent will almost immediately sign up for the exact same punishment once they look down at the beautiful form of their own child curled up and alone in bed. Apparently, it’s not just our hearts that our kids can turn into goo. Our brains are fair game as well. The effect is something like Stockholm Syndrome and we willingly crawl right in, ready for another night’s micro-beating.

I fumbled about in the half light looking for pants, shirt and shoes, and eventually had myself dressed and fuzzily awake enough to consider the next step. We needed to get to the car. What I SHOULD have done was to get the car mostly packed up the night before so that, naturally, had not happened. I had realized this when the moment had arrived but it had been the exact moment that Short Stack was finally getting sleepy and we were on the downhill run to bedtime. Normally, I would have left him with my wife at that point and scooted off with the larger bags and been back to the room in five minutes. With a little kiddo in tow however, and no back up, I was tied to spot. Since he was too tired to go with me and there was no chance of me leaving him alone, even for the sprint to the vehicle, I found myself unable to “run out” and do anything. It was a slightly frustrating realization but one that would be a part of every moment of this trip. While we were here, I wasn’t letting Rocket Boy out of my sight, even for a moment. This is when I remembered the stroller.

It had seemed goofy to lug it in with us when we checked in and I had almost left it at the car. Actually, I had almost left it at home all together. My reasoning had been that Short Stack is a pretty good walker and we would be doing something that he loved. I had little fear that once we were surrounded by the objects of his adoration, he would, as my Grandfather liked to put it, turn into a Cream Puff.

Being labeled “Cream Puff” had been an epithet of my childhood to be avoided and it was the one he liked to use when you, as a young child, would wimp out on a long walk and ask to be put on his shoulders. As a kid, I had taken many a long stroll with him at the beach and to this day, I can remember the exchanges that took place after I started to whine about tired legs.

“Your not going to turn into a cream puff on me, are you?”

“No.” Plod, plod, plod. “Grumble grumble grumble”

“What’s that?”

“I’m just getting tired.”

“Cream Puff?”


…and I’d trudge on down the beach with renewed determination my little chin leading the way, at least for a little while longer. Some would see this as being too tough on a little kid, and I do remember complaining to my folks when I’d come home, more often than not sitting on his shoulders anyway, but I did get pretty darn good at keeping up for more of the walk than I expected. Looking back as an adult, I have a sneaking suspicion that his encouragement had more to do with saving his back and neck muscles than building any character and stamina on my part, but the effect was much the same. I’ve tried the same treatment on Short Stack but he tends to fight back with logic.

“My legs are shorter than yours, though.”

To which I’ve replied, “Yes but you weigh less.”

This argument worked well until at one point he realized that, yes, that was true, “But my feet are smaller”

This kid is way too good at logic arguments.

“Are you being a Cream Puff?”

“No. Just carry me”

Ah, the best of both worlds. And I go on with my Cream Puff on my shoulders. Who needs to go to a gym to work out? My gym finds me!

Through all this, I have developed a packhorse mentality and will take just about any load on my back and trudge for miles. This was indeed my plan for Florida too. When his little feet gave out, I could simply plunk him on my shoulders and he’d be fine. I could do that for three days… I foolishly though. During the initial packing phase for our adventure, I had seen of the stroller as being an unnecessary torture instrument that I could leave behind. Strollers are not made for men, (or woman for that matter) of any height. Though I am only six foot tall and thus, well within the average for a male of mixed European heritage, strollers make me hunch painfully with the rear wheels so close that I inevitably wind up kicking them as I stride along. Couple that with the evil, free castoring front wheels that will inevitably go off on their own unexpected expeditions, often into the inevitable trash can or unnoticed door frame, and you can see why this can quickly degrade into a litany of mumbled swears. Right now though, it was a lifesaver and awkward as it was, I was grateful that my wife had convinced me to bring the thing along. Though I was pretty sure that I could have done without it during the day, there was one flaw I hadn’t considered. For Short Stack to stay on my shoulders, he needed to be awake.

With as delicate a touch as possible, I lifted my sleeping boy from his bed, set him down in the red canvas of the seat and wrapped him up in the travel blanket his mother had thoughtfully provided in her dutiful packing the night before. He stirred briefly and then was back to dreamland in seconds. Tossing a flannel shirt over the sun shade like a bullet proof mosquito net, I hoped to keep him sheltered from the blinding hall lights just out side our room’s door.

I glanced at the clock next to our still warm bed as I gathered up the last of our belongings.

“Crap. We’ve gotta go!”

Wheeling him out before me and pulling the suitcase along after turned out to be a challenge as usual and our room’s pneumatic door tried its best to chew on us as I shoved us though and out into the hall and escaped to the elevators. Catching wheels and snagging shoulder straps, we managed to make the lobby. With all the jostling, he was starting to come around.

“What are we doing, Daddy? Is it time to go?”

“Yup! But it’s a long drive. Just go back to sleep, buddy”

I was really hoping that the dark car ride would do the trick for him and that he’d get the sleep he should, but that it wouldn’t have that same effect on me. Realizing how groggy I still was, this became more of a concern than it had been before. It’s a simple thing to say, “I’ll just drive though the night” It’s another thing entirely to do it. What I needed was coffee.

The same multi-talented young woman was still working behind the front desk when I wheeled our ungainly caravan through the lobby and she smiled brightly as I appeared in all my encumbered glory, cloaked, half sleeping child pushed before me. “Don’t worry,” she said in a whisper and waived a dismissive hand. “I’ll check you out myself. Enjoy the launch! It should be a good one.”

“Thanks! Um…” I paused and whispered back. “Coffee?”

In the end, they had no coffee and the nearest all night dad refueling depot would take us a good bit off our intended course. With time weighing me down more than the bags, I decided to opt for the syrupy gloop that passes for bottled ice tea that was available from our helpful host. I didn’t have time to fill out a comment card and I regretted that. She had been great and deserved, if not a promotion, then at least an assistant or four. I also might have mentioned to the hotel chain their need for coffee in the lobby.

By now, the transfer from the bed to the stroller had woken my boy up a bit and the lights in the hall and lobby hadn’t helped, though I had done my best to muffle both. My brief search for caffeine hadn’t helped either and by the time I was clicking him into the car seat, he was rubbing his eyes and yawing. He was up and he knew where we were going. It was rocket time! As I made ready to pull out and leave, there was none of his usual chatting coming from the back seat as he grappled with his sleep drunk body and attempted to take control. He’d start a sentence with a groggy, “Um… Daddy. Um…” and get no further than possibly, “Did we… um.” And leave it at that. Mentally, he was struggling to the surface but trying to get the machinery of his little brain going was rough. It was still clogged with the cotton batting of deep sleep and though it became quickly evident to me that there was no chance of him nodding off again, I stayed quiet too in the hopes that he’d nod off again. I punched our destination into the GPS that I had oh-so very thankfully borrowed from a friend before we flew out and pulled the car onto the highway.

At NASA, an hour away, the countdown was running…

It was actually running!

Both they and we were on schedule.

Familiar Faces

And so, we bring to a close the winter holiday season, and I must say, I’m sad to see it pass. What’s been unusual and wonderful this year is that we’ve seen a lot of my parents over the last week and a half. They had come up on Christmas Eve and only departed for home today on the fifth. Making it even better, they didn’t have to stay with us in out dollhouse-esque abode. We can do visitors for a day or two, but anything more than that and things get decidedly cramped. I know families used to all live on top of each other just a few generations ago and I’m sure it provided good warmth in beds, but personally, I’ll happily let that aspect of the past go in favor of being able to live with some privacy.

Mom and Dad have a weekend place they stay at on the island, and though originally intended as a summer cottage when it was first purchased, I believe they have closed it down for the season only once. That was the year before Short Stack was born. Since then, my folks have sort of dragged their feet when it comes to draining the plumbing and removing all the freezables in preparation of letting the house go dark for the winter. Last year they talked about it a lot, but in the end, they put off the decision so long that it made no sense to finally go through with it. Personally, I blame adorable grandchildren, but then, I might be biased.

Even when they are not coming up for extended stays, they are, more often than not, here on the weekends. That means Short Stack and Lulu Belle get to spend a lot of time playing with my parents and that, for obvious reasons, makes me very happy. I have a very strong and good relationship with my folks and to see my son and daughter get to forge their own memorable relationship with them, well… that’s hard to beat. It’s a boon for my parents as well since I’m it as far as offspring go. My kids are their only grandchildren and they dote on them to a ridiculous level.

From Short Stack’s point of view, the best thing about visiting Grandma and Grandpa’s house is the sleepover. As a child, for whatever reason, I had a very hard time sleeping anywhere but my own bed. I just didn’t want to. I’m not sure if I was actually afraid or simply very uncomfortable, but the effect was the same. When it came to spending the night at a cousin’s or grandparent’s, the answer was always, “No, thank you.”

Not so, with Short Stack.

When he stays over, it’s with a huge smile plastered over his tiny, round face and if it is my unfortunate duty to tell him, “Not tonight. Maybe tomorrow.” I can just about bank on carrying a very sad and confused little boy up the stairs to his bedroom in our own house. I’ll also be peppered with questions right up until I tuck him in as to why he couldn’t stay at Gram and Gramp’s tonight and could he PLEASE stay tomorrow as well as promises of being a good boy. Personally, I’d rather get a stab in the arm rather than run this guilt gauntlet, as thrown down by a little red haired, blue eyed three year old.

Kid guilt to parents is like water to the Wicked Witch of the West.

“I’m meeeelllll-ting!”

This last week, I think Short Stack has spent more nights away than he has as home. It’s tough as a parent, but heaven for the other parties involved.

Action Girls folks are much loved by our kids as well and though it means a log drive to go and see them, the fun that they have is always worth the slog up north. Whether tromping off to the farm next door or simply running around the yard with my wife’s folks, the kids always look forward to the visit and hop in the car like eager riders on some unseen rollercoaster.

Short Stack and Lulu Belle love their Grandparents, both sets, but more importantly, they know them, and know them well.

It was something that occurred to me last night as I pawed through the genealogy project that my Father has been working on for some time now. It started, for me anyway, when my Father’s Mother passed away. She was the youngest in her family and as such, was the holder of the family photo albums. In her little apartment attached to my aunt and uncle’s house, resided picture albums reaching far back into our own little slice of history. Faded black and white photos of half remembered people whose faces look familiar, but only in parts.

She didn’t have much to leave behind other than the photos and after the funeral service, we all wandered into her apartment with the idea of collecting a keepsake to bring back home to remember her by. As we entered, I brought up the idea of not touching the photo albums, but scanning them instead. Once digital, we could all have copies. It was agreed to by the lot of us and after a fashion, the complete set of family faces dating back to the turn of the last century had successfully entered the computerized world. For what ever reason, I never got a copy, but Dad did. Over the intervening years, my Father has been finding out exactly who is whom and making lots and lots of notes.

While Short Stack and Lulu Belle napped one day, I took a moment to look through the old photos with Dad. Some, I had seen. Others were of aunts and uncles whom I knew and could still talk with. The ones of my deceased grandparents furrowed my brow with sadness even as I smiled broadly at the memory of their voices, still echoing in my ears.

Then I found this.

To anyone outside our immediate circle of family and friends, this picture might look mildly interesting as a snapshot in history. There isn’t much to see here, honestly. At lest to the foreign eye. The cloths are for cold weather and the shadow of the tree shows bare branches, so we know it’s winter. The house behind them is large and windowless so we can guess that it might be an apartment building. The child has many holes in his obviously worn stockings, so you could also surmise that they were poor, and you’d be right. The man and the little boy could be anyone.

But they are not.

They are my Grandfather and his Father. The Father, is a man I never knew. A man, in fact, that my Grandfather barely knew, for he died when the little boy in the picture was only about ten.

What stopped me cold were the faces. My Great-Grandfather’s face looks identical to my father’s as I remember it from my own childhood. My Dad’s face has aged and changed now, but when I was a boy, this is what my Father looked like, exactly. In his arms, the child, no more than three, looks eerily like my own son. The same build. The same round face, even the haircut. It’s a very good match, indeed. To top it all off, there has been a long succession of men in the family with one of two names. It’s alternated, actually and both of these names have seen heavy use in a family that has, for four generations, hung onto its surname by a single thread. I was the end of the line before my own son was born. He is it now.

My parents, for reasons of their own, decided to break from tradition and gave me a first name that had not been used by our family since, (so far as we know) the sixteen hundreds. I’ve always been happy with it, but when it came time to name our own son, looking down at his pink face, I knew without doubt what his name would be. The family tradition was back on track.

When I look at the picture, I see my Father and my Son, and because of my parent’s choice, the names of those two long passed figures, match the names of the living. I must admit, it sort of unnerves me, but I can’t look away.

My Dad printed me a copy of the photo and I’ve already framed it up and hung it in the living room. Whenever I walk past, I stop and glance and it makes my heart beat a little harder. It’s funny to react so to the picture of a man whom I never met and the face of a child whom I know grew up to be the old man with the ubiquitous cigarette, thick glasses and thinning hair. But that is not who I see, after all. It’s far closer to home to my eyes.

As the kids wake up and come downstairs to join my parents and me in their home, I can’t help but feel happy for them. They will remember this now. They are old enough. Lulu Belle I still a munchkin, but she’s catching on fast. Short Stack, with his elephant like memory, will clearly recall these days with his beloved Grandparents, either here or at my in-law’s and for my part, I feel like a member of the work crew, forging the moments that link lives together so that they can be relayed to future grandchildren, yet unimagined.

My Mother’s Father lives not too far from us these days. Maybe only an hour away, though there always seem to be some reason why we can’t go today or the next.

I think it’s high time we pay him a visit and work on those links some more.

We only get one family.

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.


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.


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….

Sixty Five Years Later

Utah, Omaha, Juno, Gold, and Sword.

It’s been quite a long time since I stood on the bluffs and cliffs overlooking these beaches. It was an experience that I shared with a large contingent of my extended family, including my Grandfather. Though he was not there during his service in The War, he is a battle weary veteran who understands what went in to a landing. He in fact, understands it better than most men alive. It was what he did for years and under horrifying conditions at that. As a skipper of LST’s, LCI’s and LCM’s, he became a member of an elite group of landing craft captains specializing in unusual or particularly difficult combat landings. His war, however, was in the Pacific.

As we walked around and over the battlements of a lifetime ago, he pointed out small things here and there that we might not have noticed. Things like how the tide was running and what that would do to soldiers in the water, the position of gun emplacements and how the fire would have converged out to sea and where it would be most intense. I have always been fascinated with the Second World War and having been glued to my television set when ever “Victory at Sea” was on, I was well versed in the Pacific War. Whenever I had asked him about his own stories though, I was brushed off. He had a handful of funny tales he liked to tell and retell. I can recall him recounting memories of watching B-25’s and B-26’s making bombing runs on the Owen Stanley Mountains in New Guinea. That was always a favorite for him.

“They’d come over the range high and in formation, then, one by one, dive like sparrows down the side of the mountains. We’d count them as they peeled off and thundered at tree top level with their engines wide open. Then they’d disappear over the jungle. We’d count them again as they came back into our view over the water and figure out how many we’d lost. At that speed, nobody had a chance to bail out.”

That was about as detailed as he would get. I never really heard much about the landings he made at all.

Even though I knew the stories by heart, I would still sit and listen, eager to hear what ever he’d give me. France however, was different for him. He hadn’t been here during the fighting and so, he was in a reflective mood and willing to share his views on how he saw this field of battle. It was a fascinating trip.

As I stood on a German pillbox, its sides crushed under the weight of Allied shelling and bombing, I remember wondering if it was a tomb for the soldiers who would have been manning on that day long ago. There are missing men in every battle, but the thought that under my feet and few feet of concrete and steel, may hold the unremovable, mortal remains of the German war machine, was a sobering one. They would have been young boys. They never grew old, but died as teenagers for the dreams of a madman. The loss from every stone, dune and bunker was palpable.

As we visited the American Military Cemetery at Omaha Beach, we split up as we walked with a sort of hushed reverence. These were the heroes who had given their own “last full measure of their devotion” and the emotion for me was overwhelming. As I humbly walked among the graves, I couldn’t miss hearing the voice from a young British girl as she pointed me out to her parents.

“Look mum! That man is out walking on the grass! It says right here not to do that!”

She was right, naturally. I had walked deftly past the neat little sign admonishing this very thing. We were to “stay on the paths, please.” I smirked… and kept reading and saying the names to my self in a soft whisper. These were my countrymen. They were from my home and I did not think for a moment that I didn’t have the right to be there. In the cemeteries of the other nations involved, I would stick to the paths, but not here. This was U.S. soil and I was here to pay respects. I was twenty-one years old then, and older than most of the soldiers who surrounded me as they lay in peace.

Besides, Americans have never been great at following rules. It’s actually how we started out with our own country.

On this sixty-fifth anniversary of the invasion, I think back to my time walking the peaceful and quiet beaches of Normandy. I thank the French whom we met there and the kindnesses they gave us during our stay. I think of my Grandfather as he stood on the cliffs with the knowledgeable eye of a veteran landing craft captain as he wondered aloud how they got anyone past the sandbars and onto the beaches or over the cliffs.

We remember this day for the great sacrifice of youth that took place and because it marked the turning of the tide in, what had looked all too often, like an unwinnable war against a juggernaut that knew no defeat.

The beaches are beautiful now but still carry deep scars, much like the individuals who were there on the day of invasion. Their scars will be gone soon. They are leaving us by the hundreds every day. The scars on the land will outlive them all.

If you have not seen them, I suggest you should.

If you know someone who saw it for themselves sixty-five years ago, ask them about it now, for they will likely be gone tomorrow.

d-day letter

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