A friend recently read about my truck and home repair projects on Facebook and asked me "How to do you know how to *DO* all of that stuff?" I read the question and had to consider it for a minute. On the one hand, I've been tinkering, literally, since I was kid. No device could break in our house without me taking it apart and trying to figure out if I could fix it. Toys, clocks, blenders, pool supplies, TV remotes, radios, cassette players, you name it. If I saw the shiney silver head of a screw on it, that meant I could open it up and poke around inside. It took a couple of years before I could manage putting them back together again, of course, and years after that before I actually managed to FIX anything, but the OPENING was the key. Even then, at 6 or 7 years old, I put heavy value on KNOWING HOW STUFF WORKS. And if you want to know how something works, the first thing you have to know is how it fits together. And once you know how it fits together and how it works in that particular arrangement, fixing it is just a matter of having the right tools, putting in the time, taking great care, and a hefty amount of swearing.
However, even that is more of a symptom than a cause. It occurs to me that PLENTY of kids had similar inclinations but had much less opportunity to exercise them. I imagine some didn't have access to the necessary tools. When I was growing up, though, my Dad was an Electrical Contractor. There were any number of screwdrivers, hammers, wrenches and volt meters in our laundry room and even more in the back of his shop, a few blocks away. There were tools that it took me years just to IDENTIFY. There were some I'm *STILL* a little murky on. It's also possible that there were kids whose parents just didn't LET them take things apart, probably fearing the lingering effects of that ill-understood, malevolent demon "Electricity." See above: My Dad was an electrical contractor. I could change out a duplex receptacle or a light switch and terminate a phone line by the time I was 10. I knew that the white wire was (usually) the return voltage and therefore (usually) safe, red and black were "hot" and green was ground. I knew how to use a voltmeter to make sure the circuit breaker was REALLY off and, lacking a voltmeter, how to use a pair of insulated pliers to short the hot to a ground and listen for the distant "click!" that told me it was DEFINITELY off NOW! By the time I was 12, I was working on commercial job sites over my summer vacations and learned even more... like why electricians wedge refrigerator boxes into the front of breaker panels when they're pulling wire. Electricity wasn't some dangerous demon, barely constrained and waiting to gobble me up. It was an old friend with an occasional, irrational mean streak.
But even that didn't completely explain the matter. After all, who in their right minds puts a 12 year old on a commercial construction site? And that's when I realized the key difference, why I felt that home and car repair were a matter of course and my friend considered it the rarified realm of trained specialists, beyond the ken of mere mortals.
I'm from the South.
I've never dissembled when asked where I was born and raised. I promptly tell people that I'm from south Alabama, only a few miles from where Harper Lee wrote "To Kill a Mockingbird." But I don't know that it really translates. This comic
is painfully familiar to me from the first time I took T. down to visit with my family. We had been driving all day and were now "up in the country." I'd tried to warn her. I'd told her that the Jeff Foxworthy joke "You might be a red-neck if directions to your house involve 'Turn Off the Paved Road'" didn't really apply to my mom's family. Directions to THEIR houses involved "Turn off the DIRT ROAD." Or, atleast, they did until granddaddy finally got the city to extend the pavement out to his driveway. So, at two o'clock in the morning, we're driving back through old hardwood forest (a rarity in Alabama, where everything is clear-cut and replaced with pine woods), over the rattle-trap bridges, past the last house and it's cow pastures to the place where the pavement ended, and there, where the blacktop gave way to red clay and gravel, we turned. The signs were new, else I would have warned her about them. "No Trespassing," one read. "Posted: No Hunting," read another. And the prize of the collection, one granddaddy had no doubt gotten from his days building interstates, was a gigantic 3'x3' "WRONG WAY" sign, glowing blindingly in the headlights as we passed it. T. and I had been dating for a while at this point, but she was still pressed against the passenger door, glaring at me, wondering, she later admitted, how well she REALLY knew me and whether or not this adventure would end with her waking up in a bathtub full of ice with a few interesting new scars.
She didn't, in case anyone was concerned. Everything was completely above board and she still has all of her organs.
As we drove down the driveway, though, I pointed out to her the localized landmarks of my youth. There were the various log trucks, parked out in the woods for parts for my grandmother's brothers, all loggers and truck drivers. There were the dog pens, strangely silent as granddaddy didn't hunt anymore. Usually, the dogs would be baying like mad at any car that came down the drive, alerting the house to visitors. There was the Pepsi-Cola truck and it's trailer which no-one had ever been able to explain to me, even though it had been there, rusting, for as long as I can remember. Then we got into the various cars and pickups, now fenced in by a goat pen, and were at the house itself. Granny and Granddaddy had stayed up for us (and damn the hour!) and made a huge fuss over of us before turning in. The next morning, I showed T. around as best I could before we had to leave. The house had been a hunting cabin before granddaddy bought it and fixed it up. Up the hill there was the trailer where Moomoo and Booboo, my great-grandparents, had lived. Those were the additions that the family had built for them and that my father had wired. There in back were the collections of cars that had, in their times, passed through the family, with grass and small trees growing up in little crowns around them in a ring between where the landmower stopped and where the grass died from being in the shade. There was the '69 Chevy Nova that I had stripped for parts for my own first car, a '70 model. There the gaping hole in the collection where my brother had dragged off my Uncle Steve's '67 Mustang on hopes of eventually restoring it. There was the shed I had helped build as a teenager. Oh, she didn't need to know what that hanging bar hook in that tree was for. The look on her face told me that she DID need to know, though. I explained that it had something to do with deer hunting and steered her away from the shed. She had looked a little green at the sight of the hook itself. She DEFINITELY didn't need to see the ground beneath it.
But that's my story. I come from a place where cars are built into the culture and walking isn't really optional. Where building and tinkering are just what you do. Part of it is pride, I think. There's a macho culture in the South which declares that if anyone could BUILD it, then BY GOD, any Real Man(tm) should be able to FIX IT! Part of it is poverty. There hasn't been much money floating around in the rural South for about 150 years, so if something broke, replacing it just wasn't really a viable option. Fixing it was the only way to go. And the rest? Like so much of acculturated skills and mindsets, it's habit. It's the way I was raised and the pattern I've gotten into.