Saturday, June 14, 2014

Hammers & Drill Bits: Life Lessons from My Daddy

C. Richard Jacob, my Daddy

Yesterday, our cousin Mary Elizabeth Yankosek-Gamble asked on Facebook, “What one thing did your father teach you?” At first I thought, “Impossible to say just one!” But the more I remembered about my dad, C. Richard Jacob, one memory especially came to mind that in many ways sums him up:
Prehistoric tools.

No, really!

One rainy Saturday in 1958 or 1959, when I was 9 or 10, I went down to the cellar of our half-a-double-house on Washington Street in Hackettstown, NJ in answer to his call. “What is it, Daddy?”

“How'd you like to help me with a project?” he asked.

I loved helping! “Are we cleaning out the gutters?” I asked hopefully. That was the only thing, besides mowing the lawn, in the way of household chores that he would not allow his daughter to do.  I thought it’d be fun to climb up a long ladder and hand him things. He worried that I might fall and get hurt; besides, in his opinion, it wasn't a woman's chore. “I mean, when it stops raining?” I added hastily before he could chide me for being silly.

“No, this'll be more fun,” he said. “Climb up there and I’ll tell you.”

Dad's was handmade, with a slat-back,
& paint-splattered light green
Fun was even better! I perched on the old paint-spattered green step-stool that usually sat at the end of his metal workbench, and he picked up a copy of National Geographic magazine. “There’s an article in here about some primitive men who vanished from the Hudson Bay area in Canada thousands of years ago,” he told me.

“Are we going to solve a mystery?” I asked eagerly. “But how could they write about men who disappeared if they aren’t there anymore?”

“Archeologists,” he began, patiently spelling it out for me, “dig where they think old settlements were, because over the centuries, sometimes they’re covered up by dirt or rocks that fall down or some other natural occurrence, like the jungle choking Manchu Picchu in the book your mother has—“

“Or Pompei and the volcano?”

“Right. Or the Pueblo houses out West, where the people left and their old homes were forgotten because they were so remote.”

“Are arch-e-olo-gists related to arch-i-tects?” I asked, because my mother loved reading books on different architectural styles, and the similar first syllable of the two words interested me.

“Well, architects design houses, and archeologists study very old ones,” he said. “Anyway, this article was about how they’re studying the things they found at that site, including tools. And you know what? It occurred to me that there was probably a father who needed to use tools to make things.”

“Did he have a little girl who helped him?” I asked.

“Probably. But he wouldn’t be able to go up to Western Auto to get tools; he’d have to make them. So I thought it might be fun to try making some tools like his. What do you think he would’ve had?”

I turned to look at the pegboard over the workbench, where he had his tools hung up, each one in its place, too high for me to reach easily, above empty glass peanut butter jars, the lids nailed to a board on the bottom so that he could screw the jars on or off to get just the right sized nail or screw for whatever he was making.

 “A hammer?” I suggested.

“What could you use for a hammer?”

“A big rock,” I said.

“Put on my shop apron,” he directed, tying the canvas one around me; it came down to my ankles, even when he knotted up the bib tie that went around the neck. He had a big piece of canvas tied around himself, and we were both wearing our glasses. “Let’s go outside,” he said, and I followed him past the furnace and the oil tank, to the narrow tunnel-like part that led to the steps up to the slanted doors he heaved open into the drizzle. In the garage, Daddy had a box of rocks and pieces of wood for us to go through. I knelt down as he squatted. “Now, see, there’s this kind of stone. It’s called slate,” as he held up a thin, flattish dark grey piece.

“Like the sidewalks up the street,” I said. At the time, our hometown still had many sidewalks paved with slate slabs instead of concrete, and I loved hopping from one piece to another on some of the oldest ones. Gramma had taught me counting on the abacus fastened to her old school slate in its wooden frame; for the first time, I realized it got its name from that kind of stone in its wooden frame. Blackboards were slate; why weren’t they called that, I wondered?

“In some places, they make tiles from them to use on roofs,” he told me. “Your great-grandpa Jones’ family on your mother’s side  may have mined slate in Wales, long ago. It fractures in layers, so it wouldn’t be a very good hammer, but we can try it. And this is a piece of granite, and here’s a piece of quartz, and….” In the end, he chose several, and a big thick piece of wood. Over the next hour we experimented with using each one to hammer big nails into the wood; he used the claw end of his hammer to get them out and reuse them later. Daddy was thrifty. 

Dad was right; the slate didn't work well at all. The granite was the hardest stone, but so jagged and (for me) heavy, it was hard to hold. There was a sedimentary stone rounded from a river, but it was hard to hold too, without hitting your fingers on the wood as you pounded; I could see why men had devised a handle for it although I didn’t understand Daddy’s explanation of increased impact. In the end, he chose a large round one and I chose a smaller, more oval one. They would be the heads of the hammers we’d make. Then Mother called us to lunch, so we set them aside.

The next week, we put on our aprons and glasses again down at the workbench. Daddy had a box filled with branches that a friend had given him, and we chose one that was about three feet long, and one that was about two feet. 

Using his penknife, Dad carefully split the longer stick at one end for several inches, and spread the two halves apart so I could slip his stone in between them. He had measured off several feet of the hairy yellow twine he used on packages, and told me to make a slipknot around the stick right under the stone. I did, and he showed me how to lash the stone to the stick, above and below, until the rope was tightly holding the stone inside the cleft stick. But instead of fastening the end of it, he unwound it!
Naturally, I asked him why.

Dad's hammer had a bigger head
& the wooden ends were higher
“Because we’re making prehistoric tools,” he reminded me. “They wouldn’t have had this kind of twine. They would’ve used strips of rawhide, or cord they made themselves.” Unable to find a source for enough bark right then to make his own for this project, he’d bought some rawhide from Lackawanna Leather out on Grand Avenue, and had it soaking in a metal pail of water. We used that instead of the twine, lashing it the same way. “Do you know why I made it wet?” he asked.

“Oh, sure,” I said. “Jeff let me read his new book about Maverick. The bad guys had Bret tied up with a rawhide noose around his neck, and the rawhide was wet; he knew he had to escape before it dried in the sun ‘cause it’d shrink and strangle him. He managed to, just in time!”

“I’ll have to see if I can borrow that,” Daddy said. He and Jeff both adored TV Westerns, which is why I have almost sixty of their theme songs in my music memory…and Maverick was my brother’s favorite.

For my hammer, Daddy pointed out that the stone had a sort of hollow on one side, just right for the top of the stick that would become the handle to fit into, and we lashed them together with the rawhide too. I hadn’t learned “If I Had a Hammer” yet, but I did sing “The Ballad of John Henry,” as we worked, and Daddy told me about different kinds of hammers. He said that John Henry had had a sort of sledge hammer, like what roustabouts used to put up the bigtops in Dumbo and Circus Boy.  Dad had a ball-peen hammer and a claw hammer, plus the two we had just made ourselves.

Later we’d move on to devising a saw (he experimented with various kinds of teeth and methods of setting them); one, made from antler and chips of igneus stone, was unbelievably sharp. Other tools included several awls; handmade twine (both plaited and twisted); a fire-starter set; knives; and drills. I vividly recall our experiments to find what substance made the best or worst drill bits: best was quartz; worst was deer antler. After reading about Herodotus’ list of six simple machines, Dad also painstakingly made a pulley and a winch, and created scale models of inclined planes.

It’s a family joke that my father was a lousy teacher, because he was so impatient and not very clear in his instructions. As Jeff wryly remarked, if you were slow to catch on to riding a two-wheel bike or mastering a stick shift, Dad would quickly lose his patience and temper, convinced that you were deliberately pretending to be dense.  

But with the prehistoric tools, it was different. This was an interest he managed to share with me that embodied a curiosity about the past, a respect for craftsmen (even if they hadn't had modern materials—cultural snobbery had no part in his worldview), a willingness to experiment with various combinations of materials, and attention to accuracy. He greatly admired inventors like Edison and Thomas Jefferson; as an amateur chemist for Cleveland Laboratories and Acme Chemicals, Daddy had refined problem-solving skills he’d begun to master as a Boy Scout learning to camp and become self-sufficient in the outdoors. So I learned to see possibilities in natural materials, as well as persevering and that it was okay to make mistakes, and to explore my own questions and interests, even if nobody else was curious about the same things I was.
Not bad lessons to learn, applicable to other situations as well. Thank you, Daddy! I miss you every day, not just on Father's Day!


  1. I think the article that sparked this project was Vanished Mystery Men of Hudson Bay: An Expedition Co-sponsored by the National Geographic Society Unearths Moldering Bones & Tools That Link Stone Age Eskimos to a European Culture of 8,000 Years Ago, by Henry B. Collins, photographed by Eugene Ostroff, book abstract in National Geographic Magazine, November, 1956.
  2. I don't recall the title of that Maverick novel, aimed at kids, but think it may have been published by a company specializing in similar ones about TV show characters. I remember ones about the Lennon Sisters and Annette, and I think one about Cheyenne Bodie.