Drooling over the tools of somebody else's trade

About this time of year, hardware store owners threaten to go bankrupt if we don't save them by purchasing their tool sets at 50 percent off. Sales on tools seem to coincide in the marketplace with sales on sheets and bedspreads and towels. We're fine in the sheet-bedspread-towel department, thank you. But the tool situation remains desperate, and all those promises (''Get 14 metric sockets FREE with this 43-piece tool set!'') are really reaching us this February.

Every tool-buyer needs a rationalization. We've got the perfect excuse. Our present rich assortment of three open-end wrenches - two of them from an old bicycle kit - fails to fit the drippy connection under the sink. If we don't wish to call the plumber, the only solution, as we see it, is to buy an ''advanced mechanic's 110-piece tool set'' for $99.99 (''regular separate pieces total $241.59'').

Over the years we've lost - make that ''misplaced'' - enough screwdrivers, pliers, and adjustable wrenches to stock our own hardware store. But we've never owned a tool set - a real honest-to-goodness tool set. This year may be the year. We're so close - maybe a spark plug's gap away, according to the feeler gauge we've never owned.

Torque and ratchet wrenches dance in our head. Everywhere we go the sweet smell of saw blades, lightly oiled, seems to follow us. We hunger for awls and adzes and tools we've never even heard of.

If George Washington could get an ax for his birthday, why can't we?

We are not a person who, by the most generous indulgence of the imagination, could be described as handy. Why, then, this seasonal infatuation with tools? The answer may have less to do with tools than with wanting to be the sort of person who is good with tools.

On a back road in Maine a couple of summers ago our car - model identified on request - broke down. Totally immobile. Absolutely kaput.

A sympathetic native pointed us to the home of a retired mechanic. The old man listened without a word as we described our plight. Then he put on his red baseball cap, and we knew we had our man. Those hands, adjusting the visor just so, could fix a space shuttle, to say nothing of a car.

When he opened his toolbox by the stricken engine, every tool was in its place, wiped clean and gleaming. All our intuitions proved right. Never mind the details. Let's just say the master solved chaos with chickenwire and style.

The wonderful fellow didn't seem capable of emotion. But as he wiped his tools again and put them back in their proper places, something like a half smile appeared at the corner of his mouth - such an expression, we guess, as knights used to hide behind their visors after another dragon was slain.

Something in us wants to be that man, bending over The Problem with our baseball cap, dressed in a coverall reading ''Charlie,'' saying ''Ah-hah,'' as everything becomes clear.

Every February, when the tool sales are on, we think of the master mechanic of Maine, and of the plumbers and electricians who have also met life's little emergencies for us with the skill and aplomb and ingenuity of Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee.

We also think of those who haven't, like one thoroughly charming mechanic who loved to talk while he worked. Once, when he was applying an oversize wrench to a vital bolt on the gearbox, not wisely but too well, he stripped the threads. Putting a sympathetic arm around our shoulders and looking us in the eye, he said, ''Look at what we've done.'' When the jolly chap stopped being our mechanic - on the spot - he became our friend. But we waited three weeks for the spare part.

This sort of hard-earned realism sets in once the tool sales have passed. We understand that if we actually walked into a store to buy a tool set and asked a salesman to recommend the one that might suit us, he would look us over a bit too carefully and say, ''Well, it all depends on what you want it for.''

If we pushed ahead and bought a set after that warning, we would lug it home and not know where to put it. Should we leave it in the case or get a pegboard and set up a proud display, with lots of plastic cabinets full of exotic nuts and screws? What about a workbench? What about power tools?

Instead we'll do what we always do in February - buy another screwdriver and change the ribbon in our typewriter, the only tool of our trade. This year we may perform the task wearing a baseball cap.

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