My girlfriend lives in a lovely cottage in Fairfax, California, and her landlord and his wife live on a large house on the same property. I met her landlord for the first time recently as he was busily working away on a makeshift workbench, tools in hand.
We walked over to his driveway and casually greeted him. P. is a small, white-bearded, retired English airline pilot. He and his wife collect antiques, some of which they store under Marti’s cottage.
That day P. was matching wood tiles for a long-term deck renovation project. I noticed that his ample garage has a large and orderly collection of hand and power tools. I’ve never been very handy myself, and Marti filled me in on his deck building.
P. has been laboring quite a while, and he is committed to doing it right. I guess pilots don’t have much leeway to use hand tools or be handy around a modern commercial airline cockpit. They strap in, push switches, adjust knobs, check dials, talk to air traffic controllers. That’s their job pretty much. No time to saw, hammer, trim, shave, or otherwise work wood or other materials in the cockpit. And definitely no in-flight deck making over the Pacific.
P. stood over a gray wood tile or two as we talked away. I could see over his fence into a beautiful garden and a backyard deck a long way from completion. There were big white bags of gardening mulch or compost on the deck, some steel rods, and more tools too.
My father was the handy person in the family way back when, but our garage was hardly neat and tidy. Garage organizational skills were not part of his repertoire, although he built some impressive shelving for legal-sized boxes and other belongings when I was in high school. Instead, he was mainly a gardener, not a builder, though he was a good draftsman too and could build some pretty substantial things at his brother’s machine shop.
I never picked up handy skills from him other than using screwdrivers and some hammering and sawing once in a great while. He was very concerned that I would cut or injure myself with some of his tools. He was probably right.
What I identified with most as I watched P. for a few minutes was his interest in matching the panel wood grain. My father was a materials scientist, and I like to look at artistic patterns and latticework through the lens of scientific symmetry. I can admire the mathematical and aesthetic impulse to match wood grains for an outdoor deck.
Since I’m not handy with tools, however, I considered talking shop about symmetry patterns, tessellating tiles, and latticework, just some mathematical small talk that I got from my father. I figured I might offer P. some pointers from a theoretical perspective, nothing great, nothing earthshaking, just a few insights from applied science. Some might call it PowerPoint for the mind.
But it was a nice day and I thought better of it. I just met the guy, after all. Maybe it was too much too soon. Materials science is something you don’t share casually with just any Shmoe on the street. There are some things that guys shouldn’t disclose too soon.
© Owen Pietrokowsky and Materials Means: Science and Technology Blog, 2013.
Email Owen at opietro@ yahoo dot com