Recently my father-in-law’s old push mower broke. Mel is not very technologically inclined so he was facing a serious dilemma. A retired university professor of agriculture, he preferred to work more with his brains than with his hands. Though this was not always the case for during his young adulthood during WWII Mel was a mechanic – not just any type of mechanic; he was an AIRCRAFT ENGINE mechanic.
Mel was a farm boy raised in the deserts of Utah. He and his brothers shared a tent outside the main house which served as their bedroom. His parents worked the farm to feed the family.
My experience with the farmer-types I have known is that they always seemed to be to be quite ingenious and inventive characters. Likely having to work with a lot of equipment and implements, often isolated far away from civilization, their survival skills required the ability to fix things when they occasionally broke. Ingenuity is perhaps the real mother of survival.
So the farm boy, having graduated from high school when the war broke out and with no job, enrolled in the Consolidated Aircraft manufacturing school in San Diego. Mel was trained to work on one of the most complex mechanical devices ever engineered: the piston aircraft engine. At the height of the war, toolbox in hand, the scrawny teenager was sent to the South Pacific where he executed some of the most remarkable repairs under the most abominable conditions imaginable. He later wrote a book about his experiences. "Contract Military Air Transport From the Ground Up"
When the war was over Mel went to college on the GI Bill and started pursuing an entirely new career in academia, specifically agriculture. With this change in focus, oddly it almost seems as though he resolved purge his brain of the ability to hold a screwdriver.
So there Mel, the retired professor and I stood on his front porch contemplating how to deal with the broken push lawnmower. He was pondering where we might drop it off to have it repaired.
“How old is that lawn mower?” I asked him.
“It was given to me, used, in 1952”, Mel replied in his methodical drawl.
It was damn clear to me that purchasing a new replacement for the almost 60 year old lawn mower was not this man’s radar. Over the years I had learned first hand what Mel’s idea of maintenance consisted of – the strategy for dealing with a leak under the kitchen sink, for example, was to place a pan under the drip. When the leak got worse; that just meant he needed a larger pan. As I contemplated some strategy to entice Mel to consider purchasing a new mower, my gaze was drawn to the porch where the pole pruner was temporarily holding up the rain gutter. One thing for sure, I was going to have to keep my expectations low – I possibly could convince him to buy a new “push” mower; but no way in hell was he going to buy a power mower.
Now I wouldn’t go so far as to label Mel a Luddite, but he is glacially slow to adopt modern technology. When he retired from the university he lost availability of secretarial support. So for him to be able to publish his book of his WWII experiences he accepted that he was going to need to learn how to use a computer. But with the completion of that book, he abandoned any further need for word processing. Today he still writes letters or memoirs entirely in long hand.
Last year when analog Television broadcasting was to be phased out, replaced exclusively with digital broadcasting, I bought Mel a digital TV converter and wired it up to his rusted TV antenna. This too became an exercise in futility. As expected, on the morning of June 13, 2009 when all analog broadcasting ceased nation-wide, he telephoned me and asked me if I could come over and “fix” his television.
Mel will never own a cell phone, electric hedge clippers or an automatic coffee maker. He doesn’t do e-mail and he doesn’t throw anything away that won’t attract flies. This is likely a mind set quite common among the folks who were raised during the Great Depression. They’re used to getting by without, with making do with what you have. They used tin cans for drinking cups and bath water boiled hot on the wood stove; they literally held their lives together with bailing wire and twine.
We went to Home Depot and I helped Mel pick purchase one push mower they had in stock in the entire store. I wondered if the Home Depot people might have even been holding it especially with him in mind. Mel has already grown attached to the “new” mower. And the old mower; well it will sit there rusting on the side of the house. After all, it just needs to be fixed and it will be a perfectly usable mower.