Boomers’ Fathers Were Handy Men

As Led Zeppelin put it, In the days of my youth I was told what it means to be a man. Mister Boomer, like most other boomer boys, were told that being a man meant knowing something about fixing things around the house, and in the car. Boomers’ fathers were handy men. That’s not to say they were all proficient at the job at hand, but home repair and most car repair was thought of as, first, a do-it-yourself job.

Chances are, our grandfathers didn’t have much choice. The world was a different place during the Industrial Revolution. Most newly-minted adults of that era grew up in rural settings, so by the time they migrated to cities to work in the first factories, they were already well versed in the use of tools. It’s only natural that they would teach their sons the same knowledge that they had acquired. The Depression added another layer of personal responsibility for household fixes, since money was tight. Our fathers would learn directly and by example that it was a man’s job to keep things in working order, whether it was a door hinge, light switch or washing machine. While it is pure speculation as to whether the notion of “men work with tools; women, in the kitchen” began around this “every man is a handy man” idea, or originated generations earlier, we know our grandfathers and fathers were handy men.

So our fathers may have become handy because their fathers were handy, out of financial necessity or the social morĂ©s surrounding the definition of manhood. Consequently, they all had workbenches and tools. For most boomer boys, tools is where it all started. Boomers’ dads would teach them the difference between a claw and a ball pein hammer; a crescent and an adjustable wrench; a flathead and a Philips screwdriver; and metal and wood screws. By the time a boomer had his first shop class in school, most would have already had basic knowledge of hand tools. Mister Boomer and Brother Boomer were given a “junior” tool kit for Christmas before they were ten.

Men ruled the roost in their workbench area the way women controlled the kitchen environment. For Mister Boomer, his father’s workbench was in the basement since they did not have a garage. It was a strange and confusing place for a young Mister B. While some fathers were fastidious in the neatness of their workspace, Mister B’s dad was more casual in his approach. Instead of a place for everything, and everything in its place, his attitude was more of drop-and-go. So just about everything permanently resided on the workbench itself. Car fan belts shared space with cigar boxes filled with nuts, bolts and screws, sandpaper sat alongside cans of lubricating oil and bag after bag maintained their vigilance for years, with some containing nothing more than a store receipt, while others held plumbing washers or car clamps. This laisse faire attitude was evolutionary as Mister B and Brother Boomer grew.

Unlike the flotsam and jetsam of parts, his tools were handled with a great deal of respect. Assorted saws hung on an adjacent wall, while planes, hammers, wrenches and screwdrivers were housed in an old toolbox. A vise was attached to the end of the seven-foot long, homemade workbench constructed entirely of two-by-fours. In the early sixties, his father attempted to neaten up the bench, possibly at the urging of his mother. He gathered every empty coffee can (unless it was the designated grease can for the stove) and used them for nuts, bolts, screws and nails. At one point he must have seen another man’s work area, because he constructed a nail and screw storage system on the ceiling beams of the basement. The lids of empty medium-size jelly or Bosco jars were screwed to strips of lumber. The glass jars could then be filled with whatever items one wanted, and conveniently screwed back to the matching lid. The system worked perfectly as long as one was diligent in using it. He wasn’t.

Mister B’s dad wasn’t particularly suited for many home fix-up jobs, but he did them anyway. Some things he did in a haphazard manner, while others he was very good at. When new hallway carpeting meant bedroom doors wouldn’t close, he removed the doors, took them to the basement and planed the bottoms until they worked. Once the gas dryer stopped working, and he constructed a Rube Goldberg contraption of assorted belts that allowed it to continue its appliance life.

Along the way, Mister B and Brother Boomer began their indoctrination by first “holding the flashlight.” Later, tasks were increased until the three would work on projects together by the time they were in their teens. After learning more routine jobs of battery post cleaning, brake fluid, transmission fluid and antifreeze replacement, the boys would move on to spark plug and fan belt replacement. The biggest job Mister Boomer and Brother Boomer attempted on their own was the replacement of a water pump in their father’s Ford. Brother Boomer told Mister B to take responsibility for the gasket, which meant scraping off the old and seating the new. The problem was, he was admonished that no scratches could be made in the metal or the possibility of leakage would occur. Somehow, Mister B prevailed.

Even though boomer boys had this fix-it background, a good many boomer males did not follow through to doing their own home and car repair as adults, let alone pass on the knowledge to their children. While some boomers ran with the handy man idea, desk jobs and leisure time drew many boomer males away from the generations-old edict and they hired the jobs out. Mister B was never all that confident in his handyman ability, so he thinks twice before attempting things on his own to this day.

By the time the seventies became the eighties, women could be as proficient as men in household fixes. But in the 1950s and ’60s, it was a man’s job.

How about it, boomers? Was your dad handy and did he teach you to be the same?