Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Of Hammers and Cameras

My dad had many hammers. Hammers large and small, short and long, wood, metal, fiberglass and plastic were scattered around his workshop: claw hammers, framing hammers, tack hammers, ball-peen hammers, a sledge hammer, various mallets, mauls, and hatchets. There was even an electric hammer, a nail gun that automatically focused just the right amount of energy on a special nail to drive it precisely into the wood. My dad did not collect hammers but he had many because he loved to make things, especially of wood.

It never occurred to me to ask my dad which hammer was his favorite. His hammers were tools; each had its own purpose and function. All the same, I knew that one hammer was special even though it was not the most specialized and certainly not the most expensive.

As a young boy learning to use a hammer, my dad would give me a handful of nails and a board. While he was doing his woodwork, I’d sit on the workshop floor and tap away, holding the hammer midway up the handle. Tap, tap, tap, taking dead aim with each tap. Hit the nail on the head. Tap, tap, tap. Time for a story and a lesson.

In the Depression, my dad was working at F. W. Woolworth’s – one of the original “five and dime” stores – when he got a better job at a shipyard. He had to provide his own hammer for the new job so he bought a claw hammer at Woolworth’s for fifty cents. That fifty cents represented a substantial part of his wages but also an investment in his future. On one of his first days at the shipyard, as he was using his new hammer, an older worker asked to see it. My dad proudly handed over his new hammer only to see his co-worker immediately saw off the bottom half of the handle. When my dad asked, “Why’d you do that?” his co-worker replied, “Well, you weren’t using the bottom part of the handle anyway!” Daddy was then told to take it to the repair shop and get a new handle – which he did. A lesson taught, learned, and taught again.

There are newer and perhaps better hammers than that five and dime Depression hammer. Computer designed and made of space age materials, a modern hammer is a model of efficiency as a striking tool. Some don’t even look like hammers. Modern hammers are variously engraved, marked and labeled promoting these features (not to even mention the safety warnings!). My dad’s old hammer is marked only “Drop Forged” but I feel certain it was “Made in the USA”.

As child, my goal was to learn to use that hammer correctly. I practiced. I drove nails, pulled them out, straightened them and drove them in again. I wasn’t making anything – just practicing using that hammer. Practice makes perfect.

No one ever asked my dad which hammer he used to build his workshop, make a roll top desk, frame a picture or fashion a cradle for his great-grandchildren. Of course, his answer would have been different in each case and would have always included “The right tool for the job”. So I learned that even though a tool might be selected on its own merits for a job, the favored becomes the favorite through years of generating a life’s work and the tales that embellish it.

My dad had more saws than hammers, but that’s another story.

I had eight hammers myself. Now I have nine but these days am more likely to be seen with a camera in my hand. Photography is my wood and I have, well, quite a few cameras to practice with. You never can tell when one might be needed and I certainly want to use the right tool for the job.

No comments: