Lessons from Harry

I am the father of two grown women, a son, and two stepsons, and a grandfather to 5 kids. But this is not about me – nor about my own Dad, but about my grandfather, Harry. Harry had two daughters, and I was his first male descendant. He was an immigrant with no formal education, and had lived in dire (starvation-dire) poverty as a child. He crossed Europe on foot and sailed for America before the first world war with nothing but the clothes on his back and his tool box. As a boy of eight, he had been apprenticed to a master carriage maker, but he luckily realized that trade had no future when horseless wagons appeared and he switched to learning upholstery and cabinet making.

My grandfather taught me the values of skilled craftsmanship. He thought the highest praise a man could earn was to be called a mechanic, which in his time meant a man who could work with tools and machines. While he always encouraged me to do well in school, he would also say, “Learn all that you can. But be sure you also learn a trade, because that is what will keep you going in bad times.”

As a child, I was enthralled watching him work in his shop. He would take a handful of tacks, throw them in his mouth, then in a rapid blur bring his hammer up to his lips, spit a tack onto the magnetized face of the hammer, and bang it into the work held in place with his free hand. My mother was horrified that I might try it and either knock my teeth out or swallow a tack. I did try it once (when my mother was elsewhere) and got a lot of praise from grandpa for being able to hammer in three tacks, very slowly. Don’t try this at home.

He also liked to challenge me. I remember one time I tried to turn on a lamp that wouldn’t light up. “Grandpa, this lamp isn’t working,” I called out. “Fix it,” he said. I was stumped. At age 11, I didn’t know how to fix anything. But I remembered the way he always approached any problem, with care and patient thoroughness. So I looked at the lamp, took out the bulb, shook it, and then looked down and saw that the plug was out of the socket. Yes, he had done it as a test, and I felt good about passing it.

I went to college and graduate school, got a PhD in biochemistry, and read an awful lot of books and papers. Wrote some also. But I still have some of Harry’s old tools, and I still make and fix stuff. I don’t exactly have a trade, as he would have liked, but I do have the memory of a man who taught me, by example, the importance of doing good work with one’s hands as well as one’s brain. Even though I have become an intellectual, I did fix my lawnmower last week, and I can make a pretty decent bookshelf. But more importantly, I learned from Grandpa Harry a deep respect for manual skill, and for the men and women who have earned the lofty title of mechanic.

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Sy Garte is a Christian, a biologist, a fellow of the American Scientific Affiliation, and the lay leader of his United Methodist Church. He  has published articles in Perspectives in Science and Christian Faith, and  God and Nature, and over 200 scientific papers. He blogs at thebookofworks.com, and is an Admin of the facebook group Celebrating Creation by Natural Selection; his Twitter account is @sygarte.

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