Normally we take the weekend off here at Toolmonger, but as it’s father’s day today, I thought I’d take a quick minute to tell you a little bit about my father. He died in 2003, but his love of tools, the shop, and doing things for himself — as well as some of his stubbornness, problems, and issues with keeping the shop running — live on with me. Well, at least I hope they do.
My father grew up in a family of sharecroppers in Mississippi. From what I understand, DIY takes on a whole different vibe when your family works for their home. I only know about his situation sideways through many stories, but my takeaway was that you pretty much either knew how to do what needed to be done or you figured it out. Tools weren’t for showing off; they were tickets to better things. Having some basic carpentry tools meant you could have a shed or a window that doesn’t leak. Having mechanic’s hand tools meant you could have a car, assuming, of course, that you knew (or could figure out) how to use them. Living this way shaped my dad’s life, and his stories (and our shared experiences) shaped mine.
My father and I had a very unique relationship. We’re both hard-headed and sometimes stupid, if not also resourceful.
For example, my father’s attempt to teach me to drive lasted about five minutes. We made it from the driveway almost to the corner before we got in an argument and he took over to drive us 500 feet back home. I later taught myself to drive a stick by pushing the old MGA we had out of the garage, limping it in first gear down the street a bit to a more rural area, and very deliberately upshifting to second and downshifting to first over and over again. (I read about the technique in Bob Bondurant’s excellent book High Performance Driving [What’s This?]. Seriously, it’s one of the best books around about driving technique.) Of course, first gear isn’t sync’d in the MGA — I didn’t know this at the time — which meant getting it back into first was a bitch. You had to match RPMs perfectly or it wouldn’t go in, the upshot of which was that I learned a very difficult skill. When I eventually graduated to trying a third to second downshift, I discovered it was easy.
Many years later I admitted to my dad that I had been driving the car when I was 13, trying out the techniques from High Performance Driving. He knew, of course. We had a great talk about driving, and he shared a story about learning to drive a cotton truck, figuring it out himself because no one could be bothered to explain it.
Dad was a pilot in the USAF, and he retired in 1973 after a stint as a T-38 instructor just a few years after I was born. (He’d escaped the farm to Dallas, then joined up to try something new.) After “retirement,” he attended a local school to become a machinist and went to work at the base working on the aircraft that he’d just recently flown. Eventually, he worked his way up to director of aircraft maintenance before leaving for a third career in business. (That’s also an interesting story, but not relevant here.)
As I child, I remember the machine work mostly through images of our garage. Dad was used to figuring out how to get what he needed, and machine work was no different. I remember “helping” him in the garage fixing 20+ lathes, which he’d agreed to repair in exchange for keeping two of them. He cannibalized one to fix the other, and we had a metal lathe. I remember him driving up to Detroit to pick up a Bridgeport milling machine that he’d wheeled and dealed to get.
He always tried to include me in his work. At one point he needed someone to stand on the other side of the lathe and hold a wrench — he couldn’t reach both sides at the same time — so he paid me to do it. (He could have just made me, I suppose, but that’s not how he thought. He always tried to treat me fairly.) I made something like $1/lathe, which was a lot of money for me at the time. He did small engine repair to make money on the side, so he traded around to come up with a nice 5-horse Briggs & Stratton which he gave me to take apart. I did, of course, and I got it mostly back together again. I never did get it running, but that’s probably because six-year-olds don’t have much attention span — especially when they’re me.
(That’s us, by the way, in the photo above. I’m the kid standing on the radial-arm saw.)
And he outfitted me with tools. Around that age, I had a small tool-carrier with “my” tools in it: a hand-crank drill with a few bits, a small hammer, and a couple of screwdrivers. During high school, he bought me a large hand-carry toolbox and outfitted it with a full set of mechanics tools — enough that I was able to do a lot of small repairs on my first car (a Datsun 280Z). Later in college he bought me a small roll-away and even more basic hand tools, including a lot of great stuff. Being a young jackass, I let a lot of them get away from me. He replaced them.
We got in an argument once about a torque wrench. He had an old Craftsman model, the one with the metal selector. He loaned it to me, and I left it with a roommate. (The roommate was into autocross — as was I — and he used it pretty regularly.) Dad and I got in an argument once, during which he said “All I ever wanted was my damn torque wrench back!” I’m sure that I’d done some exasperating thing or another to cause the argument, but I gave him a lot of crap about that over the years. Finally about five years later I retrieved it and returned it to him. We laughed about it.
When he died in 2003, I inherited his tools. All of them. He had a 40′ x 40′ shop which he’d painstakingly put together, but never really got to use much because he got sick right about the time he finally got it all together. There was so much he wanted to try. He had all his machine tools. He bought a MIG welder and was fascinated with how much easier it was to use for basic stuff than his old stick model. He got into blacksmithing.
You like to think that you get smarter as you get older, and I probably have. But truthfully, I still need a lot more years before I’m really smart enough to avoid doing stupid things. I let a lot of the tools get away from me. I didn’t have a place for the mill or lathes, so I had to let them go. I really wanted to learn to use his woodworking tools, so I let a friend of his keep them in his shop hoping he’d teach me to use them. But he got sick, too, and then when he got better he forgot about our arrangement. Now he claims the tools as his own (or his family does), and I just don’t have the heart to go argue with him.
But I kept a lot of them, too. I kept the welder, which you’ve seen on the pages of Toolmonger. If we’ve welded something together, it was probably with his welder. The awesome, stupidly-strong metal workbench you’ve seen in hundreds of Toolmonger pictures was his. I kept all the hand tools — even the ones I probably won’t ever use, like blacksmithing hammers. I kept all the fully-polished wrenches that I’d bought him over the years. And I kept the stupid metal-adjuster torque wrench.
I guess what I’m saying is that in many ways I’m a lot like him. I want to know how to do things. I like being able to control my environment to make it more the way I’d like it to be, and I like having the tools that let me do that. Sometimes I get busy with all the requirements of life and I don’t get to spend time in the shop, and I’m sure my neighbors must make fun of “the guy with a zillion tools that I never see in the garage.” Honestly, I just hope (as I’m sure he did for me) that I can overcome a few more obstacles than he did and hang on to some of the good stuff, both physically and mentally.
Anyway, I always end up thinking about him a bit on father’s day, so I thought I’d share with some of the few people I know who understand this sort of thing. Tomorrow we return to your normal Toolmongering.