There’s No Tool Like an Old Tool

“Here,” said Ray, handing me the screwdriver and taking the flashlight. “You’re smaller than me. Maybe you can fit in there.” He shone the light down on the small block Chevy 283. “I need you to get that screwdriver right there and see if you can beak the seal.” We were standing in a parking lot off of Kiowa in downtown Colorado Springs, and I was helping Ray swap intake manifolds with a friend’s souped-up Bellaire. The Bellaire was going to be a trade in for a new station wagon and Ray was getting a bargain on the swap. Ray owned a 1963 Chevy Impala whose 327 cubic inch engine made it one of the fastest cars in town. Swapping manifolds and upgrading to a Holly four barrel carburetor would make it even faster. Only the Bellaire’s manifold didn’t want to break loose.

I had spent the previous two hours mostly holding the flashlight while Ray removed the manifold from his Impala. Ray knew a lot about cars while I knew nothing. My father’s approach to automobiles was summed up as, “I work hard to make good money so I can pay other people to do my dirty work.” It sounded reasonable except that my father was in the military so he really didn’t earn that much. As a result our car and our house always had things that needed repairs but never got fixed. I had moved out of my parents’ house when I turned seventeen. Ray, who was in the Air Force, and I shared a small apartment on Wahsatch. He was patiently teaching me to not be afraid of getting dirty. I was already proud of the fact that I had removed a manifold bolt under his tutelage.

I got on top of the engine and wedged my arms into position. Then I pushed the blade of the screwdriver into the crack he pointed out to me. Applying most of my 112 lbs of pressure to the screwdriver, I could see it bend. After two or three tries with the same result, I lifted my head.

“It’s no use.” I said. “The screwdriver is bending so much I’m afraid it will break.”

“Go ahead and break it,” he replied. “It’s a Craftsman. If you can break it they’ll give me another one free. Besides, I have more.”

His answer surprised me. Unbroken tools were unheard of in my house. In fact, we used my great grandmother’s butter knife for a flathead screwdriver since the other two we owned had chipped blades.

Encouraged by Ray’s challenge to break his tool, I renewed my efforts. The screwdriver bent 20 or 30 degrees as I put my whole body weight onto the handle. With a satisfying thonk, the manifold’s seal was broken. I pulled the screwdriver out of the crack expecting it to be bent permanently but it wasn’t. Other than a little grease, it was fine.

“Good job,” Ray told me. “Told you it wouldn’t break.”

An hour later, after we were done, I paid close attention to how Ray carefully wiped down all of his tools and replaced them in specific places in his large toolbox. It was clear that he could easily find any tool quickly. This was a revelation to me. First of all, my family didn’t own a tool box. For as long as I could remember, we had a junk drawer in the kitchen. In the drawer was a broken tape measure, a hammer with a loose head, a ratcheting screwdriver with a single stripped Phillip’s head bit, an antique planer with a rusty blade, two broken flathead screwdrivers, and the aforementioned butter knife. Also strewn about the drawer were loose screws, nails, and bits of string and wire.

Simple tasks such as hanging a picture in my house were always a 45 minute adventure. Ten minutes to hang the picture and 35 minutes to find the hammer and nails. As a result, things often didn’t get fixed.

Under Ray’s watchful eye and later the U.S. Army’s, I learned the value of tools. Clean tools, the right tool, and knowing where a tool is located makes life so much easier. In fact, it can even prevent deaths. It seems silly to me that modern humans have strayed so far from our tool making ancestors that some people can’t even change a light bulb. Many people just don’t appreciate the value of good tools. Exhibit A is that the word “tool” is now used as an insult.

My father-in-law was raised in the Depression. Even though he can afford good tools, he always buys the cheapest tools out of the bargain bin. Consequently, he has several sets of socket wrenches with broken ½ inch or 3/8 inch sockets. In fact, he has three toolboxes full of broken tools. Whenever he had a job to do, he first has to go to the hardware store and buy a new socket or unbroken tool. I also have a friend with a large ranch. He buys good tools but four sets of each. Some for his house, some for the barn and others for his truck. Only he can never find the tool he needs because he never puts them away. So every job I help him with starts with a twenty minute search for the necessary tools.

When my wife’s youngest sister, Vicki, went off to college, her dad gave me his Sears card and told me to help her pick out a few tools to take with her. We went straight to the Craftsman aisle and I got a tool box and put together a basic kit. Later, Dad blew a gasket over how much money I spent. He said he could have bought the same amount of tools for ten bucks. I replied that he could afford it and she wouldn’t ever have to buy tools again. I explained to Vicki about keeping her tools clean, in the box, and never lending them out. It’s been thirty years, and Vicki has traveled all over the world, but she still has her toolbox with all of her original tools And her Scottish husband has thanked me for my foresight more than once.

I have quite a collection of tools now which includes my very first Craftsman screwdriver. I also discovered other brands of well-made dependable tools such as Pittsburg and Snap-on. When my sons were old enough, I started a tool collection for each, and I also instructed them on proper storage and care. They both still have their first tools and use them frequently. One can make the argument that tools and knowledge of their use is becoming less important. But I disagree. Tools are just changing; some are becoming more specialized while others are becoming multi-tools. Smartphones, for example, are multi-tools that go way beyond their original purpose of direct communication.

While many people don’t know a Phillips from a flathead, they can make their phone do things that would have been considered magic just decades ago. And I freely admit that I don’t know the difference between a Snapchat and a Twitter. Fortunately, neither my job nor my social circle depends on such knowledge. But for many young people, those tools are critical to their success and well-being. Perhaps that’s the truly important aspect of modern tools. It’s not the physical tools themselves that are important. The mental tools we possess are at least as important if not more so. In the Information Age, perhaps the only tool we really need is our brain. The problem is that too many people seem to have gotten theirs from the bargain bin. And they don’t even take care of that.