Why Do It Yourself?

I have already admitted my almost obsession-like fascination with tinkering. Why do I do that? Why do I feel the need to take things apart and see how they work, why they don’t work and how I can make them work again? Why do I feel a strange compulsion to do everything myself? Why can’t I just pay someone to change my oil? As is the case with most problems now-a-days, I blame my parents. (Kidding of course, but not really).

From a very young age I can recall seeing my dad work on the car in the driveway in front of our house. We had a late 70’s or early 80’s Chrysler Lebaron Towne and Country station wagon, and like most of the Chrysler products I have had experience with it was plagued with powertrain problems. Yes, ours had the same wood grain paneling on the sides and was the same color as the one in this picture I found.

I can distinctly remember helping dad change the engine once and I think the transmission as well (give me a break I was like 4 okay!?).  Add to that the fact that my mom was of the crafty sort and made little crafts and toll painted notions and sold them at flea markets and craft stores and I was exposed to a variety of tools at an early age. Apparently those times spent handing dad tools must have made an impression on me because I began to emulate my father’s actions and I started taking things apart. As dad was out walking the dogs in the evening he would pick stuff up along the way that people had set out for the garbage man (another habit I have inherited to a degree) and bring them home for me to take apart for inspection. Old record turn tables, small home appliances, computer hard drives, and the like soon turned into me taking apart non-working lawn mower engines. I can remember trying to make simple repairs on a couple of old lawn tractors we had when I couldn’t have been older that 10. I had caught the bug for sure.

As I got older I began to express my frustrations to my parents about not having the money to buy the things I wanted and to this day I credit my parents for helping me to understand the value of earning your own way. I began mowing yards in the summer time for some spending money when I was probably 6 or 7 and was given my own tool box and tools for my 6th birthday. By the time I turned 12 I was working on a dairy farm where our family lived for a little while. That job made an indelible mark on me as a young man and it was a job I would hold in one way or another until I was 19. My Grandpa had been a farmer and part of that generation and that lifestyle is that you fix what you own yourself. You don’t pay to have things repaired when you can make the necessary repairs yourself. I can remember watching my grandpa change tractor tires himself, rather than paying to have the local tire company do it for him. It was a grueling job for sure, but again, it could be done yourself so it was done without outside help. I must have felt in some way that by working on a dairy farm I was following in the footsteps of my dad and my grandpa, even though by that time my grandpa had passed away. So for 7 years I spent summers and afternoons working on the farm. I started just doing the little odds and ends that a youngster on a farm would do, but by then end of my time on the farm, I was spending a good portion of my time working in “The Shop”. We repaired a lot of machinery there in that re-purposed chicken coop. We restored the farm truck, tore down and rebuilt an entire combine, rebuilt the engines in a couple of tractors, built some of our own equipment, and fixed just about whatever broke. Those years taught me more than I ever could have imagined and just served to fuel the fire for my little “habit”.

Fast forward a few years and I was getting married and had a place of my own. I already had quite a few tools I had purchased over the years. By this time I had moved on from my employment at the farm and was working for an electrical contractor. This served to expose me to a completely different sort of experiences and I was buying a little more in the way of tools all the time for work. Our first house had a small garage and it didn’t take long until I had turned a portion of it into a workshop of my own. By this time in life I had moved to the status of the family handyman (or at least auto mechanic) and was making small repairs for friends as well as the occasional “side job” for an acquaintance.

That tells you the how of my little habit, but may not explain the “why”. For that, I have to get a bit more personal yet. I cannot explain fully why I feel compelled to work with my hands, but for some reason I experience a deep sense of satisfaction in working with my hands. Whether it comes from the experience of seeing the literal “fruits of your labor” in those years on the farm, or by some sort of compulsion of knowing that this type of thing runs in my family, I don’t know. What I do know is that when I open something up and carefully inspect its innards I get a feeling for how it is designed and how it should work. The understanding of how mechanical things work helps make sense of the daily grind of life. Every part has a specific purpose. Each component, no matter how small has a specific role to perform and for the greater machine as a whole to be functional each part must accomplish its task at the given time. I believe in a greater power, a master designer that lovingly and carefully engineered this universe to run as it should. Seeing things, no matter how great or small that we can design and build gives me an even greater understanding and appreciation for the level of design that it takes to make the rest of the world work. Maybe I am mixing the philosophical, the theological and the mechanical to a degree to which they are not meant to be combined, but in my mind they are interwoven.

One thing is for sure. I will see to it that my son (and daughters) are exposed to some of the same factors that impacted me as a youngster. Maybe I am indoctrinating them, isn’t that a parent’s job? My son is already “scrapping” his old and broken toys; taking them apart to the smallest piece possible and looking at the parts. It’s about time I get that boy a proper tool box and set of tools. After all, isn’t it the duty of a parent to see to it that a child has the proper tools and knowledge for life?