Working With Your Hands Enriches Your Life

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It never seems to fail. I write a column and something in it reminds me of something for another one. And here we go again. A few columns back we talked about the Arab customs concerning which hand you use for what, and why. I no sooner started putting it “on paper” than something else popped into my head.

It seems to be easier and easier for that to happen as I get older. Want to guess why, Johnny?

Easy. Age is cleaning out the attic. When you’ve got a big old empty attic there’s plenty of room for new ideas to wander in.

Anyway, what popped into my head as I thought about those Arab rules were some fond memories of things I’ve done with my hands, and how I first learned to do them. Foremost among them was the memory of my freshman year in high school, where I came to love the feel of a piece of wood being worked under the sharpened blade of a block plane. What a great experience. The plane, smooth and solid in your hands. The blade slicing along the grain. A thin curl of wood looping up at each stroke. The unique scent of some woods when fresh cut, especially black walnut, my favorite, which smells like nothing else on this planet.

Oh sure, before those days in freshman wood shop I had made a few things here and there, and I no doubt enjoyed work of any kind, but I can honestly say that my high school years changed my life. Imagine it. Four years, two periods a day, in shop classes. I went from an inexperienced youngster who liked doing things to a 17-year-old who could do most anything with wood.

Plus which, metal lathes, milling machines, and other metal working machines held few mysteries for me anymore.

But the most remarkable, and most satisfying, of all the experiences of those years were the hours I spent in the forging shop. At the end of a year at an anvil I had a love of metal, iron and steel in particular, that lasted my entire life. What fun it was! How great it was to wet and shape soft coal into just the right size fire in the forge so that it created coke, which would melt literally anything. What fun staring into the hot flames of the forge, watching a piece of steel reaching just the right temperature, yanking it out, working it, creating something new!

We were amazed at how easy it was — after someone showed us how, of course.

Here we were, just teenagers, but able to work, shape, and even weld, iron and steel right there in that forge. It gave us a connection with the past, with our forefathers, who had taken steel and changed the world with it. It empowered us. It changed us from kids who used things to kids who made things.

That’s a big difference!

And it did even more than that. All those hours in shop classes developed an attitude in us, an attitude that said, “Hey! If somebody else can do it, why not me?”

You’d be surprised how many things I saw the kids from my school doing around their homes after those classes. They seemed ready to tackle almost anything, from ham radio to hauling an engine out of a car and rebuilding it.

They hadn’t taught either of those things in school. They just taught us how to use our hands and heads — how to get something done. Nature did the rest.

Later on in life it just seemed natural to take a whack at anything that came along. I remember the day I arrived in Karachi and discovered — to my surprise — that a major part of my job was to operate a 10,000-pound Hyster forklift. I had the AFSC for it (Air Force job code, that is), but that didn’t mean I knew how to do it. In any Air Force job there are many skills. Some you have and some you haven’t, depending on what you’ve done before.

The closest I had ever been to a piece of cargo was when the Sears Roebuck sent me a box of shorts. And here I was not just expected to move cargo around some warehouse that was more or less indestructible, but to load and unload aircraft with a huge forklift. It only takes an error of an inch or so in loading a 6,000-pound jet engine onto a cargo aircraft and — zip! — you just put a million-dollar aircraft out of commission.

If it’s a cheap one.

Trust me. You do not break an aircraft. The Air Force frowns down upon you for damaging its very expensive goodies.

But anyway, there I was. Me, one big old forklift that could lift 10,000 pounds 17 feet in the air, a whole lot of controls, and just three days before my first aircraft was due.

I eyed that big old Hyster, walked around it a few times, and climbed aboard. My attitude was simple. It was a machine. A machine is a machine. I had run machines before, so I could run this one too — if I took my time and learned how it worked.

“Fools rush in ...?”

Maybe so, but I had a job to do.

It took every minute I could scrape up for three days, but soon — after a couple of interesting “learning experiences” — I could put that Hyster through its paces. I loved that big old monster. It ran like a top. You could lift, and turn, and twist, and swing cargo in doggone near any direction.

Then came the big day. In came an Air Force C-118, one of the old cargo aircraft that have tricycle landing gear and a fuselage set high about the ground — 11 feet off the ramp in this case. I was a bit nervous of course, but that was good because it made me careful. There’s nothing worse than some genius who thinks he knows everything.

I offloaded 24,000 pounds of mixed cargo, and onloaded 18,000 pounds. In both cases I had to deal with an assortment of crates, boxes, and pallets of all shapes and sizes, some of them weighing a ton or more. One in particular was 14 feet long and weighed 800 pounds, a tricky thing to coax through a cargo door only 10 feet wide. I had to do a lot of cutting and chugging, first easing one end out with my Hyster, and then backing, and turning, and putting that old Hyster through its paces. But I finally got it out.

So the job got done. And I survived. And so did the aircraft!

Why? Chapman Technical High School, New London, Connecticut.

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