-- Thomas Edison
My Father, Who Liked to Fix ThingsMy father liked to fix things.
It came naturally to him.
He was a guy, after all, from a generation pretty much like all the generations before him. Men were expected to take care of the physical world of things, including anything that gets stuck, comes loose, squeaks, creaks, or makes other unexpected noises, or which suddenly stops making the movements or noises it’s supposed to make.
Besides, having been born in 1927, his was a world chock full of repair and taking care.
Growing up through the scarcity and make do years of the Great Depression, when everyone had to make everything last longer or do without it, he learned how everything worked.
He learned how to take apart a toaster, clear the crumbs, and reattach the heating elements for few more weeks or months of only occasionally burned toast.
He learned how to repair the electrical cords and plugs on pretty much anything that needed cords and plugs. In those days, electrical cords were cloth wrapped and as temperamental as a stepped-on cat’s tail. Plugs weren’t much better. Most eventually melted or shorted out, because electric wiring in the average home was still 50 percent luxury and 100 percent fire hazard.
Repairing cords and plugs was just a part of everyday living with ones appliances.
It was a relationship, and maintenance was part of the agreement.
Maintenance and repair were the most common of everyday words and actions then.
“New”, and even “Replacement,” were not so common. They were occasional words for special occasions. “New” was sometimes even (almost) a bad word. “New” could feel like a failure, unless one had at least made the effort, with tool and trial and tape and temper, to maintain and repair, for a while, whatever property was ultimately replaced.
New was a word reserved for more significant stuff in my father’s day.
Cars were significant.
When it came to cars, new was good, even grand.
A new car was a sign of success. And there was no easy financing then, so getting a new car was a big deal. My mom won a brand new car once, from a church raffle, when she and my father were first married, but that’s another story for another time. They sold that car and used the money for more sensible stuff, anyway.
Even new cars didn’t stay new very long, though. Not in his day. Rattles, rust, oil leaks, and broken-off window cranks showed up, as if on schedule, like acne or arthritis, at specific ages of those beasts.
And that was more or less ok, too, because remember, my father liked to fix things.
From hoses, belts, and brakes, to clutches, mufflers, and radiators, my dad adjusted, plugged, patched, coaxed, and cussed each as the situation dictated, then simply replaced whatever needed replacing, as if it was all as easy and everyday as changing sheets and shoes.
It was expected. That was how the world worked; had always worked. These were man chores in their gender-framed world.
It was common then for cars to run around with one headlight for a while, because the average automobile headlight lasted just a little longer than a flashbulb.
Fixing stuff was the stuff of life.
A toolbox (with flares) in the trunk was an almost universal, common sense preparation for roadside emergencies. Today, it’s a cell phone, but this is a story about then, not now.
My mom, like most moms, warned us whenever we went out in someone’s car, to be sure we were wearing clean underwear, just in case we got in an accident. My dad would remind us to check the oil, and also the air in the spare tire, just in case of a flat. Both speeches were delivered in somber tones of apparent personal experience and regret.
Being prepared mattered to my father.
He kept bits and pieces of all the things he installed, and fixed, for use in fixing them again when necessary.
If a door knob, faucet, railing, or window pane was loose, cracked, stuck, or leaky, my father would fix it with parts he’d select from the accumulated inventory stashed around our house in junk drawers, coffee cans, and cardboard boxes.
If the inventory failed him, and he couldn’t invent a fix with whatever odds and ends he’d found, he’d swear at it, saying something like “shit fire and save the matches…” while grabbing up coat, keys, and cigarettes to drive to the hardware store for what he needed.
And you know all that cursing and stomping, that huff and show of irritation? Well, I suspected sometimes then, and I know for sure now, that it was something of a secret pleasure in his life; a personal ritual of care and repair that brought him repeated satisfaction.
“I’ll fix you, goddammit,” it was with a mixture of malice
and fondness only a man who loves to repair things can muster.
(He even talked that way to our bicycles)
His repair skills and knowledge also included the arcane.
Our TVs and radios depended then on a number of small, complex tubes that glowed, got warm, and burned out sometimes, like tiny electrical terrariums dying off unexpectedly. Those plug-in vacuum tubes, distinguished from one another by size, patterns of pins in their bases, and strings of tiny text printed on their cylindrical sides, represented another esoteric and holy body of knowledge for men like my father, freemasons of electronic maintenance and repair.
Every hardware store, and most drug stores, sold these vacuum tubes, some of them in awe inspiring displays which appeared to be powered by the very tubes stored in them. The most elaborate had built-in tube testers, so that fathers and others who weren’t quite sure this or that tube was the real problem, could cheat a little and make certain before buying a new one.
My father (and maybe yours) was not one of those. He didn’t need a tester. He could tell a good tube from a bad tube like a ripe from a rotten tomato.
My father even liked liked to fix things that fixing didn’t make much better.
Windows were drafty and fragile; single pane separations from the elements, largely unchanged in 200 years. Windows like ours required fathers like mine to keep glazing putty and a blade on hand, pretty much year-round. Freshly (and supposedly) sealed, they’d still leak cold air like a poorly kept secret, but at least they looked good with fresh white putty around them. Eventually, my dad was also an early adopter of double pane, insulated windows. He took great pride and pleasure in the semi-demolition of our walls, and installation of our new wonder windows. Then he taped plastic over them anyway the next winter, cussing that they weren’t anywhere near as good as advertised.
Fathers like mine thrived in garages with peg board walls and smooth concrete floors. They took good care of their tools and put them away properly. My father (and maybe yours) drew lines around hook-hung wrenches, hammers, and screwdrivers, like little bodies at a Craftsman crime scene, so that any outline left empty was clear evidence of the offender’s careless lack of respect for property and the cost of quality tools.
As my father grew older, the world grew, too, into longer-lasting, disposable, and “no user serviceable parts inside.” By the time he was 50, the word disposable had come to be a perversely positive and progressive term in the world of product promotion.
Zippo lighters, for example, had been icons of simplicity and dependability since the early 1930’s. A good zippo lighter, with its refillable flints, wicks, and lighter fluid, held up so well it could be passed on to a son or daughter like a favorite watch. By the mid 1970’s, in spite of its enduring popularity among members of the armed forces, Zippo was losing serious ground to the thin, plastic, disposable “Cricket” lighter (“Catch a Cricket, for a dollar forty-nine,” sang their TV and radio ads). Another lighter, even more popular, was produced by Bic, a company already famous for its cheap, nearly indestructible, yet completely disposable pens.
TVs and radios with vacuum tubes had by then given way to TVs and radios with solid state circuitry. My father learned how to fix those, too, during two years of night school, but never felt the same fondness for the flat, patterned, digital art of the circuit board that he’d held for the analog beauty, warmth, and almost human volatility of a glass vacuum tube. Solid state components didn’t need much fixing, anyway.
He’d spent his life and manhood fixing things. His had been a life of measuring, sketching, hammering, wiring, and rewiring; of finding leaks, and fixing them; of inventing toys, and building go-carts from scrap parts.
And so it happened that his own aging was concurrent with the steady expansion of the disposable, longer-lasting, snap together, maintenance-free, modern consumer market. He was feeling irrelevant and unneeded, so, in the new world of washerless faucets, and instant oil changes, in order get his fix of fixing things, he remodeled our home a couple more times than I think was absolutely necessary. Then he helped each of his five adult kids with our own home repairs and improvements while we were young and broke enough to really appreciate his DIY approach to pretty much everything.
Although he lived to be 85, and certainly enjoyed many low maintenance purchases along the way, including microwave ovens, mobile phones, big screen TVs, and cars that ran more than 4 years without a major repair, I know he also kind of hated most of those increasingly reliable machines.
Because my father really liked to fix things.
(c) 2017, 2018 by Randy Weeks