Archive for August, 2017

The Tools

My father is a man who was born with a genius in his hands.  From the first horizon of my memory he is there working, working with his hands, making, providing for his family, a tool in his hand.


Lewis E. Matteson (August 13, 1919 – March 21, 2008) The author’s father

By birthright and apprenticeship I am the beneficiary of some of his manual skill.  Even my five-year-old grandson (now eighteen and a young man himself), Paul Samuel, noticed.  He was once overheard remarking, “Papa can do anything if he puts his mind to it.”  This is a myth, but one I tried to preserve, partly to seem like my Dad.  I desire this because I have so admired the skill of his hands.  I have rarely seen a mechanical task that was beyond his mastery.

There hangs on my wall a shadow box containing an awl and three files, each fitted with its own smooth wooden handle; these are just a few inherited tools that my mother’s carpenter father used in his trade.  The items, now certified antiques, positively glow with years of use and the polish of human hands, mostly from my grandfather’s hands.  I hold these tools in the same regard as those I saw when I visited, as an adult, an exhibit of the treasures of Rameses.  I was most deeply moved not by the golden and onyx statuary or the enigmatic hieroglyphics but rather by the tools that Rameses’ master builder used to layout the mighty pharaoh’s monuments.  Perhaps I value tools inordinately, but I do treasure the few relics of my ancestors that I own; indeed, I cherish other tools also.  In my toolbox, I keep a folding rule my Dad bought for me when I went to work one summer at the planner mill, and a claw hammer.  I have not used these items for decades.  Still I keep such tools at the ready.  You never know when you will need them again.  I am reluctant to let go of a single one of them even when it has been supplanted by a new gadget.

I am obliged to all such tools I have ever owned and to everyone who ever taught me to use them.  I love tools.  I admire the sheen of a well-made, hand-polished implement.  Whenever I hold a worn and well-used tool I think on the hands that have held it before me.  And I think of the tools that made the object I hold.  In imagination I see the implements that made this tool, and those before it, generation upon generation, back in ranks arrayed in time, and men and women laboring with intermediate tools earnestly, skillfully to make children and grandchildren tools.   At the far end of the genealogy of implements I see a single person fabricating the first of its line with just his hands.  Thus, in the beginning and at the end the human hand is the essential tool that accounts for all our technology.

I touch, in memory, my father’s hand; it is large. It is calloused but gentle as it guides, by his touch, the handsaw I grip in mine.  He taught by touch the skillful way of tools, their sense of straight line and plumb, their subtle feel of manliness.  Below him as a youth holding the ladder, I look up and watch him nailing pine paneling onto rafters of our church.  I bend beside him to screed three yards of concrete poured for a new front porch that replaces the oft repaired and always rotting board one at our house in the swamp.  I sit beside him under the oak tree at the end of the drive and occasionally spell him as we grind the valves of the engine of our green Chevrolet station wagon readying it for the Odyssey to a new home.  I watch as he goes to work every weekday morning before four, often frying an extra egg for me before he goes off into the predawn night.  I remember earlier sitting at the small bridge at end of the field behind our apartment in Birdville that was the limit of my permitted range; I am waiting for his return.  From where I sit I can see him at the crest of the viaduct over the GM&O tracks at the north gate of Brookley Field; I know it is he even before I can distinguish his face.  His walk is distinctive, a rolling gait he learned early to compensate for his boyhood polio lameness.  Yet he is like every other twill-clad mechanic walking home after the shift, smelling of rose-colored hydraulic fluid and volatile degreasing solvent, but he is also special.  He is my father. I learned that he would go to work for us each day, and that he could be counted on to return again when the shift was done.  He was faithful, but not perfect.

He was stubborn and often verbally incoherent.  Blessed with a great native intelligence, he was also cursed with an impatience with formal education and left off schooling at the eight grade.  His language was sometimes grammatically flawed and occasionally tangled and difficult to understand.  Mechanically logical, with the discipline to trace the intricacies of complicated gear trains or hydraulic systems, he, nevertheless, sometimes reached preposterously illogical conclusions regarding other areas to which he would tenaciously cling.  For example, he somehow concluded with the assurance of a teetotaler that the bubbles in spirits were the principal cause of intoxication, probably we guessed since both beer and champagne were carbonated.  Counter arguments pointing out the inebriation that could result from flat beer or the sobriety of carbonated soda pop were ignored.  He was given to skillful and often—but not always—accurate speculation.  Lew would state as fact a conjecture or an untested hypothesis.  Somehow stating it would make it fact.

1951 The Night before Christmas with Dad cropped

Lew with his children (L-R Sammy, Cindy, Dale) Christmas Eve 1951

There were also others who handed me tools as well as Dad.  Pa Moates, my mother’s father, showed me how a master craftsman works when he let me help him build a “back porch” addition onto the back of our small house.  I was big enough to hold the boards as he sawed them with a sharp handsaw; it might have been the same one that he had used for twenty years, the very same one that he had used to help build the Pentagon.  I saw him use a builder’s square and a compound triangle and a stubby carpenter’s pencil to mark the boards that he sawed precisely and effortlessly and with a fluid grace that I only latter again recognized at the ballet.  I learned how a craftsman builds: deliberately, with all his skill and with attention, neither rushing nor dallying, without hesitation or indecision.  Experience shows itself in skill.  Despite his shaking hands Pa’s walls were plumb and his cuts arrow straight.  I learned lessons in life as well as wood from these men at work.  Yet some lessons I taught myself.  The reality of dust explosions was one.  We sanded the pine wood floor of a later addition using a commercial grade floor finisher.  My job was to take the bag out to the small fire in the yard and put the dust on to burn with the other trash.  I poured the wood dust on the fire without incident until I decided to be thorough and shake the empty bag.  In a split second a wall of fire shot up twenty feet into the evening sky devouring the millions of isolated, aerated, floating dust motes.  I jumped back at the roar that lasted only a heartbeat, the one that had skipped in my chest.  Only my eyebrows and arm hair were singed.   No real harm done, but some lessons must come the hard way, I suppose.  Still it is better to learn from another’s schooling than to pay the tuition yourself.


I learned of other tools that will not fit in my red steel case.  How a man relates to family, immediate and extended.  Pa and Ma Moates, his in-laws, a term Lew never used, were always welcome at our house and at our table. Once we were eating hamburgers when Pa began to salt his meat, showering the patty with seasoning.  Dad watched will eyes that grew larger by the second as Pa did not stop but continued to pickle sandwich.

In a fit of concern, Lew shouted out impetuously, “Whoa!”

Pa stopped, his palsied hands still shaping, looked at my father and replied slowly, “I didn’t know y’all were a-rationin’ the salt.”  After a few seconds he chuckled and then my Dad joined in, red faced.  His sons took note of the jocular respect between the men, two users of tools.  His sons and daughter saw too the tender way he held my mother’s arm and carried her “pocketbook” when they walked a distance.

When Mother grew ill with lung problems in her seventies, he learned new tools, ones with which to tend a house and keep it free of dust.  Her special diet he learned to prepare with kitchen tools and affection.  He learned the tools of home health care, of oxygen and inhalation therapy.  Ultimately she died; too soon to suit any of us.  Then he picked up his old tools again and began to renovate his church.  Many a middle-aged man or youth this octogenarian handyman wore out in a long day’s work.  Dry wall, electrical, tile and plumbing; carpentry and masonry he undertook with glee.  Nothing seemed to lie beyond him when he put his mind to it.  Except he had to slow down as he slid closer to ninety; he only worked half days now and never alone or far up the ladder.

         I too am cautious of ladders, since that day I fell and nearly broke off my right foot.  Now I often walk with a limp as he does, but mostly on tiring days when I stand too much or on days before a change in the weather.  I now have a weather leg with a barometer limp. And in many other ways to my horror and my delight I have become more like my father than I thought possible.

Lew Matteson gave me his last name, and much more. While I have hung none of his tools on my wall, because they are still in his service, I cannot say that I have no tools bequeathed from him.  He has handed down to me more than his name. Indeed, he has given very fine and many tools to me, tools that I will always treasure, tools I will use the rest of my life.



Read Full Post »