So here was that silly hammer in my hand again after all these years. I was in the midst of moving to another house, spending an afternoon sorting through and packing up the detritus of my life, trying to be ruthless, deciding what to keep and what to discard. The hammer reappeared like a goofy boyhood friend who refuses to grow up.
It's an eight-inch-long all-steel ball peen. The handle is etched to increase the security of its grip, and it's always cold and uncomfortable to the touch. This isn't a hammer I'd use outdoors in winter in an ungloved hand. But with its little bullet-shaped head and light weight, it isn't a tool I'd use for anything. And yet every time I pick it up, I smile. Perhaps that's why I've kept it in my toolbox for more than 40 years. Because it's the first hammer, the first tool I ever owned.
I got it as a gift one long-ago Christmas or birthday when I was perhaps 5 or 6. The ball peen came in a red metal box filled with other miniature tools -- a saw with teeth so bad it gnawed wood into submission like a beaver; pliers just large enough to remove staples; a screwdriver that bent under slight pressure; and a six-inch wooden ruler that gave me splinters. This was a tool kit whose spirit overwhelmed its substance.
I was given the set at that young age because I had demonstrated a precocious if troublesome affinity for tools. This wasn't by chance. I had grown to that age watching my father -- who was a mechanical whiz -- always busy with tools, either fixing his car or the washing machine or some other household appliance.
So it came as no surprise to my parents when, as a 4-year-old, I used a dime to loosen the screws on the accordion-fold kiddie gate stretched across my bedroom door and broke for freedom. My grandfather, who regarded all mechanical devices as a mystery if not a threat (proving his theory a decade later when he sliced most of his little finger off while working as a clothes cutter), laughed and pronounced me "a regalla Houdini!"
When I was 6, I progressed from spare change to screwdrivers and managed, by standing on a chair, to loosen all the screws on the refrigerator door hinges. The door came crashing down, scaring the hell out of me and causing my mother to approach light speed in her transit from living room to kitchen. I wasn't punished because my parents somehow recognized the difference between budding vandalism and a child's curiosity about how things are put together and how they come apart -- even though living with the latter gave my mother a few white hairs.
Rather than spankings, I was given some fundamental instruction in hand tools and turned loose in my father's basement workshop. Though no more than eight feet square and lit by a bare bulb hanging from a rafter, the Workshop (surely it was capitalized in my mind) was a wizard's lair, a sanctum sanctorum whose scarred workbench reeked of glue and grease, oil and paint. The walls were lined with shelves of old coffee cans and peanut butter jars filled with nails, screws, nuts and bolts. And of course my father's tools were housed there -- an armory of wrenches and sockets and hatchets and needle-nose pliers and cutters and other unidentifiable (to me) tools promising magic.
Thus encouraged to experiment with mechanical devices ("Don't you have anything to do in the Workshop?" my mother would ask when I complained of terminal boredom), I regularly descended the dark stairs to perform open-gear surgery on discarded clocks and watches, build rickety scooters (powered by gravity and old roller skates) and find delirious joy disassembling castoff radios.
These gave up the precious vacuum tubes that I mounted on rough boards pulled from fruit crates. By adding wires, clock gears, switches and dials, I created what I called "inventions" (powered by my humming and whistling). Once, having despaired of my inventions' passivity, I attempted to bring one to life by plugging it into an outlet.
This produced in quick succession a huge blue-white popping spark, a blackout punctuated by my mother's muffled scream from upstairs, an intoxicating whiff of ozone and a stern lecture on electrical theory from my father. My grandfather, however, who later inspected my scorched invention, pinched a loving chunk of my cheek and pronounced me "a regalla Frank-In-Steen," which I took to be a compliment.
I continued to fool with tools into my adolescence, though I never really became a full-fledged techie or craftsman. I worked on my '51 red Ford convertible, of course, but working under the hood of a car was virtually an obligatory activity for a teen-age boy growing up in the late '50s. And in those halcyon days before cars bristled with integrated circuits and a Gordian knot of anti-pollution controls, a fellow could actually look under his hood and understand what he saw without needing a degree in automotive engineering.
But by then my father's tools and the ones I occasionally added to our collection had lost much of the intrinsic charm that delighted me as a child. Besides, girls so dominated my hormone- suffused brain that the prospect of spending a Saturday morning tinkering in Dad's workshop with a jumble of tools had little appeal. Tools had become merely a means to an end. Yet in a curious way they had also become symbols of power.
I believed, for example, that I was more attractive to a girl when she actually saw me working on my car -- or better yet, on her car. ("How 'bout I come over and rotate your tires?") No one used the word "macho" in those days or hinted at the Freudian implications of intersexual auto repair, but in my gangly passion I was convinced that I cut a dashing figure with my open-end wrenches and ratchets and grease- smeared T-shirt.
Years later, after my father died, I inherited his tools and wept when I mixed them in with mine. By then, I had become a consummate handyman and back-to-the-land zealot -- my own electrician, plumber, welder and farmer. And my children were already growing up playing with toy tools and hanging over my shoulder as I strung fence wire or repaired a pump. Yet for all that exposure, they, like most modern teens raised in our service-oriented society, show no particular aptitude for or love of tools. So perhaps when they inherit my tools they may pause and wonder over the little ball peen. But one memory lingers:
When my daughter was 4, she tried on a long, frilly dress she had found in a box of hand-me-downs. She primped before the mirror and I told her she looked like a little princess. "Yes, I do," she said. "And look, Daddy," she trilled, as she hooked her thumb into a tuck of blue ribbon at her waist, "it even has a place for my hammer!" ::