Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Ugliest Toolbox

The World’s Ugliest Toolbox sits all by itself near the bandsaw. People sense it is somehow special since it sits atop a wooden stool apparently devoted to that purpose alone, right out in the open, having to be shifted to use the slitting shear then back again to use the bandsaw.

It started out to be just another example of the Apprentice’s Toolbox, the plans for which I’ve posted here & there - - a project designed to introduce youngsters to aviation sheetmetal work. I’ve no idea how many of these things I’ve built, or rather, have over-seen the building-of - - surely more than a hundred. Way back when, Jim Holland and I spent a weekend shearing sheets of 2024 to make up twenty-four kits of tool-box parts for the local Scout troop but that was an exception. A four-by-eight sheet of .063 is enough for six boxes and that was the usual batch-size, seeing as how you also need some extrusion, hinge, latches, rivets and so on.

Now and then a visitor to the shop will see the tool box and give me a funny look. “That’s for old stuff,” I tell them, deliberately misunderstanding their Look, which allows them to mis-interpret my answer: junky looking tool box is good enough for junky old stuff. But if they looked inside they’ll see sets for dome-head and conical rivets along with dimple dies and countersinks for 82's and 90's. Not junk at all. Old fashioned but in perfect condition, mirror bright and ready to go to work.

The first kid to work on the Ugly Box was a girl, somebody’s sister, dragged along because he had to and parked in a corner to watch. Parked, because she was in a wheelchair. To watch because she was supposed to be retarded. Or some damn thing. The boys were accustomed to her presence, took no notice as she sat there, twitching now and then, eyes jittering around.

Feeling sorry for her, I draped her in a shop-apron, found a pair of goggles with an elastic band, showed her how to dress the corner of a bracket, put the file in her lap. Conscience soothed by having Done My Duty toward the Cripple, I went back to watching the boys break my drill bits and pound rivets flatter than pancakes whilst screaming at the top of their lungs and generally having a high old time.

Couple minutes later I noticed the kid in the chair waving her arm, a jerky nonsense-semaphore accompanied by a gaaa-gaaaa-gaaaa sorta sound. I went over, hoping she didn’t have to pee or whatever. There in her lap was the bracket, it’s four corners neatly dressed. There were some scratches it could have done without but it’s just a bracket, fer crysakes. No big deal.

But it was to her.

I felt a right fool. Recalling that episode even today fills me with a sense of revulsion. Not toward her. Toward me. I’d thought of her as a package, something to be put on the shelf and ignored. But inside that package was a living, breathing person.

I kicked a couple of stray boys out of the way and wheeled her up to the workbench, scrounged up some parts for her to work on, told her to get hot. (Being an ex-Navy Chief has it’s drawbacks.)

Although the apparent purpose of the Apprentice’s Toolbox is to teach the use of basic tools with an emphasis on lay-out, alignment and the principle of matched-hole fabrication, the Hidden Agenda is to teach riveting, upon which virtually no emphasis is placed at all. “No big deal, just do ‘em. If you screw it up we can drill it out.” Make an error in your lay-out, you’re gonna get yelled at. Ditto for mis-alignment. But a bad rivet gets only a shrug; “Here, lemme show you how to fix that...” Since there is no penalty for mistakes, the kids tackle riveting with the courage of lions, making every gawdamned saltwatersucking mistake you have ever SEEN... plus a couple you’ve only heard about, while you’re standing there smiling so hard your ears are starting to bleed saying, “No problem. Lemme show you how to fix that.”

Truth is, the toolbox is designed to be built by beginners and the lay-out is limited to just three parts. Once they understand the matched-hole principle those three parts serve as drill-guides for ALL of the other parts. The work is done atop bench blocks and once the task is demonstrated and explained, the kid hauls the booty home to finish the drilling, deburring, edge-dressing and so forth, returning for the Grand Finale - - or two - - when the PK’s are replaced with rivets, the handles get bent out of bar stock, and other exciting guy-stuff.

But she didn’t want to take her kit of junk home. She couldn’t drill but we knew that. And probably couldn’t rivet, although we hadn’t gotten to that as yet, but she was absolutely determined that the kit had to stay there, in the shop. (In hindsight, I think she wanted a reason to come back.)

She showed up again, this time with her mother to explain that her brother never should have brought her to begin with; that her ‘care-giver’ had a scheduling conflict, all in a disdainful tone of voice as she peered down several yards of nose at my shop. (It’s a SHOP fer crysakes! Live with it.)

I never saw her again. About half of the boys finished their toolboxes (about average), acquired other interests, grew up and grew away, knowing a little bit of Morse Code, how to build a box-kite, having been for a ride in a real airplane, shot a real gun, used real tools and a few other useful things.

There were other kids over the years, always a little older, keeping pace with our own until they too were beyond the age of kites, toolboxes and how to shoot a gun. Among them were a few in wheelchairs, included by friends or family when they learned they were welcome. A lot of kids in wheelchairs aren’t disabled at all, except for having to work sitting down. And some not in wheelchairs were such duffers with tools they seemed to gravitate naturally to the Perpetual Toolbox Project since a single glance was enough to tell you that no matter what they did, they couldn’t screw it up any worse.

My last Toolbox Slave was a high-school age kid who broke his back and scrambled his marbles by doing something seriously silly while riding an ATV without a helmet. I was showing a pair of his buds how to do a tune-up on a VW and his older sister included him in the group, convinced he would get better if he simply kept doing things. In fact, he picked up on the idea behind the tool box a lot quicker than most but he tired easily and couldn’t remain focused on the job for very long. He’d pop up every now and then, driven up to the house by his mother or older sister, whenever he’d have one of his good days and remember the neat project he was working on. He’d work for a while then his eyes would go kinda flat and his mind would go off somewhere and they’d unlock the wheels of his scooter and take him home, always hoping the next time would be longer than the last rather than shorter, which was the actual case. By the time he stopped coming around our son was married and our daughter in college, marking the end of my career of teaching youngsters Morse Code, Advanced Kite Making, Marksmanship, Metalworking and a bunch of other Neat Stuff.

A few years ago his sis called to let me know he’d died of pneumonia. She also said how much he’d loved being around the tools and working on that box-thing, which I hadn’t thought about in years.

It was still there, tucked up in the rafters with the balsa wood, nearly complete save for the hinge and hasp. The workmanship was even worse than I’d remembered. But the toolbox was there in my hands, created by some interesting kids who taught me a neat lesson about myself.

I didn’t need another tool box but I finished the thing, wishing I could remember the names of all the kids who’d worked on it. But I can still remember their faces and the pride of accomplishment that lit up the room when I’d say: “Now that's pretty damn good, cowboy!” and meant it, even if it looked like hell to you or me.

So it sits there on its stool, producing arched eyebrows and wry looks. “Ugly damn thing, eh?” I say, and most agree. But a daily reminder to me that reality is more than the package it comes in.

-Bob Hoover


flybynightkarmarepair said...

You can make such a toolbox too, dear reader.

Anonymous said...


Thank you for the great story.

You reminded me that it's the journey not the destination.


Mark D MSgt, USAF (Ret)

Anonymous said...

Damn you Bob, that brought a tear to my eye.