Commentary: Et tool, Brute?
We are in the middle of springtime, and with this season of regeneration and rejuvenation comes home repair. I’m not sure why this is—maybe it burbles up from the same DNA well as spring cleaning—but when we see that first robin, we strap on the tool belts, drag out the stepladders and become carpenters raising high the roof beams, to borrow from J.D. Salinger.
My dad was an academic (with the emphasis on academic): inside his own head and content to be there. In his view, a house took care of itself, except for paint every seven years, and he saw no need in going beyond the basics in tool acquisition. If a tool couldn’t be found in the supermarket hardware aisle, the Grangers didn’t need it.
We did have tools. We kept them in a kitchen drawer. We had a hammer, a flathead screwdriver and a Phillips screwdriver (bought grudgingly by my dad after I explained that most of the world’s screws have Phillips heads). There was a pair of pliers and a coping saw with no handle. I didn’t even know coping saws had handles until I took shop in high school. There was a wood plane with no blade in it. Dad, who had never actually used a plane himself, insisted that “a little elbow grease” would eliminate the need for a blade. Add two jars of miscellaneous nails and screws and orphan nuts and bolts, and a handsaw consigned to the basement, and you have the sum of tools in the Granger house. Seriously.
Combine my father’s natural acquisitional reticence with a professor’s modest income and it’s clear why getting a new tool in the Granger house was as rare as the Air Force getting a new bomber. Our process for tool acquisition was, in equal parts, diplomatic maneuvering and Spanish Inquisition:
“We’ve already got a drill. What do you need a drill bit for?”
“You wanted me to put up the water cooler baffle, and if I don’t drill pilot holes, it’ll split the wood.”
“Hmpf. Well, what size bit do you need?”
“I don’t know. You usually buy them in sets—”
“Sets?! We’re not going to get a bunch of drill bits we’ll never use! We’ll get an 1/8-inch bit. If the hole needs to be bigger, take a screwdriver shaft and ream it out a little. I think there’s a screwdriver in the tool drawer. And let me know how this goes. I want to make sure I’m not throwing away money.”
This is neither a tale of parental abuse nor of paternal deficiency. Dad would have had the same conversation with Gustave Eiffel.
Getting the Phillips screwdriver had felt like winning an unwinnable bar bet. A hand drill had been as exhilarating as successful thesis defense. And, in arguing for an adjustable wrench, I had been Clarence Darrow, mopping the sweat from my brow in Dayton. The trial of the century. I prevailed, finally, by telling him the handlebars fell off my bike every time I turned left. This wasn’t strictly true; in fact, it was fake news. What was true was that if the nut that held my handlebars on were to come loose—a nut, which an adjustable wrench could tighten—I could lose my handlebars and have a terrible crash. Thanks primarily to this dissimulation, I won at day’s end.
I started buying my own tools in high school, when I started working on my own cars: open-end wrenches, socket wrenches, a full set of screwdrivers with different size heads, a torque wrench. I followed the same rule then as I follow now: If I’m doing a repair myself, the cost of any tool I might need to buy will be less than the cost of having the repair done by someone else. So, I may have only used that gear puller hanging on the garage wall one time, but I’m still ahead of the game, financially, and I’ve got a gear puller to boot.
To be sure, not everyone is handy, and not everyone is interested in tackling their own repairs, and that’s where handymen and -women come in. Our neighborhood is full of old houses—ours was built in 1887—occupied by people who like keeping them in good nick, so we have a generous supply of craftspeople catering to us. And as we home handyfolk age, we pass more and more repair and maintenance on to those more fit (and almost always more qualified). I will never again clean my own gutters, nor will I ever replace an automobile clutch again. And plumbing? That’s dead to me.
So, welcome sweet springtime, we greet thee with song. And hammers. And saws. And paint brushes. And ladders. Please be careful.