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.

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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.

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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….

Rolling Down the Snow

So, last night, the car started acting funny. Actually, there was nothing funny about it. The car was packed to the gills with small, wiggling children, seven tons of groceries and many hard won trophies from the hunt at Target. We had been out since eleven that morning and, naps be damned, we had stayed out until close to three thirty! Sometimes in the effort to have some semblance of a normal life, not to mention trying to actually accomplish goals you set for your self (such as having food to eat) you need to forgo the normal routine that ostensibly keeps your children sane but keeps you anchored to your house. This is exactly what we had done and we had the station wagon full of booty and crazed children to prove it.

The excursion had all in all, gone well. Neither Short Stack nor Lulu Belle had inflicted an emotional meltdown on us and both seemed happy for the chance to do something interesting. The rainy, cold weather had prompted me to do something! By ten that morning, I was looking down the barrel of hours and hours of hanging out in the living room with the kids, slowly going insane to the pitter patter of raindrops. Normally, I’d have jumped into a project, but with both kids home, that was decidedly NOT going to be a possibility. Plus, I didn’t want to.

By the time we were pointed homeward, the sky was looking brighter, the February rain had stopped and Short Stack at least, had managed to nod off for a few precious minutes. We were wrapping up a good afternoon outing. We drove back to the boat terminal and were the first car in line to board the ferry for the trip back to our island home. When the boat was ready, we drove on, parked and shut off the car.

Bad move.

Some time later as the ferry pulled up to the dock, we got the kids back in their seats and turned the key.

“Raur… raur…. raur.”

“Oh, you have GOT to be kidding me!”

My wife, Action Girl, was driving at the time and she was looking at the dashboard with a mixture of disbelief and hate-lasers. If any mortal being had been given that look, they would have had to shield their eyes or burst into a torrent of flame. The car, on the other hand, didn’t seem to care.

“Raur… raur… raur…”

There was obviously no way it was going to crank fast enough to catch. Having to make the other cars behind us wait while the crew went to get the onboard jumper pack was bad enough, but remember, Action Girl is a captain here. This is her turf and she knows every one and they know her. Plus, she HATES to be embarrassed. Needless to say, I wouldn’t want to be the car right now.

So, with a jump, we got home with our cargo. It just about died when we pulled into the yard and after going for a quick spin to charge up the battery, I’m pretty sure it’s the distributor or possibly, the alternator. Either way, it’s not reliable and is scheduled to go in to the garage later this week. Should be a fun drive to get it there.

This morning we all got up early enough to have a leisurely breakfast before heading in our various directions. Action Girl is working an AM shift and needed to be gone on an early boat and Short Stack needed to get to pre-school. Lulu Belle and I were the only ones loafing at home today. Not trusting the car to behave was no problem for Action Girl. She didn’t need it to get to the ferry landing and thus, to work. The question was, how to get my son where he needed to be. His pre-school is on the island and not a very hard walk at all, but as anyone who has gone for a stroll with a nearly-three year old can attest, the power of the “distraction” factor is with out equal. Everything is worth inspecting with deep interest and care when you’re that age. To make matters more patience grinding, Short Stack is in the full blown “why” phase of life.

“What is that, Dad?”

“It’s a parked car.”

“Why is it parked there?”

“Because, the people who own it must have left it there.”

“But why did they leave it there?”

A quick intake of breath as I see the conversational precipice loom before me. “Well, maybe they live in the house next to where the car’s parked.”

“Why do they live there?”

“Everyone has to live somewhere.”

“Why does everyone have to live somewhere?”

I rub my brow in an effort to smooth out some of the rapidly deepening wrinkles. “We all need a place to be, I guess. Look Short Stack! Is that a robin?”

He’ll easily blow past my pathetic attempt to redirect the conversation and pulls things back to the confounding persistence of the car to remain parked there as well as the philosophical need to belong to a place. All this time, we will have moved, oh… two and a half feet if I’m lucky. I try really, REALLY hard to answer each and every question he has, but if we are attempting to actually get someplace, it would have been faster to box the two of us up and mail us than let us walk.

No. Walking there was out of the question. Plus, yesterday’s rain had turned into last night’s snow and a couple of inches of the fluffy stuff covered everything. Remember, two inches to an adult equals at least five to a three year old. If we walked, the tulips would be in bloom by the time we arrived.

Action Girl actually came up with the solution. The roads were still covered and perfect for the sled. When breakfasts were finished and snow suits donned, I packed Lulu Belle into the kid carrier backpack, hoisted her up and strapped her in. Then, we dusted off the sled. Short Stack needed little encouragement to hop in and was beaming from under his knit hat as he hugged his school bag.

“Ready, buddy?”

“YAH!”

The orange plastic sled easily scooted along and as I trudged along, we left a trail of compressed snow, happy laughter and exclamations of glee. This was the best way to go to school ever! The trip took marginally longer than it would have with the car and was defiantly more appreciated. The sun was bright, the wind low and the world sparkled with its clean, while mantle. We arrived without incident and once he was pealed out of his layers of winter clothing, he happily joined the table of other children covered in paste and construction paper. I had to actually ask for a hug and kiss goodbye.

As Lulu Belle and I tromped home, sled tucked under my arm, I looked down at the trail we had only just made. It was still flat and unblemished by footprints. The crisp outline of the track stood out strongly on the smooth snow and it made me think of times long past. Days when the roads were rolled after a snowstorm to pack it down for the horses and sleighs. When children going to school by sled was probably anything but odd and looked forward to as part and parcel of the winter season.

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It’s days like this that I really love where I live. Being in northern New England provides us with the “Currier and Ives” old world of barns and colonial era houses that I enjoy so much and island living means that traffic is thin at worst and non-existent at best. It also makes the sledding all the more satisfying.

I almost decided to keep walking when we reached our front yard but Lulu Belle was starting to flag and her crib was calling to her. It was, after all, time for the morning nap. I walked up the steps and looked back at our trail, now starting to melt in the morning sun. By the time I need to go collect Short Stack this afternoon the snow would likely be gone or at least, un-sledable. Looks like we’ll be walking after all.

I’ll be sure to pack provisions for the trek. We might be gone for a while and have to make camp.

“But why do we need to make camp, dad?”

“AAAAAAAAAAAA!”

Free Beer

Though my linage includes bloodlines from varied and well spaced parts of Europe and North America, the two primary parts of my particular family tree are Scottish and Irish. As my father once told me, “That means that half of me wants to get drunk but the other half doesn’t want to pay for it.” I can be a bit of a tight fist, or as I prefer to think of it, “frugal”.

This may lead you to think that you could find me haunting the halls at the Big Box-Mart buying the 50 pound bag of industrial coca/spackle, but you’d be wrong. I can’t stand the giant cube-building shopping centers that seem to be just about unavoidable these days and will do just about anything short of burning the contents of my pockets to keep my money away from them and to a mom&pop. It’s not just that most big box stores like Mall-Wart don’t support domestic manufacturing (which the decidedly DON’T). For me, it’s that I have watched with great sadness, what they do to our downtowns. They turn them into ghost towns.

In my city, we are blessed with a very vibrant downtown and though the picturesque setting and beautiful old buildings mean that we are neck deep in flocks of clueless tourists all summer, it’s still a blast to walk around in. In and amongst the various kitsch shops selling base ball hats with fake moose poop on them or fish markets selling lobster meat for $129.95 an ounce, there’s a little beer and wine shop… and they are fantastic. The owner is often the one behind the counter, they have very low employee turnover and the staff KNOWS what they are selling and can recommend to you items that you may not have considered. I love that.

I’ve become a regular there and stop in about once a week if not more. They know me by sight if not by name. I have a thing for really good micro-brewed beer and am particularly fond of some small label German beers that are unusual to see in the States. Being the top notch place that they are, they almost always have them stocked and cold. They’ve even kept specific beers in the fridge just for me, because I once asked if they had any already chilled. They’re like that. I like them a lot and we’ve had some good beer geek chats.

Today, I went in and picked up a six of one of my favorites and a four pack of ginger beer to make dark and stormies with over the weekend. The store has a fantastic selection of beers, wines and hard stuff and since it finally got pretty warm this afternoon, it made me pause at the cooler and think about those wonderful wheat beers that go so well on a warm summer day; hefeweizen’s. When I got to the counter, I asked if they had a hefeweizen by the name of UFO, brewed by Harpoon [brewery].

“Sorry, we don’t normally stock it. But if you’d like, I’ll special order some and keep it cold for you?”

(I love being a regular!)

“Sure. I’ll buy it if you get it!”

Then the guy asked if I’d tried another local brewery’s hefeweizen. When I told him that I couldn’t recall if I’d tried it, he took me over to the beer fridges and pulled a bottle out of a six pack to show me. The label looked familiar but I told him that I couldn’t remember how I liked it. With out a blink he closed the cooler door and handed me the beer.

“Here, you want to take this one? Maybe you can stick it in a pocket or something?”

I had a lot of stuff in my hands. I was carrying a six pack, a four pack, my lunch bag and my rain coat, plus a back back slung over one shoulder.

“Um… Yah! I’ll figure out some place to stow a free beer!”
“Good man. Id be worried about you if you turned it down.”, he added with a smile.

So, I walked out of the store with my purchased and free beer, happy as a… well, a guy with a free beer! They could have been assured of my continued patronage even with out the freebee but after that, they have pretty much got a customer for life.

It cost the owner one beer but what he got in return was a happy customer who’s going to steer people his way for a long time to come. At Big Box Mart, no manager would have dared a strategy like that. He most likely would have been fired or sent to the eastern slave cities to sew 5XL size briefs as punishment. It costs me more to shop at the independent stores, probably something like 10% more, but you know what? For service like that, I’ll happily buy 10% less stuff so I can afford to shop where I want to.

By the way… The Hefeweizen was good, but I like the Harpoon version better. Glad he’s getting some for me. I’ll be in next week.

Brothers, Sisters and Animal Crackers

In just under two weeks, our son Short Stack’s life will never be the same. You see, on the 4th of April, his status as an “only” will change forever to “Big Brother”. On the 4th, Action Girl is scheduled to go in for a routine c-section and bring our daughter, Lulu Belle into the world. Her name won’t legally be Lulu Belle, but it’s what Action Girl and I have been referring to her as for months, so I’m betting that like it or not, that’s going to be her nick name. Here’s hoping she doesn’t mind.

It’s funny though. Action Girl and I both are feeling kind of guilty about turning our son’s life upside down. He’s been the center of our world for his entire life and the idea that the lime light will no longer be all his makes us feel a little mean. I mean, being an only isn’t just good… it’s awesome. I know. I am one. Action Girl isn’t but she’s the youngest by a good bit in her family, so she never knew the fun of having a little sibling driving her nuts.

My folks had decided to have only one child. Back then (gawd, don’t I sound old), it was fairly unusual to have just one child and they had to put up with a fair bit of questioning about their decision from their contemporaries and especially their elders. There’s that strange rarified position that old folks have (or at least believe they have) that makes them think they can say what ever the hell they want to because they “know” it to be true. If it hurts to hear it, well then, that’s just too bad. This is a symptom of what I call C.O.M.S. or Crazy Old Man Syndrome. One of these individuals suffering mightily from C.O.M.S. even told my parents that, “Three people wasn’t enough to be called a family”. Some people have just amazing quantities of nerve.

I can remember a time long, long ago when I was asked about a sister or brother. I must have been around four or five and my Mom and I were in a grocery store. My Mother had stopped to talk with some old woman she knew. I was mostly interested in a box of animal crackers I was about half way through. Suddenly, I was aware of the old woman bending down over me and asking me if “Wouldn’t I like a little brother or sister?” My Mother must have been mortified. She’s a very private person in a lot of ways and the idea of her bearing more children as a topic of conversation must have been hard to take.

So, here was this pushy old woman, trying to use me to convince my parents to have more kids; just about bludgeoning me with a big, leading smile. The correct answer was obvious, even to a half pint. I looked down at my half eaten box of animal crackers, thought for a minute and then looked her in the eye, arched an eyebrow and replied “No.”

If I was more eloquent at that age, I probably would have said “What on earth for? The crackers are all mine, my parents are all mine, the toys on the bedroom floor (which is also mine) will be right where I left them, waiting for me to get home a play with them again. Good Lord… No!”

Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t a selfish kid. “Only” children get that reputation (rather undeservedly, I think) but I just didn’t see the logic in introducing a new variable into a very happy childhood. Things were good and why change that, possibly for the worse?

Well, as an adult things have begun to cut the other way. When I was a kid, having Mom and Dad all to my self was great. Now, I still have Mom and Dad all to my self, except it’s me trying to help them. They’re getting older and even though they are still both very capable, it will get harder and harder for them to manage daily life and I have no one to call for help. That’s the other side of being an “only”.

I hope that Short Stack won’t mind the new addition to our family too much and the good news is that since he’s only two, he’ll never remember a time before; back when it was only the three of us. We can’t wait to meet Lulu Belle. I hope that Short Stack likes her too. In time, anyway.

In the mean time, I promise that I’ll get you both your own box of animal crackers.

I promise!

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