MY TOOLS ARE STILL IMPORTANT TO ME – EVEN AFTER RETIREMENT


I was about twenty, just married, and standing in the aisle of the Norwalk Hardware Store looking up towards the three large tool display cases that covered a large part of the wall. The store was familiar to me and straining my eyes to see the tools on display was not a new experience for me. When I was younger I would sometimes wander into the hardware store, on my way to my father’s nearby shop, with no specific purpose in mind other than look at the goods on display. I was fascinated by the things I saw and touched – especially the things  for which I did not know the purpose. The goods were rarely in boxes or containers then and this lack made it easy for anyone to pick up an article and examine it. Fasteners, such as screws and nails, were in bins and it was not unusual for someone to buy one or two screws at a time. The store was large and dimly lit and not at all what we would today describe as “inviting”. It was, in fact, the perfect place for me waste some time. However, today I was there to select a machinist’s hand tool and buy it for the simple reason I had convinced myself I was going to become a journeyman machinist and a journeyman machinist had his own tools. I then had no tools of my own then and I wanted to begin putting together my own set of tools. But first I had to choose from the three makers of machinist’s hand tools. I was undecided, but I had determined that most, if not all, of my tools would be made by the same tool maker. I do not remember why I made this decision, but today my machinist tools are nearly all made by the same tool maker. I do know I was prejudiced against any other maker of tools other than those three.

Brown & Sharpe was the oldest maker of the three I had endorsed. The largest and most well known was Starrett. The smallest and least well known was Lufkin. I assumed that there was no significant difference in quality between the three. How a tool felt in your hand when the tool was being used was a consideration. But the deciding factor for me was the ease of reading the scales on each tool. From the very earliest of tools to the then present time, tool scales where made by engraving precisely located lines on steel. These scales were, by their nature, hard to “read” in anything but bright light. I think it was Lufkin that developed an easy to read surface finish for engraved scales. The name “satin finish” was given to the easy to read scales of these newer Lufkin tools. I decided to buy Lufkin tools for that reason. It is a decision I have never regretted. One exception was the purchase of my 1″ and 2″ micrometers. For some reason, I bought them from Starrett, another decision I have never regretted. I cannot recall if I bought a tool on that day or what it may have been, but my very first tool was a 6” hook scale, which I still have. It does not have a satin finish. It served me well over many years and is so worn on the end as to render it useless except as a relic from my past.

Over the next several years, I bought the tools that are what I refer to as my machinist tools. The order in which I bought them was dictated by the need for a particular tool and if I had the money. Tools must be taken care of and protected if they are to serve their owner over the long haul. I wanted a tool box to keep my tools safe and available. All machinists and toolmakers I knew had either Kennedy steel tool boxes or Gerstner wood tool boxes. The Gerstner box was by far my favorite because it was the most handsome. It had a price that was way out of my league and I settled for a normal sized Kennedy tool box.

I made some of my tools using the resources of the shops that I worked in. The making of these personal tools was tolerated by shop managers so long as the work was done without delay to the work assigned to the shop. I made most of these tools on my lunch hour. A set of Vee-blocks, an edge finder, various parallel bars, a thread gauge, and a mandril for micro saw blades were among the tools I made. My machinist tools are all in my possession, nothing is missing, and each tool is completely functional except for the aforementioned retired 6″ scale.

I was witness to an episode of my father’s life that powerfully shaped my feelings about tools and the part that they played in my life. My father left high school before he graduated and began what became his lifetime career as an automobile mechanic. I was close enough to him to know that he took great pride in his mastery of his trade. My father worked on Model T Ford automobiles when he was a young man. The Ford Motor Co., Henry Ford, designed the Model T such that much of the repair and maintenance work on this car required the the use of specialized tools. My father, naturally had all of these tools in his possession. I remember seeing them amongst his regular tools and I never gave them much thought. My father, with the help of his friends and his brother, built a new building on our homesite in Norwalk. He moved his automobile repair business from a rented building located elsewhere in Norwalk and His business prospered over the years. As he grew older, he, my mother and two sisters began to take time off from the business and go on camping trips. My father never wanted to expand his business such that he would have to hire another mechanic. He was happy running a one man shop. When my father decided to go on a trip, he pulled the garage door down, locked it and went. Often, I did not know he was absent from his work, he just left. This was the era in American history that the small town values of mutual trust,  honesty, and respect for the property of others were breaking down. My father, upon his return from one of his trips, discovered his business had been broken into. The thieves had taken all of his tools – everything was gone. The shop was bare. My father, using money from his insurance, restored the shop and he was back to normal quickly. There was no way that his Model T special tools would be replaced with any amount of insurance money nor would the psychic wound caused by the the loss be healed. My father always bought the best tools available. He said that good tools made his work easier. The best tools, in the opinion of my father, were made by Snap On, in particular, the “Blue point” line of tools. These tools were forged of high quality steel and chrome plated. They were lightweight and fit your hand perfectly. His big red roll around tool cabinet was a sight to behold when the drawers were pulled out. It was all gone, including my fathers enthusiasm towards continued operation of the business. I believe this episode led to my father’s early retirement. My brother took over the business when my father retired and he ran it for many years.

When I reached an age where I could be accurately described being “middle aged”, I began to interest myself in subjects completely separate  from work matters. My dorment  interest in the history of the Union Pacific Railroad awakened as did my interest in model railroading. My related interest in railroad photography was similarly awakened. I indulged my passion for outdoor living by taking a course in back packing which quickly morphed into a passion for mountain climbing. All of this new activity activated a need to acquire new tools to facilitate my new interests. I dutifully acquired the requisite items, some of which justify the rubric of tools and some of which was merely “stuff”.  The assignment to either category is completely at the whim of  the author.

I can cannot recall how many ice axes I have, at least five is a good guess. I have more than one because the materials from which the shafts are made are different. Not surprisingly, ice axe shafts were, in the beginning, made of wood. Ash wood was the most used as I recall. I bought my first ice axe when I was a student in a Sierra Club sponsored Basic Mountaineering Training Course (BMTC). In my haste to acquire an ice axe, I bought on that was too long and I had to shorten it. I did such a nice job that one cannot tell it has been modified. This ice axe served me well during the nine years I was a BMTC leader.  For a while, laminated bamboo was THE material to be used in ice ax shafts. I bought a nice one but it was damaged during an ice climbing school that I attended on Mt. Rainer. The handle was gouged by another student’s imprudent use of his ice axe. I found the missing piece and later epoxied it in place. You cannot tell the ice axe has been repaired, but I have retired it. My final ice axe has a carbon fiber shaft and it is the ice axe I used for all of my climbing trips in Alaska. It is not nearly as good looking as any of my several other ice axes but it is said to be unbreakable. It is my favorite because it got me out of some dicey situations.

Boots are for me a sore subject, pun intended, which bedeviled me from my first hike into the mountains to my last. I have lost count of how many pairs of boots I have owned and used; it must be at least twenty. Boots fall into three categories. The first is your, thankfully obsolete, leather box that protected your feet from everything and at the same time all but guaranteed your feet would develop blisters and overheat because of their inflexibility and full grain leather construction. The second is the more modern, light weight and flexible trail boot. It is comfortable to wear but does not protect your feet as well from the bumps and twists that are part of off trail hiking. The boot from hell is the double boot which is used in very cold conditions. It is called a double boot because it has an outer plastic boot which encloses a softer and warmer inner boot. These boots are inflexible, indestructible, heavy, hard to put on and take off, and cause you to walk funny. However, if you are going where the going is cold and you value your feet, you will wear a pair of competent doubleboots. 

Crampons could be as simple as several steel spikes protruding from a frame that one strapped on your boots to guard against slipping on ice covered walkways to elaborate steel frames with multiple spikes that one would strap on your climbing boots for vertical ice climbing, such as crevasse walls and frozen waterfalls. Crampons designed for use on serious ice such as glaciers or frozen waterfalls are generally classified as rigid or flexible and with or without front points. Crampon points are meant to be sharp and sharp crampons are hazardous to to yourself, others nearby, and such inanimate objects as tents and sleeping bags. Crampons are attached to your boots either by straps or by mechanical clamping devices. I have examples of all of the types listed above which I have used during different climbing situations. The choice of a crampon style is dependant on the nature of the ice one expects to encounter. If one expects to be walking on a non-cravassed ice surface, then one might choose a flexible crampon without front points. If one expects to encounter vertical ice, one choses a rigid crampon with front points. A quick and easy mechanical clamping arrangement is preferred over straps because it takes much less time and effort to put your crampons on. 

Stoves are a luxury when one is doing a backpacking trip because water is readily available and food does not require that it be heated or cooked prior to eating in order to make it nutritious. I always had a stove with me, luxury or not. On the other hand, a stove to melt ice for potable water is absolutely vital to survival on any endeavor where water is locked up as ice. Stoves use a compressed flammable gas or a liquid fuel such as gasoline. The ease of operating a stove using compressed gas makes it the first choice for most situations where the fuel can be expected to remain near freezing or higher. For any situation involving the expectation that the stove will be operated in low temperatures and the only water available is what you obtain from melting ice or snow, a gasoline stove is  required and a generous number of spare parts should be on hand with the tools necessary to make repairs. I have stoves of several types that I have used at various times and places. Stoves can pose serious safety threats due the fire hazards associated with liquid fuel and carbon monoxide gas as a product of combustion.

It is my habit to record my activities photographically. I have many thousands of negatives and slides, most of which are not cataloged and likely never will be. My first camera was a Kodak Brownie that used 120 size film. My wife Patty used it to record family events. The second camera is a Speed Graphic 35. It uses 35 mm film, the camera is very heavy and it is necessary to cock the shutter release prior to each exposure. It was not long after I acquired the Speed Graphic 35 that I purchased my first 35 mm single lens reflex camera. It is a Pentax H1a. It is completely manual in its operation and lacks any light metering capability. I bought several, increasingly sophisticated Pentax cameras. I now use a Pentax digital SLR body and have two fairly good telephoto lenses to select from. My problem of non-cataloged images has only gotten worse.

My biggest concern about my tools now is the matter of their disposition after i’m gone. I do not have a plan for that and I am equally  certain no person in his or her right mind would take them without my crossing their palm with silver. I am confident a small subset of the whole will find their way to a few of the members of my family to serve as mementos of my time here on Earth. Beyond that possibility, the future of my tools looks grim indeed. 

In addition to my tools, I have a lot of “stuff”. There is much that may interest some people. Such as my collection camp”things” that have the distinctive marks left by bears as the bear chewed everything remotely connected to food. I have examples of my first woolen long underwear and the more modern kind made of plastic fibres. I have as series of increasingly costly sleeping bags, parkas, sweaters,socks, etc, etc. It is all stored on a loft in my garage. It has not been disturbed by anybody in over twenty five years. Interesting adventures await me!

 

 

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