By John Niolon

 I imagine it's a natural part of getting older and I'm sure we've all done it.  You start considering your mortality and the inevitable distribution of your "stuff".  For years I've scrimped and saved and swapped and inherited and appropriated my stuff.  And, in my own humble opinion it’s a formidable pile.  And it's kinda scary sometimes when I realize that I've left my shop unlocked for three days.

I've been through several hobbies and usually sold out of one to buy into another.  Model airplanes, bicycles, cars, ham radio, cars, woodworking, cars, metal working, trucks… and on and on.  Each hobby necessitated the purchase of a sometimes unique set of tools.  Through the buying and selling and swapping of all these endeavors, the one thing that has remained in place was the tools.  

 I've always had a morbid fascination with tools of any kind and a great respect for those people who can use them to create what is in my opinion…art.  Whether it's a fine piece of furniture, a remote control airplane or a nicely done piece of fabrication and pipefitting on a steam generator; when it's done properly…it's art, and those who do it are artists.  There are a lot of machinists, fabricators, pipefitters, maintenance-utilitymen that are on a level with daVinci when it comes to taking a spark of an idea and creating something unique, useful and beautiful.   But I digress….. 

So, I've collected all these tools and tried to emulate these artists.  Sometimes it was successful…..sometimes not.  Wrenches, sockets, hammers, saws, tig, mig and stick welders, plasma cutters, torches, transits, yard tools, tractors, meters, gauges, mics and calipers and in multiple quantities sometimes.   Hell, I've got more vice grip pliers than some people have total tools.  Several thousand dollars worth of "stuff".  There is also a value that can't be calculated in dollars here.  Some of these tools belonged to my grandfather, my dad and favorite uncles.  Just by the simple act of holding them, I can be in a place or a time that was so special to me, a feeling that I can't duplicate any other way.  I have a transit that belonged to my father… it's over a hundred years old and we used it for years in his business.  Years of memories with him, both good and bad, but more good than bad.  I can just set up the tripod for this instrument and have the most wonderful comfortable feeling you could ever imagine.  A simple Lufkin 50 foot metal tape in my hand revives thoughts of  times with my uncle, the brick mason, laying out a foundation for a block wall.  I can still feel the cold on my face from that January morning.  I didn't really enjoy being there freezing then, but I'd give a months pay to have him here now and measure that same foundation.  No one can appreciate that but me. 

A good friend forwarded to me an article by Peter Egan.  I'm sure you recognize the name and his insightful writings for many different automobile publications.  He is a man who appreciates and understands tools.  He was writing about going to an estate sale that offered a life-times collection of a man's tools.  Now this isn't something I'm rushing toward as an experience but it has caused some major reflection…   What to do with my stuff.  It's a weighty question. 

I have a son and daughter.  My son is not mechanically inclined, being a psychologist, his major tool is a computer.  He builds one hell of a web page but he'd probably drive nails with a pipe wrench. I tried to interest him in mechanical things when he was younger but his interests were in other things.  It's sad in a way, for now he pays greatly for someone to install a light fixture or a dishwasher in his condo in Chicago.  

My daughter while producing beautiful grandchildren tends to soil her hands only with chocolate.  A late arriving possibility  was my son-in-law, and while he is a willing and able helper, by his own admission his mechanical abilities are limited and golf is more of a passion for him.  The outcome was looking dismal and I had a clutching pain in my chest as I envisioned yard sale vultures grinning and slobbering over my "stuff" as they pay my wife pennies on the dollar value.  This feeling prompted a video tape inventory and a notebook listing the major pieces of the collection and their approximate individual value.  I've also tried to impress on my wife and children the emotional value of the inherited tools.   I hate to admit it but it's falling on uneducated ears.  Not deaf… but not knowing enough to understand.  Perhaps if I equated it to the quilts that her Granny made….But  anyhow,  Bill Gates' money can not pay for that emotional value.

 I think that Egan's idea while altruistic wasn't realistic.  He being childless, decided to leave all his stuff to "…some youngster he comes upon who has a rusty screwdriver in his pocket and maybe a worn-out pair of pliers trying to work on a lawnmower engine; whose eyes light up when he hears a motorcycle pass by or sees a set of wire-wheels flash in the sunlight".   I think he might waste his collection there… chances are as good as not that the gleam in the child's eye for the wire-wheels is only for how much they will bring at the pawn shop.


I've had friends suggest leaving them to a tech school or high school shop.  I hesitate at that idea, wondering if any of it would ever get off the teacher/administrator's truck… It's a shame that there isn't a master craftsman somewhere who teaches young mechanics/fabricators/welders/etc, who has a place that needs this type of donation and would utilize this collection to produce more artists and artisans… it's still perplexing….   There used to be an older Italian gentleman, I think his name was Mario Capotosio (?) who used to write simple basic instructional articles for Popular Mechanics.  "How-to" articles like using a file, drilling holes in metal, how to use a handsaw.  That's the kind of guy that should have the tools to bring up these youngsters in the 'tool-using' trades.  Good apprentice programs are vanishing like smoke on a windy day. 

While I was sitting in the waiting room last week, anxiously awaiting the birth of my first grandson, thinking of the future, and all that waited patiently for him, my new plan unfolded.   If I can't FIND a beneficiary, I'll BUILD one.  I think now my best option is to take all the time I can with my newly born grandson…let him hold the tools and explain them to him… let him hammer two pounds of 8 penny nails into a two by four until it will hold no more and brag on the three that he hammered in straight.  Gently guide his hand and teach him the proper way to use the tools… to appreciate them. Teach him about safety glasses and ear plugs so he's not as deaf as his grandpa. Hopefully more nails will be driven straight, fewer nuts cross threaded.   

I'll spend hours wandering around hardware stores with him.  Real old dusty hardware stores with sweeping compound on the floors !!  Not the mega-million dollar "home improvement centers", but places that sell hammers, axes, plow line and hame straps, barbed wire, stovepipe and dampers, nails from big ole rotating bins with heavy paper bags and a hanging scale to weigh them and tomato plants out front in the spring. They're getting harder to find, but there still out there in small towns where no Home-Depot dares to tread (weak customer base and all…) And, the trip will be an adventure and hopefully a memory he can pass down to his son with these same tools.   We'll start his tool collection while he is young, with his own locking toolbox and he has the only key (except for the spare that I have hanging on the back of a shelf). 

I'll enjoy watching him smile and shake nervously as he burns his first piece of steel with a torch. I'll laugh at his newly created and completely original   'dance of the welder with hot metal in his sneaker'.  I'll tell him the stories about his great-grandpa and the transit, his great-uncle Bud and laying out foundations.  All of this over peanut butter sandwiches eaten with greasy hands in the shop.  I might not be able to make him a auto mechanic, hell… he'd need a degree in computers and a EE to do that now a days.  But, I can help him understand when it needs to be fixed and what he CAN do on his own. How to change a tire and jump a battery… check the fluids and know when a mechanic is trying to screw him.  

 As I sometimes sit in my shop  staring at my truck project, frustrated with my progress on my '53 F-100, I wonder if he'll have to help me finish it. . At the rate I'm working this could be true.   It's going to belong to him someday anyway. 

Young Cole lives in Mobile for now, but I hope in three or four years we'll be  closer geographically and I'm sure we will be emotionally, I'll see to that part for sure.  My dad and I worked together from the time I could hold a level rod plumb until his stroke three years before his death at seventy eight. Over 30 years. He taught me so much, but I grieved for all the knowledge, memories, recollections that were lost when he died. I didn't realize until much later how much he did teach me. A lot by lecture and a lot more by example. He probably only taught me ten percent of what he knew, partly because he knew so much, but mostly because I wasn't always the most attentive or willing student. There is an old saying about young boys.. "When they get the smell of gasoline and the taste of lipstick, they're ruined"… that was true in my case…severely.  At least till I met my wife.  Maybe I can be half the teacher he was and Cole can be twice the student I was.

 So my plan is forming in my mind and before I know it young Cole will be visiting and following me around the yard and shop.  I can put my plan to action. I hope I'll have the answer to the three million questions he'll have.  Hopefully by then, I can ride him around in one fine yellow '53 F-100.  And when (far off in the future) the time comes, HE can drive ME to a hardware store in it.  I'm not wishing my life away but I'm looking so forward to that and can't hardly wait. 

 This plan might not suit your situation at all and the neighborhood tech school might be a good one that would appreciate your donation.  Perhaps your son or daughter has had the instruction from Dad about tools and the wonderful things they can do.  I'm pretty sure though that the thought has probably crossed your mind and if by some chance it hasn't, I hope my ramblings here give you reason for it's consideration.  

I think I'll call my daughter and see how my new grandson is doing. 

Copyright 2000-2004 John Niolon, All International Rights Reserved. This document may not be copied or published without prior written consent of the author.     jniolon@bham.rr.net



Dumping Memory

(What to do with the "stuff" in your head)

By John Niolon

 Does that term sound familiar?  It's a computer term. It means to unload what is stored in memory and protect it.  Copy it to a floppy…. Back up your hard drive….. zip it down and put it on tape… all terms we hear and many of us live by day after day… literally a matter of life and death in a business sense at least.  I'm sure at least one of you has failed to do this and received that dreaded message… bright white letters on a cold black screen.. "Unable to read Drive C:\". Sometimes it's accentuated by grinding and thrashing sounds made by your p.c.'s hard drive. Remember ?  It is a terrible feeling. The sense of frustration and loss, the aggravation at yourself for not taking that few minutes to do the backups.

 How much information could you lose ?  It could be one easily replaceable file or it could be months or years of data that is irreplaceable or even erased from your other backup system…your own memory, the soft one in your hard head.   Personal computers are very able extensions of our own brain and its collected information.  But, as efficient as they are at storing data they still can't begin to emulate the human brain and its capacity or it's ability to capture and hold a scene that flashed before our eyes for a fraction of a second.  A fleeting scent or a soft breeze can be the key to a flood of recollection of events we witnessed or things we've done.  Remember that marble game you lost in third grade… you lost your 'favorite'… and you can still remember the shot you missed to lose it ?

It is really  hard to comprehend the amount of "memory" that computer between your ears is holding.  How many things do you do without thinking…second naturedly…  which way do you tighten a bolt, left or right ?  Can you feel a 5/8" nut  that's hidden from view and instinctively know which wrench to use ?  Does the sound of an wire welder arc tell you when you have the voltage and wire feed at the correct settings ? Hear that bacon frying ?

 Now, think about what you had to do to build that database.  How many times did you have to pick up a piece of metal you just torch cut to remember it was hot ?  Only once, I hope.   How many pieces of crown molding have you cut wrong to get the piece to fit right in the corner ?  How much of this type "stuff"  is learned by experience and not from books ?  In my experience it is quite a bit.   Some of it was a good experience and fun.  Some of it was not.… remember that hot piece of metal ?  Wouldn't it be a shame to lose that information. 

This is where the idea of mentoring comes in.  Webster defines mentor as a "wise and trusted counselor or teacher".  We've all had mentors but more importantly we all need to be mentors… to counsel and teach those coming behind us.   I've written before about my Dad and all the things he taught me.  I mentioned how much I grieved for all his experience and memories and recollections that were lost when he died.   Things that he either never told me or assumed I knew.  Painful lessons that life taught him could have been shared with me to save my pain.   "Don't pick that up son, it's hot !!"  Those years and years of experience, ideas developed into practice, and dreams realized all vaporized when he died; the same ideas and dreams that I might have someday and work out on my own, duplicating his hard efforts and energy.   

Anyone who works with their mind or their hands develops shortcuts and techniques that are as individual as they are. Two carpenters can build from the same plans with the same finished product, but use totally different approaches to the end result.  This is also why a real craftsman can build a beautiful piece of furniture and my efforts look like an apple crate with varnish on it.

 This is the kind of information that is irreplaceable.  When we die, if we haven't  "backed up" this data, it's gone forever.  This gives us all a wonderful opportunity to do something worthwhile.  In a previous article I used up 2000 or so words on what to do with our "stuff" when we die…how to distribute our accumulation of tools, hardware and such.  Now the thing to think about is what to do with the knowledge that goes with the stuff.  As I said in the other article I hope to "build" a beneficiary for my tool collection using my grandson.  I hope to not only give him the tool collection, but the miniscule amount of useable knowledge I've accumulated over the years on their care, purpose and operation.   And, hopefully these tiny seeds I plant will grow and  inspire him to learn more and never stop searching for better ways to do things.

Think about who got you interested in cars or metal work or carpentry or whatever your passion might be.  Who showed you how to use the tools, how to weld or solder, how to saw and keep your fingers on your hand ?   Then, look around you at the generation of young men and women coming up behind us.  Most are only concerned with keeping their cell phones charged and how to talk Mom into buying that new Tommy Gear.  How many of these kids can't check a circuit breaker when the lights go out ?  How many even know what a circuit breaker is ?  We're raising a generation of  "connected" kids.  They're hooked up…they've got Beepers, they've got  cell phones, e-mail and voice mail.  What they don't realize is that their virtual world is supported by a physical world and most don't have a clue about how it works.  When their car won't start they don't flip up the hood, they flip up the cell phone cover and call someone.  They could probably find a plumber on the internet before I could… but they wouldn't know what he does.  

 I think we need to start passing down this knowledge we've worked so hard to gather.   Considering how hard we've worked to learn this 'stuff'…isn't it worth passing on ? Do you want your daughter to pick up that piece of hot metal ?   If you are like me and don't have kids that show an interest, widen your search area. Look for neighborhood kids, cousins, nephews and nieces. There are kids out there still that are taking the toasters apart, or their dad's cordless drill.  These are the kids that will soak up all you can pour on them and beg for more.  Find these young men and women and "waste" your time with them.  Now I'm not naive enough to think that we'll build a new world of master craftsmen.  But we can develop some people with enough sense to maintain their homes and shops, to put the wheels back on their lawnmower instead of buying a new one.  

 Some of the home improvement centers have programs where kids learn to build a bird house from a kit or learn how to make a towel rack for Mom.  These programs teach basic skills using basic tools.  Nothing fancy.  But they light a spark.  They show the kids that they CAN do things with their hands other than swipe that credit card .  I've talked to the guys who teach these programs and they love it.  Some don't even have kids of their own, they just enjoy passing along the knowledge and looking at the faces of the kids while they work and when they complete their task… it might not be the prettiest bird house but it is THEIR birdhouse and the next one will be better and prettier. Then they start thinking… "if I can build a birdhouse, I can build a dog house for Spot !"… and the sawing starts.  Think about the last time you saw a small group of boys dragging scrounged lumber and tin and rope toward an old oak tree and a week or so later you see something that vaguely resembles a tree house. It's been a long time for me. (Now you just see kids on $100 scooters.)

 From the limited amount of experience I've had with these programs, I can assure you it's worth more to you than shooting par.  If you're proud of the 8 point hanging on the den wall, just imagine how proud you'll be of your grandson's first mount that you taught him how to hunt and shoot.  When the engine you built with your niece fires off first time…look at her face.  That's the look you'll never forget !!

 I was fortunate to have a Dad that shared what he knew, Scoutmasters that offered hours and hours to boys who wanted to learn, a friend's Dad that I'll never forget or be able to repay.  He helped me earn a whole mess of merit badges.  He taught me about plumbing, carpentry, how to clean a paint brush properly and how to string fence.   He had the tools and the knowledge and he shared it.  He taught me how to do things correctly and safely.  When to wear gloves and safety glasses.. what happens when you hit something hard enough to break it.  And, sometimes we broke things just to see what would happen...then we figured out how to fix it. He's in his late seventies now, but if I took a project to his house today and needed help…he'd stop what he was doing and help me figure out how to do it….then offer to do it for me knowing that I wanted to do it myself.  He never refused to help someone, especially a youngster who wanted to "do it" but didn't know how.  I've tried to be that kind of person when I could.  I think we'd all do well to try and be that way. 

There are good teachers out there; in the tech or vocational schools or teaching in apprentice programs.  They turn out some very able craftsmen who fill much needed trade jobs and continue the learning practice day after day.  These students go on to perfect their techniques and someday  become the masters.  Everyone is a master at something…. Ok… if not a master, at least really good… good enough to teach someone else who wants to learn.  These tech school teachers can only reach so many young people…those that have the money and time to go to school. We can reach many more of these young people by giving our time to teach them…both the things they can learn in school and those all important things they never hear in school.  "Don't pick that up, son,…it's hot".  We also have the opportunity to reach them sooner than the schools. And, because we can make the learning experience fun they will retain more. 

Mentoring can take many forms and isn't limited to the young.  I belong to a couple of user groups on the Internet… one is for Ford Truck Enthusiasts (ford-trucks.com) and the other is a shop and tool related site called shop-talk.com.  These guys never cease to amaze me. When a question is offered to the group, they will go to whatever means necessary to help someone understand what needs to be done and how to do it.  They will even go so far as to make long distance phone calls, fax pictures or depending on geography..meet for coffee and talk about the problem.   Parts are swapped, sold or given freely to help out a fellow truck owner or "shop" buddy.  I've never failed to get some help when I asked for it and I owe so many in these groups…. Well, I could never repay them. If there's a guy down the street who needs that lawnmower frame welded or who's trying to build a storage shed and is a little lost…  help him out.. and teach him as you go.  I promise you'll get more from it than he will.  It doesn't hurt to be the neighborhood handyman or helper.  You'll make a friend and share the knowledge.  Who knows, he might have a brother-in-law with whom he can share what you taught him…and the chain of knowledge gets another link.

My old mentor I mentioned before… worked the 11-7 shift in a steel mill for 35 years and he slept during the day.  Everyone knew when his garage doors were closed he wasn't available for a drop in repair request.  He was sleeping or tending to his family.  But, when the double garage doors were open he was always available to help someone or just to visit.  Many afternoons you could see him working on someone's project.  You could see a hood up and two or three heads stuck under it,  a lawnmower up on sawhorses and a welding arc flickering brightly or the framework for a rose garden trellis being fabricated.  Sometimes there were just folks sitting on stools in the sun talking and drinking iced tea.

 Years after I was grown and gone, I came back for a visit, and I asked him if he had ever gotten tired of keeping the neighborhood running.  He laughed and said he didn't know if he was responsible for that, but helping people was something he enjoyed doing. He had more friends than he could count and it helped him keep in touch with everyone around him.  He got to watch his neighbors kids grow up and mature and he knew every child's name and disposition.  Make up basketball and baseball games were always at his net or in his field, long after his kids were grown and gone.  The bats, balls and gloves were kept in a storage box "outside" the garage and were always returned when the play was completed.  Another benefit he pointed out to me was his "magic back door steps".  He called them that because in the afternoons when his sleeping was finished and he came outside to work in the shop or his garden, magically there was a basket of corn or tomatoes, a bundle of welding rods or a box of nails waiting there.  He'd never take money, but he'd tell you today he was paid much too much.  He'd help you fix anything he could and when you left you understood how he did it.  He was also like a lot of Dads.  He was smart enough to know that mischief has a gravity that attracts the energy and curiosity of young boys.  And their enthusiasm can get them in trouble.  There was always something around to "work on".  For a long time it was a '32 Model-A Ford Roadster, with a "parts car" out back.  That's where I picked up a lot of automotive knowledge. Other times it was a David Bradley walk behind garden tractor (we built a trailer for it to haul vegetables from the garden and ride through the neighborhood) or a riding lawnmower that needed "working on".   They were activities that kept a boys mind occupied and kept him off the street. I can name 4 boys that learned a lot and never got in any major trouble. They are all grown now with grandkids and have always been hardworking, family men that are self-sufficient. Something else that was learned by example, not from books.

 You don't have to limit your mentoring to just the young.  There are folks of all ages that want to do things but just need someone to get them started.  I had a boss a few years back that had a sign in his office that said  "Just Start…the rest will be easy". That's all most people need…the start… and maybe a little instruction and help.  Share that knowledge !!

 Call it what you want… passing the torch… teaching the young… training your replacement…helping a neighbor… it doesn't matter.  It helps to strengthen the infrastructure of this country.  It builds character and self-reliance, it'll make you feel good. And, it's the best way to preserve what's in memory.  Besides when you're 85 years old and can't change out that flood light bulb on the end of the house, you'll need some one to reach it and to know which way to turn it. 

 Copyright 2000-2004 John Niolon, All International Rights Reserved. This document may not be copied or published without prior written consent of the author.    jniolon@bham.rr.net