Tools and Tractors

When I was thirteen I landed a summer 'job' at a small mom and pop business out in the middle of nowhere in rural Southeastern Connecticut. The Smith's were in their late 40's or early 50's if I remember correctly and he fixed small engines while she made high quality picture frames.

Their business was located right off the road in what looked to be a converted one story house, with the attached two car garage to the left and the picture framing business to the right. At various points during the gestation of the engine repair business Mr. Smith commandeered more and more of the house. When I arrived on the scene, around 20 years after the business had been founded, his portion now occupied two thirds of the house, the garage, several storage sheds in the back and side and nearly the entire back lawn.

Mrs. Smith, on the other hand, was shoehorned into her own little corner of the universe, a small space of maybe 14 x 20 which included storage, the customer area where hundreds of different sample frame material pieces were hung on the walls and her actual workshop where she made her frames.

It was here, working in two very different worlds, that I discovered my love for working with my hands while figuring out how to 'do' stuff using my analytical mind. Even though Mr. and Mr. Smith both worked with their hands, they were two entirely different people with nearly opposite approaches to life, work and thinking.

I would usually start the day working with Mrs. Smith for 2-4 hours before moving over to the small engine repair shop. When asked, Mrs. Smith informed me that she wanted me first before Mr. Smith got to me because my hands were clean. True to her explanation, my work day never flowed in the other direction. If I started in the repair shop I was never called over the the framing area.

Mrs. Smith taught me finesse, precision, planning, layout, jigs, glues and so on. Everything that had to do with fine craftsmanship as it applied to making picture frames I learned, and with some pretty expensive frame material I might add. When making quality frames there was no such thing as putty or touch up paint.

Nearly all of the picture framing material was milled and finished and often came painted with several colors or shades or treatments. While she had some cheaper stuff for those people who wanted a down and dirty job, most of her material consisted of high quality wood. A mistake here could destroy the entire profit margin of the job so Mrs. Smith emphasized patience and precision. It was from her that I first heard the phrase "Measure twice and cut once".

Mr. Smith was from the opposite side of the universe and even at that young age I often wondered how they ever lived together, let alone worked side by side. He was always covered in grease, grime and muck, even when he showed up first thing in the morning. His hands were never clean and there was streaks and spots of black on his face, arms, clothes, just about everywhere.

While Mr. Smith did quality work and took pride in his expertise he was not an elegant man by any stretch of the imagination. He didn't curse since he was a devout Catholic, but that just meant that he substituted other everyday words in for curses. The message always got across.

Working on engines that often came in seized up because the owner never checked the oil or not running because the spark plugs or points were worn down to nubs or won't cut because the blades had hit every rock within 30 miles, the fixing part was more like an assembly line than precision work. I'll never forget the first time I saw Mr. Smith pull the head on a lawn mower engine and use a very large rubber mallet to 'free' the seized engine. That tool would NEVER come within 30 feet of Mrs. Smith's framing shop.

But I learned how to work on engines, practice diagnostic techniques and use critical thinking skills. To work with my hands on large heavy metal things where often brute force was the only way to go. And customer service as well. No matter how bone headed the customer was, such as the guy who seized his lawn mower twice in one summer, Mr. Smith always treated his customers like they were Gold and genuinely seemed to enjoy the interaction.

Both of the Smiths seemed to enjoy my company and they were pleased with my skills because they invited me back for the next summer to work, an offer I gratefully accepted. I thoroughly enjoyed working in those two worlds and to this day I can't remember why I did not return for a third summer. But the skills I learned there have carried me well over the following 40 plus years and I will always look back to those summers with a smile on my face and a soft spot in my heart.

Thank you Mr. and Mrs. Smith for taking me under your wings, teaching me your own unique version of valuable life skills, then setting me free to practice what I had learned.

Cognitive Dissonance

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