When I was 14, I started buying tools in anticipation of my 16th birthday. My father was a carpenter and the motley collection of war surplus monkey wrenches he owned wouldn't fit in the spaces I was finding under the hoods of the cars I was trying to fix up so I knew that it was time to buy my own tools. His tools were literally Old Navy, designed to fit in the engine room of a WW2 Destroyer, not a Chevy 6. I knew from reading Hot Rod magazine that Snap-On tools were the best but just try and find some!! They were sold only to "the trade". If you weren't a working mechanic, the Snap-On salesman wouldn't talk to you. Seems weird now in this day of optimizing every sales niche but that's the way the game was played then. I wasn't impressed by the stuff sold at the local hardware store so I went to Sears for my first full set of sockets and wrenches. My Mom pushed for this as she was a dedicated shopper and loved going to Sears. She told me that her best friend Ann said that her husband said that his cousin said that Sears' tools were great. Yeah, right! Then I asked our local mechanical guru what he thought and surprisingly, he agreed! Chuck-the-mechanic was a legend among the local hot rod set. He lived in the back of his shop, every car crazed boys dream. He owned a 49 Mercury flathead V-8 and a cherry model A coupe that we all wanted to customize. He also owned at least two dozen cats but we forgave him that because he had more knowledge about anything mechanical than anyone we knew. If he said that the Sears Craftsman line was good, it must be so.
The day after my 14th birthday we headed to Sears and using all of my gift money I bought "the basic set". This consists of a 1/2" ratchet drive, a 4" extension, and seven sockets ranging from 7/16" to 7/8". I also bought a set of wrenches spanning the same sizes. As for quality, well, almost 50 years later I still have most of the tools and they are still in top shape. The few that broke were replaced without question under the lifetime warranty that the Craftsman line was sold under. The warranty say's "will be replaced free of charge if broken under normal use". I assumed that a 4' cheater bar on a 3/4" socket counts as normal. It was normal for a farm boy trying to undo the head bolt on a 41 Chevy flat bed truck that hadn't been run in decades.
That basic set worked fine until I was 16 and I got a Vespa scooter. Suddenly, my tools didn't fit! They were loose and didn't seem to match well. I was cursing the perfidy of foreign manufactures one day while talking to Chuck and he laughed and told me about the plot to bankrupt America by the metric conspiracy. It turned out that they didn't use good ol American inches in those ferrin countries, they used something called the metric system and this would put American mechanics out of business because they couldn't afford all of the duplicate tools needed to work on the cheap cars and motorcycles flooding the market from sinister forces across the ocean. Well, Chuck was a conspiracy buff and quite frankly, I hadn't seen these legions of foreign mechanics lurking behind ever lamppost waiting to take over so I decided I'd decline joining the resistance movement and buy a set of metric sockets. Sears had em of course. Over the years, the metric set got used more and more. First on the BMW's and Hondas I owned and then on the Volkswagens I drove. Finally even American cars used first a confusing mix of SAE and metric and finally just metric fasteners. The SAE tool drawer on my toolbox stayed closed for days, weeks, months… finally, it just stayed closed.
Lately though, I've been trying to catch up on my own mechanical work. I finished the garage I started last spring and now I have a place to park motorcycles not getting worked on. Slowly I've been going through the mechanical herd, changing oil, replacing filters, and charging batteries. It's a large herd too, at least a dozen bikes and scooters and most of them even run now. Yesterday it was finally the Old Harley's turn on the lift. I've owned this bike since 1969. A tune up and oil change were needed and the brakes were so bad its nickname should be "The Toyota"! Built in 1947 (same as me so it's not an antique, we're both "classics") and assembled with at least a five gallon bucket full of fasteners… good, solid, SAE, American fastenersJ I finally opened up the "inch drawer" and laid out the old craftsman wrenches. These wrenches saw use most recently… well maybe not very recently, but when I owned a commercial fishing boat back in the late 70's and early 80's. One summer, the Chrysler Crown marine engine in the little gillnetter died! I tried to find another Crown but they had long been out of production. Finally, I did a transplant using the motor from my wife's 1950 Chrysler sedan. The block on the car engine was the same block as the Crown in the boat! My wife was out of town that weekend and I didn't have any way to call her. That's my story and I'm sticking to it. I'm not sure that she's ever forgiven me though. That was a comfortable car on long trips with room for several families! Of course it was all American and the inch tools were the go-to drawer. In one long weekend the old motor was out and swapped into the gill-netter.
When she came home it was "Why is the hood off my old car?"
"It's a long story dear."
"It better be a good one!"
Well, it was good enough and that summer was one of the few good runs of salmon and I bought her a new sewing machine. 150 sockeye salon equals one really nice sewing machine and a happy… or at least grudgingly accepting wife.
As I worked with these tools now, they aren't pristine. A few have rust from trips to the bilges and the sockets aren't all the same age due to various failures under 'normal use'. They don't have that Cadillac feel that the few Snap-on tools I finally acquired do but they still work quite well. They give me that tactile connection to work that is missing from so many jobs today. I feel the movement of the nut as I tighten it and the increasing resistance as it comes up against the bolt. If I go to far, twist too hard, there will be that sickening give as the bolt fails or the threads strip. As a kid I learned about too much leverage the hard way! Stripped threads taught me about helicoil repairs and the magic of torque wrenches. This feel for the work is missing from too many jobs today. Does an investment banker ever feel money? If they did, then maybe as the stack got shorter due to a bad investment, they would change the game plan sooner. Maybe simple numbers on the screen don't have the impact of a suddenly thinner wallet. How many of you have ever wiped out work on a computer with one casual touch of a key? The resistance of the key is the same whether it's "save" or "delete". No feedback to tell you that disaster looms!
As a teacher I didn't have the kind of feedback that a mechanic has. Clerks, accountants also work without physical feedback. As we move to more computer screens in our lives we become more isolated from the tactile world except in experiential ways. We only feel because we seek out an experience not because the job gives it to us. We are central heated and filtered from the real world. Sun blocked, cushioned, we rarely repair; instead, we replace or buy the latest model with more features.
I know that I sound like a Luddite but I'm not. I know that my little computerized, electronically fuel injected Vespa is far better that the old mix-the-oil-with-the-gas, kick it to start it scooter I owned 45+ years ago. The new one always runs and will do so far longer, using less gas, going way faster than the old one. My motorcycles with the carefully monitored fuel injection will last 200,000 miles before needing rebuilding versus maybe 50,000 for the old carbureted ones. Life is better in this digital age in some ways but I miss that feel from the objects at hand. Oh yeah, I'm also a littler out of practice. I cross-threaded a bolt on the Harley putting the clutch back in. Some lessons of the mechanical gods need repeating and the tuition just keeps going up but it's worth itJ
*SAE Society of Automotive Engineers. Founded in 1905 and dedicated to developing standards for common tools and parts for American cars.
- The Old Squid