Not the sharpest tool in the shed

Joel van der Veen
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When I try to recall fond memories from my Grade 7 year, shop class is usually not the first activity that comes to mind — or the fifth, or the hundredth.

We enjoyed a canoe trip at the end of the year, as well as a longer visit to Kingston, and I prefer to remember those excursions.

But whenever I pick up a hammer or a level, my mind drifts back to working on clocks and other decorative items with Mr. Nelson,.

Our school had just added a gymnasium with a stage area, where our temporary shop classroom was set up. Work tables, saws and other equipment lined the narrow room.

Once or twice a week, we would don our lab coats and work on our projects. Mr. Nelson was the grandfather of one of the students, and he kindly volunteered his time and shared his expertise with us.

But he had a subtle sense of humour, and I didn’t respond well to his sarcasm. Once he approached me as I was working away with a hammer in my hand, clenched near the top.

“You ever wonder why they make the handle so long?” he asked me in a tone so unmistakably dry that I immediately knew I was somehow at fault.

Fast forward 11 years, and I still haven’t developed much of a knack for working with tools. I can perform simple tasks with a hammer or screwdriver, but even putting together modular furniture can drive me to exasperation.

My brother and I sometimes played in the garage when we were kids, making unwieldy furniture out of whatever scrap lumber was around. But none of the guys I hung around with later on were interested in tools or cars or anything like that, so I never absorbed that information.

I’ve had several opportunities to try hands-on work, and I have respect for anyone who does that day in and day out. My conclusion, however, is that it’s simply not for me.

During my university years, I spent two summers working at a truss factory in Lakefield, Ont. I was grateful to have steady work, of course, but even more grateful to return to school each September.

Both years, the foreman assigned me to work on the truss table, laying out roof and floor trusses with three or four other men. And both years, he ultimately moved me over to the saw, where I stacked and sorted wood instead.

Working on the tables required precise measurements and quick reflexes, and apparently I was capable of neither. I was happy to be the go-fer, picking out the Gang-Nails specified on the truss plans.

We laid out the trusses, stuck the Gang-Nails in place and ran a large roller over top to affix the nails and finish the job. I can still picture the look on my supervisor’s face when he realized we’d have to rip the nails out because of something I did wrong.

Working at the saw wasn’t perfect. The saw operator and I sometimes clashed. I once misread a level, having looked at it from the wrong angle, and he never let me forget it.

“I guess they didn’t teach you how to read a level at journalism school,” he said. That much was true, anyway.

But it was still better than the table. I remember one time when the supervisor came up to me, hard at work, using my hammer to fix the Gang-Nails in place.

“That’ll work a lot better if you hold it from the end,” he reminded me.

Apparently, some skills really can’t be taught.

Joel van der Veen can be reached at 691-1256.

Organizations: Gang-Nails

Geographic location: Kingston, Lakefield

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