By Jack Handley
I have a certain reputation at the Senior Center which I discovered by overhearing a conversation:
SPEAKER NO. 1: "You bring up any subject and Jack Handley has something to say about it."
SPEAKER NO. 2: "Yeah, too much."
Which stabbed me with a twinge of embarrassment until I recognized the truth of the matter, which is that I know a lot of things that have never come to the attention of less favored men.
For instance, my pocket knife, a version of which I have carried since I was eight (when I discovered with delight that it was called a Jack knife) contains three blades which are named the spey, the clip and the sheepsfoot.
The reason I know a lot of wayward things is that I have experienced a lot of events in a wayward way.
I was born a Depression baby in the shadow of the 19th century, yet in the foreglow of World War II. My Grandpa Creore gave me six clay marbles which survived from his boyhood in 1870.
My father spoke of having witnessed the last fire horse team in southern Michigan eagerly clip-clop to their stations in front of the steaming engine and the thrill he felt when their harnesses dropped onto their shivering backs.
My first memory was being awakened to eat boiled new potatoes which my father had somehow foraged. It was dark outside but I had probably been fed oatmeal and put to bed early, then gotten up by my despairing parents to share their tiny joy.
I learned later that at the time he was being paid 25 cents a ton to break up frozen coal and shovel it out of a snow topped hopper car from a Pennsylvania coal train.
I made my first telephone call from a wood, wall-mounted Kellogg telephone, standing on a stool to reach the downward turned mouthpiece, holding the receiver in my left hand, and cranking the little handle with my right to send the magneto-generated ringing signal down the line.
Two years later, I clamped radio headphones against my ears to listen to Edward R. Murrow's broadcast from blitzed London and was transfixed when he opened the studio window to let in the chimes of Big Ben and noise of the sirens and the exploding bombs.
A year later, I and the other school kids enrolled in the “war effort” and roamed the countryside looking to fill our empty onion sacks with milkweed pods because of a shortage of Kapok for life vests.
During those war years of the 40s the antique past continued to intrude. I mowed hay with a modern hydraulic-drawbar Ford tractor pulling a 1913 horse-drawn McCormack mower. At the end of each windrow I had to raise the cutter bar by pulling rope connected to a cobbled up lever-pulley arrangement on the ancient machine, making travesty of Ford's farm implement engineering but building mighty biceps in my 12 year-old arms.
In the evening, after listening to the war news, I dribbled little solder balls onto the heads of sewing pins and painted them different colors to use as map pins, which were unavailable - as most everything was - because, as you constantly heard, "there was a war on."
Even after V-E Day and throughout my high school years, 19th century thrift and depression frugality ruled our rural household and those about. I salvaged lumber and extracted the forged nails, called "cut" nails, and pounded them straight for reuse in our house and barn which had been built with them.
After the war I took up radios again and went to the Big City of Detroit to take my ham radio license examination. I built a SW radio and transmitter largely from parts scrounged from the township dump which I had long visited as part of my childhood search for adventure.
My puny five-watt transmitter connected me to several ill-tempered veteran hams but impressed my father to such an extent that he allowed me to run an antenna from my bedroom window sill out to the barn, despite the threat of lightning.
Throughout my childhood and well into my college years, I continued to investigate farms and woods and barns and discover iron-age tools and old men who remembered seeing them used. Some I found in my father's old and forgotten musty wood tool boxes in the basement: draw shaves, horse shoe pliers, a Collins monkey wrench, augers, wood gouges.
A long time since, but 30 years back from now, my wife and I were visiting a small old-timey museum in California's gold country where a school bus had unloosed a horde of noisy but already bored middle schoolers, yet ungrouped.
As we walked by the exhibits I remarked on several I hadn't seen in 50 years, some of which I had used. Sensitive to mansplaining, and well aware of my wife's regard for my "rusty iron" crotchet, I kept in check my shock of recognition and the enthusiasm it engendered.
Still, who can point to and name a hand-operated grain fanning mill and not explain what it was, and how it was used? Or shingle maker's stool and vice?
A young man followed us, shyly listening. As my wife and I approached the exit, he introduced himself. He was a teacher, he had been assigned to lead a group of the youngsters through the exhibits, and wanted to know if I would accompany him and explain them to his students.
I proposed that, instead, I would take him on a whirlwind tour, brief him on names and uses, and give him “compare and contrasts” with modern successors which would provide him with the basis of teacherly authority.
So, I gave him what computer people at the time called a "core dump".
That experience taught me that colorful and lightly illustrated stories work better than an old man's fond and rambling recollection.
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