The first rule is: Leave things alone. Particularly things like lawn mower blades
By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, July 18, 1942.
“You’re looking particularly gloomy,” observed Jimmie Frise.
“I’ve been thinking,” I explained, “and it always makes me bilious.”
“You want to be careful,” warned Jim. “You should leave the thinking to those whose job it is. Suppose everybody started thinking. What a fine mess we’d be in then!”
“Don’t be cynical, Jim,” I cautioned. “Isn’t it time everybody started thinking? We have been leaving everything to the guy whose job it is. Or was. If some bird was interested in politics, we left polities to him. If some bloke liked soldiering, we left soldiering to him. If some other baby liked making great big steel tractors, we left making great big steel tractors to him. Then along comes a war. So we leave the conduct of the war to the guys who like politics. And we leave the soldiering to the bloke who likes soldiering. And we leave the making of tanks to the baby who likes making tractors. It never occurred to us that maybe these people who liked doing those things were no more fitted to save us from disaster than any other three busybodies we might pick out at random.”
“Now, now, now,” protested Jimmie. “Doesn’t it stand to reason that people experienced in government should be trusted with government in an emergency? Isn’t it reasonable to suppose that people interested in soldiering should be entrusted with handling our soldiers when we raise them? And doesn’t it make sense that industrialists should know more about producing war material than anybody else?”
“What you say proves,” I informed him, “that you haven’t been thinking. You’ve got faith. But you aren’t thinking.”
“Then,” smiled Jimmie loftily, “what should I think?”
“I suppose,” I weaseled, “that because a kid likes to play hockey, you should let him on the championship team?”
“But the way you find your championship team,” crowed Jim, “is by scouring all the lesser teams. You don’t make a championship hockey team out of wrestlers and tennis players. That is precisely how we get government, soldiers and industrialists. Out of all those playing those games, we select the best.”
The Eternal Battle
“I have trapped you,” I announced. “You still think war is a game. Our government, our army and our industry are not bridge tables. Neither are they private clubs or lodges in which only members may play. War is a convulsion. It is a desperate illness of the body social. It is a natural disaster like smallpox or infantile paralysis. It is like the eternal battle between the birds and the insects. It is one of the awful manifestations of nature. Periodically, one of the tribes of man that is down suddenly struggles to rise up. It happens endlessly, all across history, like the struggle of water to seek its level; like the battle of the jungle; like the fight in a garden between the plants; or the never-ending combat between the trees of the forest.”
“I admit war isn’t a game,” submitted Jim.
“Peace is a game,” I asserted. “A shabby, sordid sort of game, at that; in the hands of a lot of cigar-chewing promoters. But war is life and death; as it was in the beginning. War calls for fighters. And now the fighters must come to the top. By fighters, I don’t mean the noisy boys, the assertive, star performers who drew the big gates in the game of peace. What is there about government that a strong fighting man could not learn in 30 days? All he has to do, after 30 days’ study, is push button and call in a chief clerk to give him the technical data he wants. You and I have both been soldiers. What is there about soldiering that a clever man who has never soldiered could not learn in 30 days? All he has got to do is push a button and call in a department manager in the uniform of a general, to get any technical data he needs at the moment. What is there about one industry that a good man in any other industry cannot take in at a glance? The greatest successes in industrial and financial history have been created by clever, outstanding and fighting men who came in from the outside. War is neither a matter of government, of soldiering nor of industry. War is fighting. And what is fighting? Is it a game? Is it a thing of rules? A lot of dead men thought so, like Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon. They all ended in ruin, because fighting is another thing entirely – a matter of imagination of courage, of intellect and of soul. And as Caesar, Napoleon and all the rest found out, too late, the fighters hardly ever wore uniform, hardly ever had any political connection and hardly ever had the patience to collect, like raspberries, one by one, a billion dollars.”
To Help the Fighters
“You’ve ruled out all the ways we have of selecting our leaders,” complained Jim.
“And our leaders are ruling themselves out,” I assured him, “to make way for the fighters.”
“How will we select the fighters,” demanded Jim.
“You never select the fighters,” I explained. “They are a gift from on high.”
We sat in silence, thinking biliously.
“How useless my life has been,” muttered Jim. “Thirty years drawing cartoons. What good are cartoons now?”
“Thirty years emitting words,” I mumbled, for myself. “Like the drip from a pump.”
“We’re too old to fight,” said Jim, “but isn’t there something we could do to help the fighters?”
“We aren’t even good enough in the legs,” I snorted, “to be water boys, like Gunga Din.”
“We can still shoot,” calculated Jimmie. “We could be guerrillas.”
“I’ve often thought,” I suggested, “that we men from 50 to 60 years of age, if we were trained, could be recruited into special maintenance companies for the tank corps. Did you ever notice, around a garage, that the fellow who really does the problem jobs, on ignition, or on faulty timing, or any of the tricky cases, isn’t the strong, husky bird in his 20’s and 30’s? It is nearly always a middle-aged man, often in his 50’s or better.”
“By jingo, that’s a fact,” said Jim.
“The big husky boys,” I went on, “do the tire changing and the jacking up and the big, noisy jobs. But when your car has to be approached as if it were a murder mystery, it is always some middle-aged gent, in the dirtiest overalls, mostly wearing spectacles, who comes in, quiet and bold, and solves the puzzle. It seems to me that in this modern tank warfare, they are trying to get along without the very men they need most.”
“The men who fight the tanks,” agreed Jim, “can be the young, dashing, tough lads. But the maintenance squads… do they have to be young and dashing?”
“The light aid detachments,” I explained, “and the repair units that follow tanks into action have to be as nippy as the tanks themselves.”
“So they say,” added Jim.
“One thing,” I summed up, “in this day and age, every man ought to know some mechanics. The time has come, in human affairs, when it isn’t enough merely to be a smart buyer or a clever, seller; lawyers, parsons, accountants, salesmen, executives, even doctors, are so much baggage when fighting comes to the bare fists as it is now. Every living man, regardless of his age, should be trained to be able to make something with his hands. Every man should be a mechanic, if only to dig swiftly and cleverly with a shovel; or to splice a telephone wire or do rough carpentry.”
“Look,” said Jim. “At all the technical schools, at the universities, they are conducting classes, night classes, to teach people any one of the many mechanical arts.”
“Then…” I said with finality.
“Of course,” cried Jimmie. “Let’s get going. Let’s make a team specializing on heavy motors. You become the ignition expert and I’ll be the carburetor expert. It will be something,” cried Jim eagerly, “to fill our nights, this autumn. Every night we work, we’ll feel of more use. This awful feeling of sitting. doing nothing…”
“And in the course of a few weeks,” I stated, “we would be fit to grab hold of a job, instead of standing by and watching.”
“Even if we can’t be of practical use,” pursued Jim, “the training will at least make us the better able to understand what our fellow men are doing with their lives. In Norway, there are no private schools. All rich and poor, farmer and banker, are given the same education as far as they go. They all speak the same language, understand the same ideas. It knits them closer together as citizens. In our country, everybody ought to be made to master some mechanical craft and everybody should be taught literature, agriculture and business practice. Then, when we part to go our separate ways in life, we won’t feel like foreigners to one another as we do now.”
“Jim,” I confessed, “in the past 30 years, I haven’t mended a tap or repaired a broken switch. I haven’t even tacked down any weather-stripping. I blush to think of all the hundreds of little jobs I have passed up, around my home, in favor of calling in the plumber, the electrician or the handy man.”
Repairing the Lawn-mower
“It isn’t that you are lazy,” suggested Jim. “It is merely that you have been taught, from your earliest childhood, in school and in life itself, that you must be smart enough to be able to employ other people to do the work that is done by hand. The beau ideal of our educational system is not the white collar man. He is the white-handed man!”
“And now, in all our war camps from the Arctic to the tropics,” I exclaimed, “the commando is our ideal in a desperate effort to convert all our soft white hands into hard brown hands.”
“Okay, carburetors for me,” cried Jim, rising and rolling up his sleeves in expectation.
“I’ll run up tomorrow noon,” I said, “and find out what I can about these night classes at Varsity and at the technical schools.”
“After all,” said Jim eagerly, “just because I have been an artist all my life, surely all the stuff my farmer ancestors had hasn’t petered out of me.”
“One of my grandfathers,” I asserted, “was a stone mason and the other was a farmer who worked 200 acres. I bet I’ve got the stuff in me, if only give it a chance.”
With his sleeves rolled up, Jimmie walked around the room, tested the light switch, tried the window latches, lifted up a chair and felt its rungs.
“There are a hundred things a man can do…” he mused.
“I’ve got it,” he cried suddenly, “My lawn-mower. There’s the very thing. I’ve been intending to repair my lawn mower for two years now.”
“Clocks and lawn-mowers,” I cut in, “are two things my grandmother told me no man should tinker with.”
“Come on,” said Jim, rolling his sleeves still higher. “We’ll begin at the beginning. We’ll tackle the job on hand, just to show our hearts are in the right place.”
First he led me down cellar where, from shelves, drawers, boxes, he assembled the most extraordinary collection of tools. A wrench, hammer, file, oil can, at least half a dozen spanners of assorted sizes.
“Who said you weren’t mechanical?” I demanded in admiration.
“Some of them,” said Jim, “workmen have left behind. Others I borrowed from neighbors so long ago I forget whose they are. Every home has a scattering of tools like this.”
Out in the garden, Jim brought forth the lawn mower from the corner of the garage.
“Why, that’s a swell lawn mower,” I cried. “What’s the matter with that?”
“It needs sharpening,” said Jim, file already in hand. “And the blades need adjusting, Every once in a while, they jam some way.”
“Do you sharpen a lawn mower with a file?” I inquired dubiously
“You sharpen everything with a file,” explained Jimmie.
With a small spanner, Jim explored around among the nuts and bolts until he found the one that held the blade assembly in place. And in a jiffy, he had the blades, all in one piece, out on the ground.
“Feel them,” he said, “dull as a hoe.”
So while Jim scrubbed at the blades with the file. I tinkered around with the frame, oiling here, wiping off there: tightening loose nuts and screws and discovering, for the first time, the simple principle of gears which makes a lawn mower operate.
In 10 minutes. Jim had a nice gleaming edge on all the blades, including the big one in the frame. He wished he had a scythe stone to finish off the job, he said. When he was a boy on the farm, the thing he liked best was to watch a man stoning a scythe with long, strong strokes of the stone and a flexing wrist, making a sweet ring of steel in the summer air.
To Go to Night School
“Now,” said Jim, lifting up the blade assembly.
As his helper, I held the frame steady and helped direct the little ends of the axle into place.
“Gimme the small spanner,” ordered Jim, very mechanic like.
He tightened the nut carefully. But the blade assembly wobbled very loose in its frame.
“Have you touched any of those other nuts?” he demanded.
“I tightened a few of them up,” I explained. So Jimmie went all over the various nuts and screws, loosening and tightening, while feeling the set of the blades in the frame.
“It doesn’t hang level,” I pointed out.
“Not likely to,” muttered Jim, “with people tinkering all over the job. The first rule of mechanics is, don’t tinker. Leave things alone.”
“All I did was oil it,” I protested indignantly, “and tighten up a couple of these nuts that were just about falling off.”
“Here,” said Jim, “take this spanner. I’ll hold the blades in the proper position, and you tighten up the different nuts until it takes hold, just the way I’m setting it.”
I took the spanner and tightened. I tightened here and I tightened there, little by little the way you put on a spare tire.
“Easy now,” warned Jim.
“How’s she coming?” I inquired.
“It’s starting to grasp hold,” admitted Jim.
“One thing about mechanics,” I said, “you always have to have a helper. There is something very companionable about mechanics.”
“Easy,” said Jim. “Pay attention.”
“In most other lines of work,” I said, “you work alone. Writers, artists, lawyers, salesmen, they all work alone. But in the mechanical arts, you have a true demonstration of social effort…”
“OUCH!” screamed Jimmie very unexpectedly.
“Oh,” I replied, turning the wrench firmly in the other direction.
“Oucheeeeeee!” yelled Jimmie in agony.
The tip of his finger was caught between the blades and the edge of the mower.
“Turn it the other way,” he roared.
“That’s tightening it,” I gasped, heaving in the opposite direction.
“Take your foot off it,” bellowed Jim,
And with the littlest move of the mower my way, the blade opened and Jim snatched his finger out.
“It was your darn foot,” he accused bitterly “shoving on the mower that made the blade catch me.”
“I was just getting a good purchase on the spanner,” I explained. “Is it cut?”
“No,” growled Jim, “but it might have been.”
“I’m very sorry,” I assured him. “I was just shoving with my foot…”
“Don’t describe it,” said Jim, standing up and shaking his hand rapidly, to take the pain out of his finger.
“I was doing the best I knew how,” I insisted.
“Listen,” said Jimmie, “there is a mechanics to all things. There is a mechanics to lawnmowers. If you shove one way, the blades go one way; if you shove the other, the blades go the other. It is the same with politics, soldiering and business. There is a mechanics to them all. First, you have to be an apprentice. Then you have to be a journeyman. It takes a long time to be a master mechanic.”
“It’s a funny thing we can’t tinker with a lawn-mower,” I asserted, “a simple thing like a lawn-mower. We’re not saps exactly.”
“Yet,” said Jim, putting the end joint of his bruised finger in his mouth, “you are prepared to let guys at least as clever as us tinker with government, soldiering and industry?”
“There’s a big difference,” I claimed, “between waging war and mending lawn-mowers.”
“You’d be surprised,” retorted Jimmie, “how much alike they are, in the main.”
So when his finger stopped hurting, Jimmie held the blades steady with a stick. And I braced both feet on the frame and took hold of the spanner and tightened all the nuts until the veins stood out on my forehead.
And the lawn mower hums like a Spitfire.
Editor’s Note: A scythe stone is a long narrow sharpening stone.