Up until quite recently, my entire tool collection consisted of a few mismatched screwdrivers, a circular saw my mother gave me, a power drill my wife bought me, and various tools we had given Ricky, my seven year-old step-son, for Christmas. Ricky’s tools weren’t even toys, they were real and I had actually chosen them with the idea that I might someday need to borrow them. The old bowling-ball-bag-gift theory. They included a hammer, a tape measure, and a little patch of leather with a metal ring that allowed you to carry your hammer on your belt. All told, The New Yankee Workshop this was not.
It wasn’t just my lack of tools though; it was my history with the ones I did have that caused my wife Jane to look at me with concern when I talked of building anything. The drill, after all, had been my first real power tool and she had been the one to give it to me. It was a decent one. A quarter-inch, variable-speed Craftsman. It even had reverse.
My first project, other than hanging a few shelves was to drill some holes in two oak barrels we had purchased to use as planters. They were old whiskey barrels that been cut in half. Old as they were, they were still quite water tight and needed drainage holes drilled into the bottom. No problem. Because I was a man with a drill.
So one sunny Saturday afternoon I rolled the barrels over by the back of the garage door and turned them over to begin drilling. Power tool in hand, I knelt on the first upturned barrel and began drilling. The progress was slow. Due to, I assumed at the time, the strength and age of the wood. I had to stop every once in a while to check my progress and I began to wonder if I had the proper drill bit since the bit had begun to smoke more and cut less. I was pushing so hard at one point that I feared I might plunge the drill right through the bottom of the barrel. I stopped and looked at the three holes I had made. It had just taken me fifteen minutes. I was standing there thinking there must be a better way when Jane came out to check on me. She stood next to me looking down at my measly work and wondering, not for the first time, what she had gotten herself into. I explained that I was having a hard time and was thinking that maybe I had the wrong type of bit. (what type of bit I thought I might have needed is beyond me. Cement? Stone? Oak barrel?) I was looking at the drill as if there might be instructions and Jane pointed to a switch on the back of the drill and said, “What’s that?”
There’s nothing quite as embarrassing as having your wife, a self-proclaimed mechanical idiot, prove just how worthless you are in the role of handyman husband. The switch she had pointed to was the Forward/Reverse switch and it had, at some point, been set to reverse. I flicked the switch to forward, pulled the trigger, and the previously hard as stone oak immediately turned into butter. I had been pushing so hard before that I practically slammed the drill into the wood. I released the trigger and stood up and surveyed the neat, clean hole.
“Hmmm,” was about the best thing I could come up with.
Jane handed me the lemonade she had brought me, patted me on the back and mercifully left me alone with my shame. Needless to say the rest of the job took the better part of three minutes and soon I was looking for things to put holes in just to show the world that I was capable of handling a small power tool. The cat, which had been sitting nearby, just looked at me with disgust.
Now you would think that after that episode, no one would have let me man the blender, let alone a power tool, but a few months later my mother sent me a circular saw.
It’s important to understand that unlike me, my father realized early on that he was no handyman. My father rarely got involved with what he called “my mother’s projects.” He considered the house her domain and was happy to support whatever my mother felt needed doing as long as he wasn’t going to be the one doing it. If a room needed painting it was my mother, and whichever one of us kids she recruited at the time, that did it. It was my mother who hired contractors to re-point the house, or surface the driveway. It was my mother who had the electric garage door opener installed and had the wood floors refinished. It’s not that my father didn’t appreciate the improvements, he just never would have thought about doing it. He would have rather owned a really nice car and lived in a cave.
So why was my mother sending me power tools? She had hired a young man to do some work in her kitchen and after agreeing on a price, gave him a down payment to start the work. What she didn’t know was that this young man had a bit of a drinking problem and a few days after he started the work, he disappeared, with the money my mother had given him, leaving my mother with a half-finished project and much of the young man’s tools. I got the saw.
The saw arrived in a cardboard box that had been reinforced with what looked like an entire roll of electrical tape (no doubt my father’s contribution). The blade had been removed for safety and there was a wrench included to allow for the easy changing of blades. I’m not a patient man by nature, so the first thing I did after removing the saw from the box was to replace the blade. It was a general-purpose blade with fairly large, widely spaced teeth so it was easy to figure out which way it went. I was now ready to cut something and if it needed holes, by golly, I had that down too.
At the time, I was the Creative Director for an advertising agency in the Olde City section of Philadelphia. The building was built by Alexander Hamilton in 1763 and had been restored with great care. Our agency was in the bottom two floors while they were refinishing the top three floors. The project had been going on for months and we often had to deal with what sounded like a wrecking crew just above our heads. But one day as I was arriving to work I noticed that they were throwing out a large pile of wood “scraps.” They were beautiful 2×6’s and many of them were four to five feet long. They were scraps if you’re renovating an Eighteenth Century townhouse, but if you’re looking to make your wife a couple of planters, they were fantastic. I scooped them up and put them in the trunk of my car. I would begin building that weekend.
Again, come Saturday morning, I positioned myself outside the garage and laid out the pieces of wood. I only wanted to build a few rectangular planters so I measured a few boards, made some pencil marks and scored the pieces using a t-square. (Lest you think I was excluding tools in my earlier list, this was a thin metal T-square designed for doing ad layouts.) I was now ready to cut.
Positioning the saw at the beginning of the line I had drawn, I depressed the safety, pulled the trigger and the saw roared to life. Slowly, but firmly, I pushed the saw into the wood, spitting sawdust onto the ground beneath me. I got about halfway through the first cut when the saw began to choke, then preceded to cut out altogether. This happened no matter what I did and soon I had cut most of the boards by cutting first from one side then again from the other. The problem with this method is that invariably you never quite meet in the middle. So when I was done, I had six boards that were all cut to about the right length but none were flush on the end. Eventually, I got the boxes built and although they weren’t the picture of craftsmanship, they were sturdy as hell and we’re using them still.
Yet, it bothered me that the saw hadn’t worked like it should have. I wondered if maybe I didn’t have the wrong kind of blade for the thickness of the wood I had been trying to cut. Several months later, my brother-in-law, who is a real-life carpenter and all around handyman, was visiting. I told him about my problem and we went to the garage, beers in hand to look at my saw.
I had not yet acquired enough tools to rate a toolbox, let alone a workbench, so my tools sat on a shelf at Jane’s workbench in the garage. It was here that she made dried flower arrangements and other craft projects. So there amongst her hot glue gun, green wire and scraps of felt, sat my drill and saw – looking, I thought at the time, a little embarrassed to be in such unmasculine company.
I picked up the saw and handed it to Ed, offering him my earlier thinking about the blade.
“The wood was pretty thick,” I told him, “I even thought maybe I had the wrong kind of blade. “ Ed grabbed the saw, took one look at it and put it back down again.
“So, what do you think?” I asked.
“You’ve got the blade on backward,” he answered matter-of-factly and put his beer to his lips and took a long, slow drink.
I took a drink as well and stood there looking down at the saw.
“Hmmm,” was about the best I could come up with.
Prior to meeting Jane and moving to Goshen I lived in the Queen’s Village section of Philadelphia. I had a great apartment with new appliances, central air and enormous ceilings. I rented, so when something broke, I called the landlord’s fix-it guy and he would take care of it. He even changed light bulbs. So up until this point, I’d never actually been in a Home Depot®. I’m assuming that nearly everyone in America has at least heard of Home Depot® even if they haven’t actually been in one. Even my old neighborhood in Philadelphia has one now. Regardless, I’d never been in one. Hadn’t really felt the need.
If you ever question whether or not men as a group have an innate attraction to tools, take one to Home Depot®. It’s Toys R Us® for adult men. I didn’t even know I wanted tools till I went there!
The sheer size of it screams masculinity because, as all men know, size really does matter. And don’t listen to those who’ll tell you that women have cornered the market on shopping. The men that claim women shop to excess do so simply because they don’t see a logical need for what women buy. But let them loose in a Home Depot® and all is lost. You see them wandering around the store mumbling and drooling with a kind of stoned look on their faces.
Their helplessness isn’t lost on management either. They position bright, young co-eds at the front door hawking Home Depot® credit cards.
“Gee honey, look,” we tell our wives, “They’re giving away a free ratchet set if you sign up. So what if they’re charging 23% interest. That set’s got to be worth, oh…I don’t know…what do you say?”
Your wife, thinking about the ten or so department store cards she’s carrying at this very moment, is in no position to argue so she smiles encouragingly and walks off to the garden department. You fill out your form, get your ratchet set under your arm and walk off to start at the beginning of the store and take the store systematically, aisle by aisle, so as not to miss anything important. The problem starts when your wife is done looking at potting soil because at this point it’s over for her. For your wife, wandering Home Depot® is the equivalent to you spending large amounts of time in a department store. As soon as you’re done looking at the electronics you’re done. It’s not like you’re going to start wandering around Petites for kicks.
Sooner or later, she’s going to come looking for you. If she can find you at all, she’s likely to spot you standing in front of a wall of tools and parts that you have no idea how to use but are fascinated with nevertheless. If she can’t find you in a quick pass, she’ll have you paged.
Next time you go to Home Depot®, find the customer service center. Invariably you’ll find a group of women standing around waiting. They’re not waiting to return floor sanders. They’re waiting for security to find their lost husbands. Every once in a while a clerk will show up with a dazed man in tow, his arms full of junk he doesn’t need, looking like a lost child. His wife will look at him sternly and say, “I’ve been looking everywhere for you!”
It’s not a pretty sight. When they found me I was looking at mailboxes and we pick up our mail at the post office, which happens to be across the street.
Truth be told, I did fill out an application for a Home Depot® card, but they didn’t give me a ratchet set. What they offered me was a chance to win a gas barbecue. So if you think about it, I didn’t get anything but a chance. Not really that big of an incentive come to think of it. Nevertheless, a month later, they called and told me I’d won a barbeque grill. They wanted to know when I’d like to come pick it up.
I showed up that weekend and told the young woman behind the counter that I was, well, me – and, you know – where was my grill? She pointed to the one they had been displaying when I was last there. It was right where I had left it collecting dust. I asked if she had one in a box and she looked at me blankly.
“No, that’s it,” the woman told me.
“I don’t think that will fit in my car,” I explained.
“What kind of car do you have?”
“An Audi, why?”
“You brought a Audi to pick up a gas grill?” she asked surprised.
“That’s the biggest car I’ve got.”
I explained that just because I filled out an application for a credit card at Home Depot® did not mean I owned a pickup truck.
“Well, I know that,” she replied.
“Can you take it apart? You know, not all the way. Maybe just the legs.”
She said that they didn’t actually put them together there, but outsourced that to another company. Besides, she pointed out, the grill was all sort of attached to itself. You couldn’t just take one part of it off. I realized she wasn’t going to be much help. I asked her if she could maybe loan me a screwdriver and a wrench and I would do it myself.
She actually had to think about this.
This is a store that has every kind of screwdriver and wrench known to modern man and she was trying to figure out where she might be able to dig one up; a junk drawer behind the counter perhaps.
While she went off in search of a screwdriver, I decided to go ahead and bring my car around. After waiting for a couple of minutes, I went back in to see what progress had been made. The grill sat where it had before with no one in sight, so I started wheeling it out to my car. (Let me point out that this Home Depot® is in the South Jersey suburbs. I’ve since been to the Home Depot® in Philadelphia. They check the items in your bag against your register receipt, then frisks you for loose screws.) Anyway, no one even looked twice at me. I just wheeled it right out the door. And this is not a door near a cash register either. People are only coming IN this door, not out. Yet no one said boo about a man wheeling a fully assembled gas grill out the door. I got it to my car and began looking at ways I might be able to get it in. I also thought about going back for a rotor tiller.
After a few minutes, a helpful-looking young man approached asking if I needed assistance. For the record, he didn’t ask for a receipt either.
Together we looked at the grill, then at my car. There was no way this was going to fit. He then offered to help me strap it to the roof of my car. I checked to see if he had a crack pipe sticking out of his back pocket, but he looked clean. I told him I wasn’t about to scratch up my new $40,000 car for a free gas grill.
I then asked him for a screwdriver and he provided one. I began taking the grill apart piece by piece, trying to get it into the trunk or at least in the back seat. By the time I got to where I could get all the parts to fit, the entire grill was in pieces at my feet and I had two pounds of screws in my pants pocket. I closed the trunk, thanked the young man, (I’m not sure why, all he did was watch me take it apart) and drove home where I put all the parts in the basement. It’s still there. The thing is, I now have a grill I didn’t need in the first place, sitting in my basement in about thirty pieces. I just hope I can find all the screws.
I don’t really have any motivation to put it together either. I told Jane, that the next time I need a grill I’ll just drive to Home Depot® and wheel out a floor model. Of course, I’ll be sure to borrow a pickup truck first.