Sunday, November 19, 2006


October is when for a time at least the migger is replaced by the jeweler’s torch and the powered hacksaw gives way to a Gigli. Circular cut-outs from flanging dies are rooted out of the junk-box, chucked into the lathe and magically transformed into wheels of every kind. Itty-bitty ball bearings picked up at swap meets and clearance bins are tracked down. Designed for the ultimate in aerospace hitek they are surprised to find themselves being pressed into maple wheels, secured with a dab of uncertified JB Weld. Launched not into space but across a living room floor, they still fulfill their mission with the steely purr of whirr.

Odds and ends of spruce come to light from where they were tucked away months or even years before. Now is their moment of usefulness, justification for the death of a tree. They become the keels and cross-pieces of kites, delicately tapered, silken cords across the chord of their bows, covered with tissue paper, hemmed with glue, shrunk with water and sealed with a mist of banana oil, the way my grandfather showed my dad and Dad taught to me a million years ago in a less complicated world. Distant in both time and space the well-remembered skills are exercised once again, keeping them fresh for the moment they can be transferred into younger hands and used to produce things of real worth. Things that last. Things never seen on Saturday morning TV and more valuable than gold because of it.

A slab of spruce six inches wide failed to make it into the air by a thirty-second of an inch, it’s thickness shy by that amount of the honest quarter-inch needed to make the ribs for one of Roger Mann’s delightful little flying machines. But perfect for caskets, chests and boxes to be filled with Treasure, Jewels and Secret Codes.

Doesn’t have to be wood, of course. Steel, aluminum or composites, they’re all grist for the mill of whimsy, like Keith Stewart’s case-hardened steel egg to be hatched by a plastic duck.

Even when they are of wood, boxes don’t have to be bricks. Containers for dreams may take the shape of Pollywogs or Hearts and be all the more suitable because of it. A bit more work but it’s only October; the Big Birthday still two months away. Time enough for the gluing and sanding and finishing. Time enough to turn brass shim stock into neat little four-knuckle hinges with a bit of brazing rod for the pin. Inlays, too, if you care for that sort of thing, which I do.

A bit of scrimshaw for the boys is always fun. Ex-Navy (and a Chief to boot) the traditional Fouled Anchor is a favorite of mine, scribed not into a whale’s tooth nor ring of bone but the densely finished lid of a brass-bound box eminently suitable for boy-stuff.

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Some of us build airplanes because it keeps the Dream alive. Simple and light, with a hand-carved prop that must be flipped to bring the engine to life, such machines hark back to an earlier age. Yet a basic tenet of airmanship is that the more you fly, the better you will and those simple machines rise above the ground with a stately grace and lack of speed that makes an airfield of almost any patch of ground. Which is good, because in America flying has become an elitist activity, province of the wealthy in which the average man has been forced out of his hangar, off the airport and ultimately, down from the sky.

To build those machines of yesterday we are forced to invest in ourselves, mastering a host of skills many deem useless in the modern world. Stitching fabric to ribs earns us smiles of condescension, scarfed joints in wood the damning of faint praise. Old Fashioned Stuff of no interest to folks so busy making money that 51% has come to mean little more than selecting the color of paint for their ‘homebuilt’ airplane.

How will such people be remembered by their children? And their children’s children. What core of useful skills do such people consider vital for the well-being of their off-spring? That the rules don’t apply to them? I wonder about such things. Not very often nor for very long, but I still do.

October sees airplanes shifted to the back burner so the skills to build them may be focused on Dream Machines of a more basic sort, designed to show a youngster they are beloved members of a family that respects and encourages their particular Dream, wherever it may lead. Oddly enough, in doing so, their Dreams become remarkably similar to our own, molded by the reality of their generation and impressed with their own personality but built upon the same foundation and constructed with the same core values honored by their parents.


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