Dad squandered no time trying to teach me how to throw a football or hit a baseball. That would have been heartbreaking for us both, and for similar reasons. He taught me how to solder.
The metal must be clean and bright. Crimp the wire over the terminal with your long-nose. A joint should be mechanically solid; don’t rely on solder for strength. Press your iron to the joint—a little dab of solder between the iron and the joint improves heat transfer—and melt the solder on the hot joint; don’t melt the solder on your iron and smear it onto a cold joint. Just like glue, not too much solder. Wait until the joint is cool before you move it. You can clean oxidized rosin from the iron with your fingertip if you’re quick about it.
Dad also taught me the difference between glue and cement, and the difference between cement and concrete, not to mention the difference between battery and cell. I am pleased that there’s apparently a genetic basis for both my love of accuracy and my patience. Pedagogy yields to patience when “Well, technically” turns into “for all practical purposes.” I learned about fire and tools, Dad gauging my sketchy competence skillfully enough so that today I have only minor scars. You can’t solder aluminum. A little black powder goes a long way. Copper work-hardens, getting tougher when you beat it with a hammer, but a propane torch will fix that. Push the knife away from you. When you’re using a jeweler’s saw, patience and a light touch are virtues, as they are when dealing with other incorrigible inanimate objects—and people.
This was better than a half century ago, when young nerds built radios, long before we could do everything with software. Sometimes I get nostalgic for those days when the world seemed more tangible. We could touch and use the things we made; they had actual mass. I am as convinced as my grandfather undoubtedly was that the world is going to hell. I worry that my grandchildren will be ruined by smartphones: watching YouTube video rather than doing, never learning to delay gratification, never cultivating an attention span. I am convinced that we are fat and soft. I imagine myself, sporting a BS in math and only a pitiful romantic notion of agricultural life, reading as my grandfather did, by kerosene lamp, and clawing an existence out of a rocky Berkshires farm, as my grandfather’s grandfather did. I am convinced that my ancestors’ times were more virtuous, not just harder.
These dark bitter moments lose some bleakness when I get a grip and recognize the primacy of Dad’s gift of patience, so unfailingly practiced, and thereby taught. By mere dint of continuing above ground I’ve enrolled myself in an unending series of mandatory graduate courses in patience. It is the tool I use to accommodate my morbidly non-confrontational nature, resist the attractive blandishments of brute force, and curb my insatiable lust to be right. The Go-Between opens with “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” For those who meet change Canute-like, they do things differently right now. Patience is my panacea, and I fail when I lose it.
Ray Scanlon. Massachusetts boy. Lucky to be above ground, lucky to have grandchildren. No MFA. No novel. No extrovert. Not averse to litotes. Twitter: @oldmanscanlon On the web: read.oldmanscanlon.com