Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Luddite

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.


Marylinn Kelly said...

My father used to say, only partly in jest, that his father, a farmer, kept a coffee can on his work bench with a label that read, "Nails too bent to be straightened." He worked with his hands - and mind - all his life, still climbing up to repair his roof at 87. I'm glad there is a new push mower.

Murr Brewster said...

Mel is my kind of guy. Especially if he can make a meatloaf.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Marylinn Mel was out in the front yard on his knees edging the lawn with pruning shears.

He has a leak in the roof that he won't repair because it is supposed to be a 30-year roof and, by gum, it still has 18 years to go. [sigh]

Murr I wish he could make a meatloaf. Seriously, since his wife died (who did all the cooking) his nutrition has taken a significant slide. He is a "heat-it-and-eat-it" guy. I guess the one good aspect of that is he has plenty of cans should any more plumbing leaks arise.

Gorilla Bananas said...

I wonder what he'd think if someone suggesting getting a goat to eat the grass. He must have milked a goat in his farm boy days.

Penny said...

Good for him. It is strange though, that someone so very mechanically adept can lose interest. Good that they still had a pushmower, there must still be folk who want them. You can still buy pedal power sewing machines too.

Years ago when PC's were becoming standard office issue, I went to a colleague's retirement function. He said he was glad he wasn't going to have to learn to use a computer - he was retiring in time. I've sometimes wondered if he subsequently changed his mind.

Just noticed the photo of a small boy, a knife, and an electrical socket in the top RH corner. Ouch.

TechnoBabe said...

I like Mel. When I met hubby I owned an electric mower and electric weed wacker but I could not figure out how to use the weed wacker without the string breaking, so since my yard was small I would get on my knees with huge scissors and clip the grass edge. It got done and I was happy. It is a surprise to me though that Mel would learn how to use a computer for his book and then never use it again. My mother will not use a computer. My brother set one up for her one time and between the two of us we talked and talked to teach her to email. She hated it. We finally removed the computer. She doesn't want to know all that stuff. It sounds as though you and Mel have a comfortable relationship and that to me is important. Glad he likes the new push mower and what a guy he is that he mows his lawn with a push mower and not a riding mower!!

The Mother said...

My parents still own a slate, rotary dial phone. They keep a little electronic gizmo beside it to make the beeps they need to get through voicemail systems.

My kids won't visit for more than a day, because they only have (GASP!) dial-up, and they only have that because mom edits a Luddite newsletter.

Feel free to laugh hysterically.

LOTI said...

My Dad and I tried explaining what a push mower was to my youngest son just a few weeks ago. He is still convinced we were joking. I remember well pushing those things around when I was a kid. Have not seen them for sale in the stores down here for a long time.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Bananas At an early age Mel was indeed assigned the task of milking the family cow. For his own lawn, however, he would not likely want to deal with goat droppings.

Penny I trained employees on computers when my employer converted system-wide to networked PCs. There were a lot of people digging in their heels resisting change, mostly the older folks. But they had to accept and learn or become unemployable.

TechnoBabe Yeah, was talking to a buddy about those string trimmers; you are supposed to be able to tap them on the ground to extend the string... nobody I know has EVER gotten that feature to work.

Some older folk really accept the new technology, especially e-mail when they find out they can keep in touch with the grand kids. I am curious, though, what makes some old people accept technology while others dismiss it?

Dr. Mom Mel still has a rotary phone. True story: one day our son was wanting to use Mel's phone on the kitchen wall (he was probably 12 at the time). After a few minutes he came back out to the living room and asked how to use the phone - he was putting his finger in the holes and pressing, he couldn't figure out how to "dial" it!!!

We would convert his line to "touch-tone" but then the old Western Electric bakelite wall phone would no longer function.

LOTI My dad had a power "reel" mower with a huge engine on it because our lawn was on an incline. It was a scary device. I recall using it one time when I ran over a substantial twig; it chopped that thing like it was butter. Dangerous!!

KleinsteMotte said...

Push mowers are back for those who want to live a more green way! Guess they have a very tiny lawn and live where it's cool in July. I recall my grandad, an electrician, telling me how some of his clients were afraid to turn on the light by a switch on the wall. They could not understand how it worked. Fear of the unknown turns people away from new things. But I think that the youth of today is more likely to keep up with change since changes are so fast now!! Hop the roof leak doesn't cause a great deal of fungus.

Robert the Skeptic said...

KleinsteMotte The Oregon rain got the best of him recently and the lawn grew too long for him to attack with the push mower. And he has a pretty large expanse of lawn. Mel relented and allowed me to go at it with the gas mower... it gave him a head start. He took over from there with the push mower.

secret agent woman said...

I am suspicious of gas-powered tools myself. My chain saw is electric and even my lawn mower is electric. But a reel mower? I bought that first and discovered I'm not string enough!

Robert the Skeptic said...

SecretAgent I draw the line at gas power chain saws... too dangerous! Mine is electric as well. I tried an electric mower but it didn't have enough horsepower to cut even my very modest lawn.

I know those small gas engines are bad news for the environment, but I am sure my neighbors would not want me to switch to goats instead.

kara said...

as great as this post is about grampy - it's about you too. there's NEVER been a time where you've come over that you haven't "fixed" something. i remember catching you rubbing butter on the bathroom door hinge so it would stop squeaking. you two are woven from the same cloth and that's why you get along so well.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Kara If you had even the remotest amount of technical savvy you would know that the proper lubricant for a squeaky bathroom door is Margarine... NOT butter!

Orhan Kahn said...

So, what you're saying is Mel doesn't have a Facebook profile.

When the leak got worse; that just meant he needed a larger pan.

I approve of this on so many levels.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Orhan Not now, not ever.

Well the pan thing is a low-tech solution, to be sure. The problem is he empties it into the same sink, so he's just recycling the same water over and over.

Jerry said...

I think Mel has become my hero. The older I get the more disdainful I become of new fangledness. I too shun FaceBook. (And how strange: the word verification for me to post this comment is 'inepta'.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Jerry I'm not that bad yet, but I must admit, I only need the garage door opener to open my garage door. I don't need it "programmed".

My buddy had a new HVAC system put in and he got a programmable thermostat. He had them come back out and put one in that comes on when the temperature changes... you know, the old dial kind!

Yes, the word verification in blogger can be downright "spooky" sometimes!

secret agent woman said...

I have about 7/10 of an acre, about a third of it on a steep slop, but the mower is able to handle it. It has swappable batteries, so I keep a couple of them charged.

Robert the Skeptic said...

SecretAgent My buddy Will uses a battery mower as well; he loves it. He's pretty into environmental issues. Me - well, I slack a bit, wanting to get the lawn done in as short a time as possible... though I may be moving to a push mower soon.

Entre Nous said...

Oh gosh, don't read my latest.

After the high stress, dealing with everyone eles life-threatening emergencies for twenty five years, I think I am worse than your Dad. With the exception of the pipe leak. Water attracts ear-wigs and I do not do bugs....!