Column: The old tools never go out of style
Bessie, Charles Jr., Charles, Ethel May Gfroerer
A ball in box, carved by Charles Gfroerer.
My tool box is small. I don’t have the laser guided skill saw, or the electric screw driver.
But when a shelf is needed, or maybe a new bookcase, I’ve got the saw, the hammer, the drill and the drill bits I need.
I’ve had my rubber-handle hammer since I was 10 years old. There is a small socket wrench set that a brother gave me for Christmas many years ago – still in the original red steel box. The oldest tool in my box, however, is a wooden handle square. It is a little gritty on the blade, and the wood is worn, but it works perfectly.
As a tool, it is about as simple as they come. There are no adjustments to make, no moving parts, no on/off switch. It does just two things – check to make sure something is square, or you can use it to make a perpendicular straight line to cut a piece of wood.
You would think a good tool should be useful for more than just one thing, like one of those combined pliers-screwdriver-wire cutter-bottle opener-hammer-corkscrew-and more things that I could buy at LL Bean. But no, such is not the case here. Measuring a 90-degree angle and marking for the cut is about all this square can ever accomplish. Even making a 45-degree mark is not an option.
Stamped in the wooden handle are the letters “C.A.G.” For me, that is its true value.
Charles A. Gfroerer was my great grandfather.
We never met. But 100 years ago, Charles was using this same square to build piano cabinets, or maybe make the picture frame that hangs in my dining room. It holds one of his water colors.
Though 60 years or more have passed since he died, little pieces of his life still remain and have purpose. There are a few of his tools around, but he is most remembered for what he made. Each of my brothers has something – picture frames, paintings, carvings. He carved the desk and chair for the mayor of Montreal. He was even once featured in Ripley’s Believe or Not.
He died before I was born, so I know him only through the things he left for me to hold.
Photos show a man stern, sturdy and strict, as was vogue when he prowled the streets.
The look on his face makes it clear for all to know, he was Charles not Charlie, and certainly not a Chuck.
I wonder how he would measure up in today’s world, with the loose tie, bushy mustache, stiff tight collar – the pride in his eyes as he fixed a gaze at the camera.
Doesn’t really matter, I guess.
What matters is the wooden handle of the square in my tool box. In our time and in our way we have both used it to take a certain kind of measure. We have each used it to build things that might last longer than our lives. His hand and my hand both wrapped around the same piece of wood. Separated by 100 years, we gauged in quiet consideration the line drawn, the saw cut about to be made. Our eyes, our brains, our fingers moved identical paths with identical hopes that the line would be just right.
What matters is the connection. We ran in different centuries, never meeting, never touching, except through the implements that we used. We have shared experiences that are transcendent, like old light reaching earth from distant suns in distant galaxies, still bright, still traveling, still guiding, still alive.
For him it was using the best tool for the job. For me, there is also a little of trying to understand the past. Maybe it is because at times I feel so bombarded by the need for “new” that calls out all around me.
I wonder about generations ahead and the tools of my work today. In 2114, do you think they will find any value in using my copy of Windows XP? How about my GPS, my flip phone or my laptop? How about my mouse or mouse pad? What are the tools of today that will still have a use 100 years from now?
Great Grandfather Charles dealt in sawdust. Progress was in part measured by how much was on the floor after sawing, drilling, or sanding.
My world is measured in electrons. What I write, what I write with, what I produce and how I produce it, all electrons turning on and turning off, alternating ones and zeroes. The faster the better. I never really see them pile up on the floor below my desk, but I know how to use them to razzle dazzle.
Square is a template that I get to by moving an arrow on a screen. It works, it is today, it is what I adapt to out of necessity. And in its own electronic way, you might say it is better.
But tools I truly treasure are the ones that understand the warmth of my touch, that age with me and never get old or need updates. Tools that I only need to buy once and that will always have function. They are the true connection to a wider, wiser reality.
Google that and see where it takes you.
I think great grandfather Charles Gfroerer would know what I am talking about. But I wonder if my great grandson will know as well. Maybe I need to go stamp a JG next to the CAG on the handle of that square and then hope for the best.
Future and change and new ways to do things and experience things are inevitable. But is every transformation of product truly necessary? Rubber-handle hammer 1.0 that I got 50 years ago still works pretty good, from what I can tell. My wooden handle square may be limited in what it can do. On the other hand, it does it without crashing or running out of battery power.
I must admit, without spellcheck I would be dead. But let me tell you this, I will take a square over a square pixel any day of the week. And I think C.A.G. would, too.
(John Gfroerer of Concord owns a video production company based at the Capitol Center for the Arts.)