What We Learn From Our Parents

As I helped several cub scouts perfect their marshmallow catapults during our den meeting this week, I was asked by one of the boys “How did you figure that out?” He asked the question in reference to the choice to tie a rubber band in half so that the elastic strain increased to improve the launching thrust of the catapult. This was the third suggestion I’d offered to use our available supplies for the out-dated plans in the Cub Scout Webelos Handbook. The first suggestion was taping two pencils together in order to get the fulcrum to span our shoe boxes. The original plans called for milk cartoons, but few people buy a gallon of milk in paper cartons any more. Other parents struggled with the problems posed trying to make the catapults perform successfully.

The answer that shot forth from my mouth was, “I grew up with five brothers and a dad who could fix anything with duct tape and spit.”

Eyes widened on the boys’ faces and someone said, “Really?” because 10-year-olds still take most words literally.

With a brief nod, I confirmed, “Pretty much,” while I inserted a toothpick for a lynchpin and secured the apparatus with a strip of tape.

While digging into old photographs to find images of my mother for a previous post, I also found several of Dad in his younger days, long before I was even a twinkle in his blue-gray eyes. He donned his navy cap in the just-off-to-the-left style, circa WWII, when he was still a teenager.Dean WWII While serving in the Navy, he learned about diesel engines and metal work. He puts these skills to work supervising operations at power plants across the state of Kansas.

Many of the men and women of that generation are gone now, whether they have passed beyond this life or just beyond this side of sanity. In our age of instant gratification, wish fulfillment on credit, and disposable everything, we forget what is was like to have to live by the cash at hand. Less waste, more ingenuity. Things didn’t look “pretty” all of the time, but they were functional. When something broke, you fixed it. When something tore, you sewed it back together. You learned skills to keep your farm and business running so that you would have money for food on the table and a roof over your head.

Dad could fix just about anything. One of the favorite stories to tell is how we had a black and white console TV in our living room until 1988. I was an avid watcher of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and for the first season, I had no idea what colors the uniforms were until I bought a magazine at ALCO. The aerial antenna tuned in four broadcast channel on VHF, and one public station on UHF. The console served as a plant stand for a medium-size palm. We continued to have this console TV because Dad continually repaired the device whenever it went on the fritz.  He picked up other broken televisions from estate auctions and cannibalized picture tubes and transistors to keep ours working. This system was incredibly economical, since he could buy the old TVs for a few bucks and do the work himself. My mother, fed up with the old contraption, over-watered the palm so that a flood of water shorted the power panel, and destroyed the TV permanently. We went to Wal-Mart that weekend to pick up our first ever color television.

In my daughter’s room sits an antique dresser. The piece had been burned in a house fire. My dad rescued the item and rebuilt or refinished the damaged casing. Some panels needed replacing, but otherwise he was able to sand away the carbon scoring. Dextrously, he fashioned new brass keyholes and pull handles that are indistinguishable from the originals. He also manufactured chair spindles to repair antique dining chairs. Many items he repaired looked amazingly original, while at the same time, other items looked like a wad of duct tape or a glob of epoxy. As long as it worked, he didn’t care about the appearance.

I hope that when my children watch me fixing things, the sight initiates a spark of creativity. I hope it shows them that it’s useless to give up on something in just a few seconds. Find the glue or the tape, give it try and see if you can fix that broken thing. Save a few dollars here or there by fixing what you already have.



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