A passion for building things

By Jory Squibb | Aug 24, 2013

My father was a difficult man. Strict. Opinionated. But he never strayed an inch from his imagined role as father: The sharer of manual skills. Every month Popular Mechanics would arrive in the mail. We would eagerly scan it together for projects to do in our elaborate basement workshop. My role was always limited to being a helpful lackey. Once, when my father was called out of town on business, I finished the 5-tube Philco radio we were building together in my own slap-dash fashion. Excited beyond measure, I twisted the volume control to "on". Silence. Then came the deep humiliation when he returned, and we had to un-wire all my work and "do it right". Sixty years later, though hopelessly hooked on building, I'm still critically short on patience!

Growing up in Detroit, we were part of a proud, manufacturing city. Iron ore came south to us by ship. Tires came north by rail. Our streets were lined with "Tool and Die" businesses who fed parts to the hungry assembly lines. Nearby cities were known by their products. Saginaw made steering gears. Flint made spark plugs. Our suburb was limited to "GM people", while "Ford people" — an alien sub-class — lived near the vast River Rouge factories. The city hushed each fall, as the new car models, with yet higher tail fins, were unveiled.

Today children can't wait to tap keyboards. You see a spark of hands-on excitement in the 2-to-10-year-olds, but soon the pull of the phony creativity of the virtual world has preempted any passion for real building. Pardon my prejudice. I'm talking about a particular joy: When the brain allies with the fingers, in the mystic alchemy of forming real materials — wood, steel, cloth, plastic — to produce something that fulfills its task with beauty and elegance.

The death of hands-on building skills comes at a crucial time in American history. We used to lead the world in building bigger, stronger, materials-rich items. Now we need that ebbing skill to build smaller, more efficient and long-lived houses, cars, clothes and toys. I would love for us, as the world's mega-polluter, to lead in making that change.

Three exciting events are coming up which touch on this subject. On Wednesday, Aug. 28, Catherine Steiner-Adair will speak at the Strand at 6 p.m. on how computers affect child development. This could be interesting. Then, on Aug. 31, Camden will again host the Build-A-Boat contest as part of the Windjammer festival. This event, full of the excitement of materials-limited, imagination-unlimited creation, often based on parent-child co-building, is capped with the joyous acid-test of all building: Does it work?

Jory Squibb lives in Camden.

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