I still do some consulting for my old company, Con Edison. Con Ed employs a lot of people who do demanding, physical work to keep their electric, gas and steam systems working. The company is very safety conscious, and is continually looking for ways to reduce accidents. Interestingly, a high percentage of accidents involves the use of hand tools. This seems strange given all the more dangerous power tools in use. One possible reason for this is that so many of the young people being hired today have little experience using simple hand tools like hammers, wrenches, pliers and screwdrivers. Also, they have little curiosity about how mechanical things work. As kids, we learned early on that because our families could not afford to buy us new toys, we often made our own or repaired broken ones.
Learning to use tools became a necessity for us. I don't think my father ever bought a tool in his life. The few tools he had were scrounged from wherever he could get them and kept in an old shoebox. Every tool had tape wrapped around the handles. They were chipped, nicked and dented, but we managed. I still have one of his beat-up screwdrivers to this day. My dad Tony was the least handy guy I ever met; he would usually sweet talk our neighbor Frank into doing any real repairs around the house while he talked and drank beer. I think the first time I walked into a Sears hardware department and saw real tools, I was awe struck.
Every kid on my block could hand make a scooter or a carpet gun from scratch. We made wooden bows from tree limbs and fashioned crooked arrows to play Robin Hood. Bicycle repairs were done almost daily since all of us rode second-hand bikes. My first bike was a hand-me-down from my cousin Joan. It would have been humiliating for a guy to ride a girl's bike so I made a crossbar out of wood, and shaped and painted it light blue to match the color of the bike. Problem solved. If we got flat tires, every kid knew how to remove the inner tube from the tire, patch it and remount it on the wheel. Roller skates, sleds, red wagons...we could fix them. We built our own roller hockey goals that we set up over the manhole covers in the street for our very own hockey rinks. The point is that sheer necessity helped us acquire basic hand tool skills that are so lacking today.
One store-bought toy on every Fifties kid's Christmas list for those lucky enough to have parents who could afford it was an Erector Set. For those unfamiliar with it, the Erector Set was a collection of variously shaped metal pieces and the nuts and bolts to assemble different projects like a Ferris wheel or tow truck. The set came with detailed instructions that taught kids how to build things by following a plan. Lincoln Logs were another construction toy that encouraged kids to use their hands. There were kits to build radios, model planes and rockets, even chemistry sets that temporarily deprived some careless boys of their eyebrows. There were no video games, electronic toys, or computers...toys from the Fifties were hands-on!
I have a friend who as a kid salvaged a used lawnmower engine and some old washing machine belts to turn his two-wheeler into a motor bike. By his teen years he was rebuilding car engines for hot rods. Kids built go carts, carpet guns, tree houses (using salvaged lumber) and improvised ramps for jumping bikes. Necessity really was the mother of invention. It stands to reason that if you never swung a hammer as a kid, you have a good chance of showing up in your employer's accident statistics as an adult.
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