Who's Been Using My Hammer?

CHARLES LEONARD MOORE said, "Chance and the tools [go] to those who use them best." My father, whose early adult years were spent denying the Great Depression's sovereignty over his young family, was too busy to contemplate the role of chance in his affairs, but he surely believed that tools, especially his, should be available only to users who would treat them properly.

A farmer by trade and tradition, my dad was quick of mind and sure of hand. His accomplishments belied his sixth-grade education, and it seemed he could make or fix anything. During the Depression, he mended our shoes on ancient cobbler lasts, made all our Christmas toys, repaired harnesses, and maintained farm implements - all after putting in heavy hours at the nearby flour mill for $18 a week.

My dad could build anything from a shed to a showplace, and the entire job would be done by hand. He owned no work-saving power tools. Dad's tools included cross- and rip-saws, a carpenter's square, a couple of planes, a half-dozen chisels, a brace with several bits, two or three screwdrivers, a pair of hatchets, a crowbar, a well-balanced claw hammer, a blue-chalked snap string, and a good eye. Combined with abundant energy and Dad's pride in his work, those tools built his path to personal esteem and f amily subsistence.

From the time I held the first board-end and watched cascades of wood dust spout from his saw's gnawing teeth, Dad's hand tools were important components of my childhood. How to maintain them, where to store them ("a place for everything and everything in its place"), and, most important, who could use them for what purposes - all these were part of my formula for responsible childhood.

The tool my hands itched most to use was my dad's hammer. Its leather-wrapped handle was well formed and comfortably grasped, its claws were graceful, and its smooth, hard head got immediate results - nails slickly penetrated the most resistant woods when their heads were brightly struck. I knew that saws were dangerous in a child's hands; chisels, bits, and planes possessed edges that became noticeably dulled in the hands of an amateur and were thus rendered less usable to the professional. Screwdrivers

were fun if one had screws to tighten, but could a mere child presume to tighten a screw already twisted into place by a strong adult? A carpenter's square was, well, inert, boring, no fun at all. A genuine hammer was the tool I was most anxious to call my own.

To possess one's own hammer! At the very least, a hammer made noise, and at its best, it fastened wooden parts together to confirm the builder's plan. A hammer's claws also extended the life of nails that somehow bent over when weakly driven into the four-by-four on the workbench. The same claws readily retrieved most of the nails that didn't seat flush with the block's splintery surface, leaving only a few telltale holes and a host of bent nails for someone to straighten later.

Dad's hammer was always suspended between two nails that projected from a board mounted on the wall behind the workbench. During most of my early years in the construction business, I was so short that I had to climb onto the bench to reach the hammer. And it was usually during the most interesting stage of my project that I would be called to dinner or to finish a chore left neglected in favor of the hammer's company. I would rush up the basement stairs, fully intending to return and complete my work. O ccasionally though, I remained upstairs and forgot that the hammer had been left out of place. Soon after Dad arrived home, however, I would be reminded of my dereliction.

"Who's been using my hammer?" rose to the kitchen soon after Dad went down to add coal to the furnace. The tone of the query was seldom frightening, but the sentiment was never complimentary. I would look to my mother for a sign of support, then I'd frown at my snickering sister and slowly descend into the arena of apprehension.

"Haven't I told you again and again to put the tools back where they belong when you're finished with them? Especially my hammer. It's the tool I use more than any other, and I need to know just where it is when I want it."

I'd try to speak but words didn't form. Besides, he had me cold; I had no excuse.

"And what are all these perfectly good nails doing all bent out of shape and scattered all over the workbench?" Dad said all the time. "Nails cost money, you know.... Well, what do you have to say?"

I would stammer. "I meant to straighten them ... but Mother called me ... and I never got back down here. I'll straighten them out now and put them back in the nail box." I'd move hesitantly toward the workbench, then try to inject a brighter note into the conversation. "I only bent over half of the nails I was pounding on today; usually it's more than that. I'm getting better, don't you think?" To pound nails straight into any board was both a test of concentration and a demonstration of coordination; i t was an accomplishment to be proud of, however infrequently it occurred.

From behind the mask that only hinted at Dad's true feelings, came an unexpected reply. "Well, yes, I guess you are getting better. It would be easier, though, if you started with shorter nails that have bigger heads. Some day, when you can set four out of five finishing nails with their skinny little heads, you'll be getting really good. Then, when you try driving spikes, you'll hear them sing."


Dad showed his "just-between-us" smile. "Yes, sing. Tall spikes are like tuning forks, and they vibrate when you hit them just right and strike a humming note. Even the shorter ones sing, if you hit 'em square and they're still tall." He paused while I thought about singing nails.

"Yes, you're definitely doing better, and that's why I brought you home a surprise." Now Dad's smile broadened, and he handed me a tall paper sack. I stepped forward to grasp a weighty, narrow object. Was this what it felt like? Reaching inside, I lifted the object and fixed my widened eyes on - on, yes! a brand new hammer! The plain wooden handle had green paint near its tip and the cool steel head's curving claws were as smooth as glass. All I could say was "Is this for me?"

Still smiling, Dad confirmed my fondest wish. "Yes, it's for you. You're ready to start your own tool kit, and a good hammer should be the first tool in it. See, I've already set a couple of nails here in the board by my hammer for you to hang yours on. Maybe a good way to get used to it would be by straightening out all these crooked nails."

"Sure, I'll straighten them all out. Oh boy! My own hammer! Thanks, Dad. I really like it."

He touched my shoulder. "You're welcome, son. If you take good care of that hammer, it will last you a long time, maybe until you're as old as me." Smiling again, he added, "Maybe it will help my hammer last a few years longer too." Sensing my impatience, he moved toward the stairs. "Well, I'm going back up now. Have fun but don't pound anything that doesn't need to be crushed, like your finger."

When Dad was gone I straightened bent nails, then I bent several more and straightened them - I still had to fix about half of all the nails I tried to drive into the block, the bench, and the basement studs. Some day I'd get this nail-pounding business right. Meanwhile, only needful items were crushed. My finger wasn't one of them.

'M retired now and I still have the hammer with the green handle. In fact, it's the hammer I've used for almost every project since that night in the basement. With it I've assembled everything from baby furniture to birdhouses, from fences to backyard forts. I've knocked down walls and constructed new partitions, all with that hammer and a few other essential tools.

For years after my father died, his tools remained suspended on the garage wall, to be used intermittently by my mother, who was no slouch in the handy-person business herself. Eventually, though, the entire collection was passed on to me, and I carefully mounted them all on manufactured hooks inserted into pre-spaced holes in my new formica pegboard. The two hammers hung side by side, mine on the left and Dad's on the right. Whenever I used a hammer I usually took down my own, rarely willing to grasp th e one on the right-hand hook. On those few occasions when my son or daughter was using my green one, I'd use Dad's, and I would invariably anticipate that child-time query, "Who's been using my hammer?" as I returned it to the tool board.

Whenever I had a choice, I used the green hammer I'd been given as a boy, though I had no reservations about allowing my grandchildren free access to my dad's. Looking back, I think I must have wondered if I could equal his workmanship and made sure there would be no contest by avoiding the central tool in his collection. Soon enough, though, I realized it wasn't fear but respect that deterred me, respect for the accomplishments of that tool in the hands of a master.

But about five years ago my attitude changed, and I was released from the felt constraint which had prevented me from making that hammer my own, really my own.

We had moved to another state after living in an apartment for several years, during which there had been little opportunity to build or repair anything. When I unpacked my tools to equip the small basement shop, the only hammer I could find at first was my dad's. So I used it to mount shelves and assemble a new nail box. When it came time to install the hooks and hang the tools it seemed natural and proper to place my green hammer on the right-hand hook and Dad's on the left. This meant I was putting th e hammer I'd been so reluctant to use the past many years in a position where it would now be used first. It's been in that location ever since, and I haven't heard even a whisper about whose hammer it is or who's using it now.

Perhaps I'll eventually buy one of those new drop-forged stainless-steel hammers now on the market, with a shock-absorbing shaft and a rubber-covered handle. For now, though, my dad's older model still drives or pulls nails just as it has for the past 50 years. It's not shiny now, and its handle leather is dull and scuffed, but for some reason it doesn't bend nearly as many nails as the green one used to, and quite often now I hear nails sing right out loud. So I intend to keep it hanging on the left-han d hook. Some day my offspring will probably wield Dad's old hammer. But they won't hear the question that confronted me so frequently, because by then the hammer and the music it makes will belong to them.

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