Friday, October 23, 2015

School of Hard Knocks

 " We shape our tools and then our tools shape us." 

             Marshall McLuhan

  We hand dig our garlic, beets, carrots and other root crops. A big piece of the harvest is a favourite garden fork that has a story of its own to tell......

  Dempsey Brothers Hardware Store was a Toronto landmark, located on the North-West corner of Yonge and Sheppard from 1860, until it was moved a few blocks north in 1996.

  My father, who was a builder, had his office a few houses to the west of Dempsey's and he was a frequent and enthusiastic customer. Mickey Dempsey sold my dad the usual hardware fare like paint, tools and nails but also my mom's kitchen pots, the family's foot-ware and my winter and summer wardrobe.

  Some of the clothing stock was pretty dated, to say the least, so it really wasn't a big surprise that I looked like an extra on a 1960 episode of "Leave it to Beaver" in the summer of 1969.

  One of the perks for my dad's loyalty was Mickey's very occasional permission to allow him up into the attic to select his choice of what we now call new old stock. The business had been sold to the Dempseys in the early 1920's, but a lot of stock must have been included in the sale.

  It was like entering a time capsule: racks of beautiful old skates still in the boxes, old unused shotgun shells, horse bits, bridles and hand tools in mint condition that hadn't seen the light of day for decades.

  On one visit, my dad came home with a garden fork, among other things. The fork was immaculate, still with the original label. It was to my tool collecting  father like finding a long forgotten Fender Telecaster would be to a guitar collector. It likely dates to the 1920's, and it is this fork that we enjoy using to this day.

  My father's care of his tools ventured deep into obsessive-compulsive territory. He had them stored in racks on a wall in a purpose built room, where they were to be returned after each use. They also had to be cleaned off and oiled if necessary. It was like an armory.

  The cardinal sin of tool use was to leave one outside. "It'll open up the handles!", my dad told me (repeatedly), meaning that the dew, or worse (for you), rain would immediately start the handles towards an irrevocable downwards spiral into decay.

  My young brain seemed to struggle with the notion of order and looking after tools. I remember helping my father one hot summer day to lay some hated patio slabs.

  My father went out for the afternoon. I characteristically forgot about putting the tools away and somehow day faded into twilight with a rousing game of "Kick-the-Can" going on with all the neighborhood kids.

  As I rounded the corner of the garage in full rebel yell after joyously kicking the can, my mind vaguely remembered a stiff garden rake that I had left laying on the ground somewhere close by.

  I do not know the terminal velocity of a rake whose tines are stepped on at speed, but I do know what it feels like to be a stunned mullet that has been dynamite fished, lying on the ground gasping for air.

  It certainly made an impression on me, one that I couldn't tell my dad about, but the overall effect was life altering. I started to pick up those tools and look after them, before they took care of me.

  And here it is, all these years later, and I think about how much I enjoy putting boiled linseed oil on the handles, sharpening the blades and oiling the steel  of those tools every fall before they get put away. It is, in a way, time spent with my dad.

  Which is a big part of why that garden fork lives on.



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