Overcomplicating matters

Building a cattle grate
Dad finishes up the cattle grate for his place in Summerfield, Oklahoma- photo by my mother.

Although my father apprenticed as a carpenter, his real core skill area was the torch. I’ll never forget the time I twisted off a tripod screw in the bottom of my first camera and my dad fixed it— with an oxyacetylene torch. Working next to springs and wires scarcely bigger than a hair, he delicately brazed a piece of rod onto the stub and twisted the broken piece out. No damage to the electronics of my old Canon FTb. I was impressed. I was more used to him welding old drill casing together into fence rails, or building gates. Much of my childhood was spent unloading his truck as he hauled old metal scrap home (at 20$ a ton, as I recall) to make the stuff that surrounded our home: irrigation systems, fences, clothesline poles, etc. He made jack-stands and A frames for hoists, virtually anything you could think of to keep a small farm equipped. Even after he retired, it would never occur to him to buy most things— he’d rather make them with scrap metal and fire.

My father was never picky about his tools. He was constantly on the lookout for things people lost by the side of the road, or things that broke at the shop he worked at in the oilfields. There were very few things in his tool assortment that hadn’t been touched by a torch. Some things worked better than the stuff you could buy, such as his heavy metal jackstands. Other things, well, not so much. After he died (about nine years ago) I bought my mom a new set of pruning loppers. Dad used a pair that had half-inch pipe brazed on as handles because the wooden handles had broken. He fixed them, but my mother could no longer lift them without him. Many of the objects he made are rotting in a collapsing house in eastern Oklahoma, along with his tools. He gave them to my brother Steve when he could no longer use them. Arthritis in his hands finally got the best of him.

When Dad died, I was engaged in symbolic work. I was never very good at the manual trades; my brother was much better. I’m pretty sure he’d be happy I work more with my hands now, but he’d also be chuckling at my ability to overcomplicate things. I think though, in retrospect, that I came by this tendency naturally. Exhibit A, a tiny (6″) pair of vise grips from my dad’s toolbox:

My Father's Vise Grips

The repair to the upper jaw is fairly obvious, but what doesn’t show at first glance his “repair” of the spring that holds the jaws open. Apparently, it was slipping off so my dad fixed it, quite literally.

My Father's Vise Grips My Father's Vise Grips

The third detail, which I didn’t photograph, is the way my father “improved” the screw threads on the main adjuster. The large screw at the back is threaded through an opening in metal that has just been folded together- a detail common to all vise grips. My father apparently felt this was weak, so he brazed the metal closed around the screw without damaging the threads. That’s the overkill/overcomplication gene at work, I think. To buy a new pair of vise-grips would have just been a couple of dollars, but why do that when this tool could be fixed?