We type with them and drive with them, but what our hands want is real work
Chiefly the mould of a man’s fortune is in his own hands.
Frustration is a powerful tool.
In my new backyard, a lilac bush was crumbling the back wall of my garage, the roots swelling large, shouldering emphatically into the old red brick. The rear wall, partially below ground, had begun to crack, was bowing in at the center, threatening to fall, and if that wall shattered, so would the side walls, dropping the rafters, collapsing the roof. It would be a poor homeowner indeed who stood by for such calamity.
The lilac was easily six feet tall, four feet across at its widest point. One neighbor offered a chain saw, but the problem was roots, not branches. Another neighbor suggested that I rent a stump grinder, a menacing machine that grates wood into pulp. There are six tree removal companies listed in my local phone book. I called the three nearest to me for estimates. None returned my call; help is hard to come by in these years of high employment.
My tool chest is meager; my even having a tool chest is a recent development. Unlike many of my neighbors, I don’t tinker on weekends for relaxation. A broken faucet, a leaking roof, a squeaking board don’t motivate me. Instead they make me feel powerless, stupid, inadequate. If you can divide homeowners into two camps, I’m in the camp that spends weekends on the phone, anxiously trying to find an honest handyman.
One August Sunday morning, equipped with nothing more than a dull, rusty hatchet, I went at the lilac with all my captive feelings of inadequacy. For three hours, I hacked in anger, chopped through gray soil, sliced across small tendrils of root, searching for the root ball, the plant’s anchor. Sweat ran thick; my shirt grew sodden, and I threw it aside. I rubbed my eyes with soil-covered hands until my face darkened. The back of my neck burned from the sun. Thirty minutes into the job, my arm ached, and I would have stopped, but my hands urged me on. My hands loved this work, loved the feel of the wooden handle, the blunt impact each time the hatchet found root. They loved the reassuring repetition, the clear sense of purpose.
I had no real plan, but by then my hands had taken over my thinking: Grip the hatchet, swing away. Go until something happens.
No man is born into the world whose work is not born with him. There is always work, And tools to work withal, for those who will; And blessed are the horny hands of toil.
—James Russell Lowell
My father had particularly large hands. Oil often was pounded into his palms, his fingers, filling every crease and fold. Buddy, as he was called, would scrub with Lava soap, but the oil wouldn’t give. His hands were covered with scars, healing cuts, freshly blackened nails. The cuts––gashes, really––were of the sort and size that would send me, and most likely you as well, to the emergency room for stitches; for Buddy, they were commonplace.
My father worked with his hands. Once upon a time, we all did.
Buddy introduced me to manual labor when I was 7. He handed me a screwdriver, a simple Phillips head with a translucent yellow plastic handle, and said, "Here, hold this." By then, he lived in a trailer park at the top of a hill and drove a mustard-colored Datsun two-door, as inexpensive a car as he could find, always musty with the smell of unfiltered Pall Mall cigarettes.
My father had been a car mechanic most of his life, a pit mechanic at the local Chevrolet dealer, but he didn’t particularly like cars. Automobiles were simply a way to get places, a tool for travel.
Something was rattling on his old Datsun. I don’t remember what it was, maybe the door, but the repair involved my using the screwdriver to hold one part tight while he tightened a second part with a wrench. It is not just my poor memory that keeps me from being more specific. My father never bothered to explain. Just an abrupt, "Hold this, and don’t let it move."
Of course, the screwdriver slipped out of its socket the minute Buddy started wrenching the adjoining metal part. I have no doubt that this was to a large extent my fault. I was bored, looking at the neighbor’s trailer, trying for a glimpse of the neighbor’s teenage daughter.
"Jesus," my father said in response. "Gimme that."
He took the tool in his left hand, bent his long, strong back awkwardly, stretched his arms to cover the distance between the screwdriver and his wrench, and completed the job.
Lately, I’ve made it a practice to look at people’s hands. Try this if you are at a lecture and you are bored. Look deliberately at the speaker’s hands. Or next time you are in a restaurant, a cafeteria, stare across the sea of tables.
Hands are vigorous. Animated. Unpredictable.
Most of us sit all day, or stand stiffly. We expend great energy holding most of our limbs rigidly in place. We have constructed modern lives that demand a firm posture in front of a screen, behind a desk, in queues. Our necks ache, our shoulders tense, we brace ourselves. It is expected of us.
Watch the men and women who are condemned to wear business suits, and it is easy to imagine that the smooth gray fabric is woven with steel. We notice someone with an animated face because animated faces are becoming rare. Keeping an even expression is valued in business, in most leadership positions. We stand stiffly in our suits, mask our feelings, and climb to the top. Examine the men and women in our executive ranks, corporate or political. Who do you see? Al Gore and Madeleine Albright? Or Carol Burnett and Zero Mostel?
But our hands still talk.
Watch sometimes. Our hands play hopscotch on the tabletop, caress the podium, slice the air, as if they have a life, a rhythm of their own.
Dance used to be part of every culture, every life, but that has obviously gone by the wayside. Our hands, though, remember.
I am deliberately watching people’s hands now because I suspect they are sending us a signal: We are still out here. Don’t forget.
I buy cheap tools, and break them.
My father owned countless tools, kept them locked in a red Craftsman tool chest on black wheels. He had to lock his chest at lunch, and again after his shift, or the men with whom he worked would borrow his tools, and his chisel would never come back.
When his car mechanic days ended, Buddy landed his final job, at Erie Forge and Steel, a block-long factory building as bleak and utilitarian as the name suggests. Mammoth slabs of tempered metal would come to the forge on railcars, and it was my father’s job to plane them, to work from blueprints, to sculpt them in such a way that they would become parts themselves, parts of larger tools, of industrial hammers shipped by sea and assembled for use in Yugoslavia or the Ukraine. What my father did was similar to the woodworking many men now do in their basements as a hobby, except if my father made an error, cut away too much from the left side or the right, misformed an angle by a fraction of a degree, it wasn’t just a piece of wood ruined: The company would be behind thousands of dollars in metal, thousands of dollars more in time and missed deadlines.
He took me to his workplace just once, the summer after high school, showed me around with little enthusiasm. But I could tell he valued the calculating he had to do on this job, how much math was involved, the fact that, over all the other men, those with many more years of seniority, he had been given the biggest hunks of metal to work on, the most precise jobs.
Buddy took me to the worst part of the factory, the dirtiest and loudest, and he pointed. "See this," he said. "This is why I’m sending you off to college."
When my father died, he left behind his big red tool chest. My brother-in- law took the tools, and I think the chest as well, but I rescued a tie tack from the top drawer, given to my father from a salesman from Snap On Tools. I wore it to my first job, a journalism post in Pittsburgh, needing for some reason to advertise my blue-collar lineage.
When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them—as if the legs were made to sit upon and not stand or walk upon—I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago.
—Henry David Thoreau
The poet Robert Bly traces "the decline of men" to the disappearance of physical work. Thoreau might very well agree. My hands would agree, too. They were never happier with themselves than when I had the hatchet in my grip, swinging away at the lilac. They knew what to do, what they were, what was expected of them, and we all three liked it.
Work has changed obviously, inevitably, and so have our tools. The current Craftsman catalog offers a 1,197-piece professional tool set—including 311 wrenches, 72 screwdrivers, 415 sockets, 36 pliers—for roughly $5,000. And those are just the hand tools. Power tools in the same catalog include drills, drill pressers, edge banders, fasteners, finishers, sander/grinders, sander/polishers, buffers, power hammers, jigsaws, biscuit joiners, lathes, planers, routers, band saws, circular saws, miter saws, chop saws, radial saws, reciprocal saws, scroll saws, table saws, and precision laser levels to replace the plumb line on a string.
Such is progress. We are an affluent people, and our smorgasbord of specialized tools reflects that. More and more, we no longer even hold our tools: We push the wood through them, or we attach the wood to clamps and just stand back.
Bly mourns the decline of physical labor.
Thoreau grieves over the atrophy of our legs.
I am worried about our hands.
Most of us, it seems, don’t really use them anymore, not for anything solid. Not for our lives, our living. Not really. If I had the correct software, even this essay could have been dictated to my PC. Tomorrow’s tools are digital, invisible, hands-free.
But is that all our hands are really for? To hold things?
We still use our hands to speak, thank goodness, but I’m worried that they, like Thoreau’s brand of walking, like physical labor, are the next to go. Perhaps years from now, people will be rewarded for the stillness of their hands. It will be demanded of us.
One more corner of our souls will shut itself down.
My father used to work with his hands.
One August morning, I did, too. I grabbed a simple tool, attacked my problem.
Eventually, to my own genuine surprise, I managed to excavate a three-foot rim around the lilac, to find the thick ball where the roots began. A stump grinder might have done better in 10 minutes. But I managed to hack away at the solid tangle of buried wood until the lilac bush gave up, and the root ball popped out as easily as a long-loose tooth.
From Arts and Letters: Journal of Contemporary Culture (Spring 2000). Subscriptions: $15/yr. (2 issues) from Campus Box 89, Georgia College and State University, Milledgeville, GA 31061. http://al.gcsu.edu.