Wearing diapers and swinging wrenches
Circa 1970

Most people can’t remember when they were really young, I mean really, really young but it’s different for me.  I remember parts of my life from when I was two years old, maybe from when I was even younger.  These aren’t always complete memories, they are more like bits and pieces but they are crystal clear and remain so to this day.  I remember images of the Vietnam War during the early 1970’s, I remember images of the various space flights, the political unrest, the protests, the social changes … I remember Walter Cronkite’s voice and David Brinkley’s voice as well on the evening news.  I watched all of this as it occurred and I did so with wide open blue eyes while sitting in front of an old console style Zenith color TV … the kind of console TV where when you changed the channel you flipped a big knob that had a very profound “chunt” sound to it as it moved from one notch to another.

The very early years of my life were spent watching color TV while drinking warm milk from a bottle, watching all of the news and social events unfold in the world around me and sitting in real cloth diapers secured with huge metal safety pins that had cute plastic animal faces on them.  The safety pins were supposed to be child proof and impossible for a child to open (thus stab their tiny little self with the huge cactus needle-like pin) but my mom probably lost track of all the times that I managed to open my child-proof safety pin secured diapers.  It was a challenge for me, to figure out anything around me that was mechanical … and to escape from anything that was restrictive or confining.  I mean, even at an early age my parents should have seen what was coming for them on down the road …

I can’t remember the exact year that the following event happened but I do remember that I was still in diapers, which means that I was probably a year and a half old, living in Birmingham, Alabama with my family at the time.  We were renting an older, small house until our new, much larger house could be built.  The year was between 1970 and 1971 which meant that Nixon was still in the White House, MOPAR was burning up the roads with the Rapid Transit Authority and America was still waging war in Vietnam.  I was still the only child (my sister wouldn’t arrive until the next year … she was a new for ’72 model) and thus my parents gave me their full share of attention.  Suffice to say that I was more than a handful.

My father, back then, kept his prized collection of hand tools in a surplus, olive drab US Army .30 caliber metal ammunition box.  The surplus ammo box was dented and still had some of the faded yellow military stencil lettering scripted on the side, that much I remember, enough to make out what was once in it … that is, if I could have read at the time.  The surplus ammunition box was full of every tool that my dad needed; open end box wrenches (in a custom metal carrier built by my mother’s father in his welding shop), adjustable wrenches, slotted and Phillips head screw drivers, a gimlet, a midget slotted screw driver, a sheathed full tang Bowie knife, needle nose pliers, a hammer and whatever else my father had at the time which wasn’t all that much given the rather small dimensions of the ammunition box.   What blew my mind as a child was that my dad was always pulling something out of his tool box that I swore hadn’t been in there before and that I swore wouldn’t all go back in again when he was finished.  
In hindsight, when I think that everything that my father ever needed to fix anything in our lives resided in a greasy, dented, faded, olive drab surplus Army ammunition box, and when I look at my two huge rolling tool kits in my garage each stock full of well worn tools, I find it all a bit strange that my father did so much with so few tools and that I need so many tools to do what little I do.  Yes, I believe that there was some kind of special magic in that old surplus Army ammo box, just like that big top hat that Frosty the Snowman wore.

I remember one Saturday afternoon I was spending time outside with my father.  He had been cutting the yard with a light blue big wheel Yazoo push mower when something had happened to one of the wheels.  I can’t remember what the problem was but my father wanted to get the wheel off to make some kind of repair to the Big Blue Yazoo (as I used to call it).  I remember sitting there in the driveway of the rental house, next to the fresh cut green grass slathered Big Blue Yazoo and watching my father working hard trying to get the small front wheel off of the lawnmower.  

I was content to rummage around in his old surplus military tool box, grabbing out tools and looking them over.  

My father must have felt some amount of pride at what I was doing even though he also probably thought that I was just playing with his wrenches and had no idea what I was looking at or what any of the tools were actually used for let alone how to use them in any worthwhile capacity.  Remember, I was about a year and a half old at this time, still wearing diapers and drinking from a bottle.

After about ten minutes of toil and frustration, my father became so disgusted with the Big Blue Yazoo that he stepped into the house to cool off and get something to drink, leaving me under the careful watch of my mother and grandmother who were doing a bit of light yard work in and around the front of the house where I sat.  Having seen what my father was trying to do, and understanding what needed to be done, I picked up one of the wrenches out of the tool box and began to remove the wheel from the lawnmower.  I can still remember the feel of the course screw drive under my tiny fingers, the greasy feel it left as it spun in the case and I matched the width of the wrench jaws to the bolt on the wheel of the lawnmower.

Five minutes later, my father returned with a glass of ice water for him and a bottle of fruit juice for me.  I held the wheel of the lawnmower up for him, the very wheel that he had worked so hard to remove, along with the nut that had secured it to the lawnmower.  

My father was speechless … and to this day, he still cannot explain how a one and a half year old, in a cloth diaper, and left alone with a box full of tools for which the one and a half year old knew nothing about, managed to use an adjustable wrench to remove a stubborn lawnmower wheel that my father had previously spent ten minutes trying to remove and could not.  

It’s one of his favorite stories to tell, even to this day.