Tools

Cleaning out my desk, yesterday, I came across one of my favorite tools, an antique printer’s loupe. Most folks have seen a jeweler’s loupe, the funny eyepiece that jewelers use to assess the quality of a gemstone. Printers’ loupes are different. They’re used to assess the quality of printing, such as press registration, engraving quality, etc. They sit roughly an inch or so above a printing plate or sheet of paper.

loupe2My loupe is inherited. It was my father’s, and I can remember seeing it and playing with it when I was a kid. It has a simple, spring-loaded, brass frame and a magnifying lens. It folds into a nice, compact package and fits into a nifty leather case, the snap for which has been gone more than 50 years. Around the lens, the brass is stamped Bluff City Engraving Memphis 3, Tenn. It’s old. I don’t know how old. The best I can find out is that Bluff City Engraving was founded in 1907 and was still around during 1940s. I have no idea where my father got it, but it’s still useful. Since part of my work often includes supervising printing, I use it, and each time I do, I think of him.

I have a love affair with old tools. Many of them were much more elegantly made than tools today: walnut handles, details added to corners, graceful curves instead of straight lines, brass instead of aluminum, turned cast iron instead of stamped steel. I suppose that when cost is a factor, elegance is one of the first things to go. That certainly seems to be case with architecture. Maybe the simple truth is that the cheap stuff has not lasted, so I just can’t consider it.


My grandfather grew up in West Tennessee. He was naturally mechanical. Family legend has it that he and some friends took apart a Model T and reassembled it on the roof of Peabody High School. In later years, he ran the engineering department for Buring Foods, a large a meat processing company in Memphis that produced King Cotton meats. He died in 1977; I was nine. Now his tools and toolbox sit in my basement next to my own tools and toolbox. His hand tools, particularly wrenches and pliers have his initials, REL, engraved on them.

Perhaps my favorite of his tools is an offset, box-end wrench, with a 1-inch end and a 15/16ths-inch end. I like it because it’s broken in two places. The 15/16ths end is cracked, and the wrench itself is broken right in the middle. My grandfather mended both breaks with spot welds, even though the wrench is a Craftsman and he could just as easily have gotten a new one for free. Maybe that says something about his character. That he was the kind of man who when he broke a wrench by using too much force didn’t think he deserved a freebie. Or maybe simply the urgency of the job meant that welding the wrench was simply faster and easier.

wrenchBut now, looking more closely at the wrench, I know why he never returned it to Sears. He modified the 15/16ths end. The outside of the box is filed to be thinner, probably to fit into tight space, and overall height of the box has an eighth of inch ground off of it.

To some, the wrench is just a wrench, mostly useless because one end has cracked again. Me, I’ll never know why my grandfather modified the wrench. But I know he touched it and the other tools that say REL. He used it, maybe carried it around in his back pocket. And like the loupe, it fits my hand, and I can touch and use and carry it. If photographs are vehicles for memory, so too, are tools.

Invisibles

Morning coffee never tastes better than on Saturday, on my deck, savoring the early light as it slants, golden through the trees and the mist lifting from perennials and vegetables, blossoms back-lit in the eastern glow. At these times, occasionally, for brief moments, I see the invisible.

I sat there one recent Saturday, nursing my coffee. Dark clouds dotted the sky (what the meteorologists call partly cloudy, or maybe mostly cloudy, I really can never quite tell which is which.) The dew hung heavily on everything. As the sun winked through the slit between the horizon and the clouds, the mist caught it, and I saw a hidden world.

A taught, bright line first caught my eye, ten feet of shimmering spider silk stretched like a steel cable from the garden fence to a branch of the red oak reaching down.

I imagined the spider climbing from tree to fence or fence to tree. Although, I knew the spider drifted down from the tree, nudged by a breeze to the fence, but I couldn’t help thinking that its purpose was to climb into the green canopy of the tree, away from the man-made.

My eye followed the fence to where I knew it turned a corner, but the wire fence I knew was there was not. The dark wire of the fence receded as the sunlight called out more and more shimmering webs hanging in the gaps, hundreds of webs each carving out its space along our garden fence.


For a few years, I inhabited a desert city. Like most cities, its lights blocked the night sky. The moon could compete, but stars could not. I was a student. A hairdresser and a Culligan Man lived across the hall. She would cut my hair in their apartment for $10. He had a passion for guns and astronomy. He had a Garand M-1 for target shooting, subscribed to Sky and Telescope magazine, and owned a used reflector telescope.

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Crab Nebula, visible light courtesy of NASA

I had never seen a telescope like this, so he set it up one night in the parking lot, right downstairs from our apartments. It was four or five feet long and looked to me like it was made of black Sonotube, a heavy duty cardboard tube used as a form for concrete columns. The tube sat on a tripod, and it had special mounts for eyepieces. The whole thing had a motor that plugged into his truck’s cigarette lighter. The motor compensated for the earth’s rotation and kept the view in view.

Within five minutes, I stood looking through the telescope, feet solidly on asphalt smelling faintly of gasoline with the soft hum of the tracking motor barely audible above the jet engines and the adjacent six-lane street. I looked through the light pollution and air pollution at the Crab Nebula and back in time more than 6,000 years, seeing light that left 20 centuries or more before Gilgamesh met Enkidu or Moses walked in Ur. It remains among the most arresting things I have ever seen— made even more so by how I saw it, not in a laboratory or a college observatory, but standing next to a white Toyota pickup on a hot summer evening with a guy who delivered water for a living.

I inhabit a small, personal universe in the near field. If I look away only briefly, my life vanishes into nothing, becoming smaller and smaller until I disappear. In a parking lot or seated with a cup of coffee, I can be suddenly displaced by the infinite. I can’t quite decide if I like that feeling or not.

That Weird Yankee Uncle

MEMPHIS – Highway 64 threads east through corn and soybean fields in West Tennessee, curving gently through towns like Whiteville and Bolivar, past the Big Buck resort. I was the passenger on a humid Thursday morning. From the seat behind me, my niece asked me a question. We’d been talking about a promised trip to New York City. “Even if you can’t take me to some of those cool bars, want to know where we can go?” she said.

“Where?” I answered, “the Sex Museum?”

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Photo by Stefano Mortellaro

“No” came the exasperated reply. “Dylan’s Candy Store.”

Despite being from Memphis, my nieces tell me I’m now a “Yankee.” I guess it’s true, but where I live now, people don’t break society down into two castes, Southerners and Yankees. But my nieces do, so I’m gleefully working on becoming the odd “Yankee” uncle. The one that makes the mildly inappropriate comments when they’re least expected. The one that introduces them to strange music, weird food, and counter-cultural ideas like evolution.

We turned off 64 in Selmer, county seat of McNairy County, and home of Buford Pusser of Walking Tall fame. But we didn’t take a side trip to Adamsville to see his museum.

For July in West Tennessee, the landscape was remarkably green. Most years, it has a worn-out appearance, like a middle-aged man with dust on his Sunday clothes. We drove on past a few squat brick homes with rattling window air conditioners propped up with scrap two-by-fours. We passed corn fields and gardens with tall wire fences ornamented with black plastic bags to scare the deer and resembling funereal ornament for a Hefty salesman. We passed shotgun houses with peeling paint where old men sat on the porch wearing nothing but boxers, counting cars, and savoring the last of the morning’s coolness.

Before long, we stood outside the visitor’s center of Shiloh National Military Park. Three of us had never been, the children. The adults, my sister and I, had, but didn’t much remember it. She was too busy with her sixth grade friends; I was only five. Why had we come this Thursday? I really can’t say—spectacle, history, reverence, a need to place ourselves in some greater context, maybe all or none of these. I don’t know.

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Photo by Karen Blaha

What I do know is this: In April of 1862, this park was a patchwork of farms that hosted a scene of killing that only later Civil war battles would eclipse in American history. The fighting started at daylight among the pink haze of peach trees in bloom. It moved through hay fields, cotton fields, an apple orchard, wheat and cornfields. For a while it centered on Shiloh, a log church named for a Biblical town that means “Tranquility Town.”

Only one original log cabin remains. As I stood outside it, looking at a newly planted peach orchard, the irony of the battle struck me —and not the irony of killing in tranquility churchyard or the irony that the people around Shiloh voted against secession. Instead I thought of the awful irony of war itself, which destroys what it seeks to maintain.

The battle lasted for two days. Then the armies moved on, but the farmers remained. Maybe a few peach blossoms or tiny green apples survived the shelling. Maybe all their livestock wasn’t killed in the fight or slaughtered and eaten. Early April is corn planting time; maybe they hadn’t yet put it in.

A park ranger told me that for years afterward, local farmers complained about accidentally plowing up the dead in planting time. There is no planting now, but seasons continue to wash the memory out of the red clay soil all the same.


On the way home, the Sex Museum didn’t come up at all. I was lost trying to grasp the horrific experience of front line soldiers. My sister wondered out loud why anyone, particularly in the South, cared enough to fight the war.

For the kids, the experience boiled down to sides: north or south; right or wrong; free or slave. They wondered for a moment which side was theirs. Forty years ago, my classmates and I in our private school filled with white, middle-class kids might not have even asked the question, much less come up with this answer: “Slavery was wrong; we would have been Union.”

Is it the truth? I don’t know. But their answer gives this crazy Yankee hope.