The Mighty Viking’s Theory of the Hows and Whys:
Friends, we all know that one guy, the guy who, in high school, broke everything he touched. Every project he built, every car he worked on, every desk he sat in broke, came out mangled, never worked again, in some cases managed to mangle or bleed someone – as often as not himself, unintentionally.
And every so often, he wouldn’t come to school for a couple days. Some say he was recovering. Some say the principle didn’t appreciate the help fixing light bulbs, or bathroom fixtures, or the rewiring of the classroom projectors. It wasn’t just that he broke things, but that despite his own track record, he wouldn’t stop. He couldn’t stop. He was terminally curious.
And I say with confidence that we all have known that one guy because, well, I am that guy.
It has been so for as far back as I can remember, and even further. I can walk past something and merely think curious thoughts about its internal mechanisms and they will give up the ghost crumbling to the floor, grinding themselves to a pulp, bending, folding mutilating. Spindling. I can reach out to straighten the most imperceptible bend or crinkle of a thing, and step away with a major part of the physical structure of an inanimate and usually expensive object awkwardly tumbling over my left shoulder on its unconstrained way to the floor, detached mysteriously from its host body.
When I was a wee lad, and my brother – four years my junior – began doing dexterous things like building models, creating Lego machines, etc., it didn’t take him long to add the skill of hiding his prized creations from me.
I was hurt.
I told him, because I was the older brother and that’s what older brothers do, that I could “fix” things for him.
His precious things remained hidden
I wanted so badly to build things. But nothing I built stayed built. in fourth grade, we were organized into 3-person teams. My team was to build The Alamo using sugar cubes and toothpicks. We gathered round the table, my mates and I, and worked for days on our project. The other two were girls, and they questioned more than once why on earth it was taking so long. And where the sugar cubes were going if they weren’t going into the construction of a fort. And they never thought to look up and wonder at the toothpicks impaled into the acoustic ceiling, or connect the dots between the complaints of three tables over, the geographically-opposed opposite side of the room, about toothpick-based lob-darts with spit wads attached for weight. This extra-curricular activity was only partly due to my affinity for raw sugar and projectiles. It was also influenced by my complete inability to make the glue from the glue bottles to go where it was intended.
Oh, did I forget to mention the rubber bands? Yes. As it happened, I seemed to have a gift for ballistics and trajectory. Not the math of it, mind you. But I could make it happen.
In my 8th-grade year, our neighbor who happened to own the local Western Auto hardware store took me under tutelage by my father’s request to learn the assembly of wagons, for his christmas displays and for sales. I lasted 3 days, and it was gently suggested to me that perhaps it was best if my trade did not include mechanical devices, or their assembly. I just could not understand how they went together, no matter how hard I tried or how many times he showed me. By the time I hit high school, I had come to an understanding of my mechanical skill. I decided not to even try to take shop, even as my friends were making cars run, cutting and shaping metal birds, creating all manner of wooden doodads, and building electronic boxes that were radios, and lights, and clocks, and…oh, it was too painful to even pay attention to what they were making. I wanted to make. But all I could ever do was unmake.
It was in the summer of my Junior year in high school that things came to a head. I was learning, under instruction and the well-advised caution of the Learning Permit system of the great state of California, to drive the family pickup, a 1975 Chevy with 3 on the tree.
There were problems.
The first major problem was the coordination of the clutch and the gas. I understand, and understood then, that it was a rite of passage for a new driver to do the Herky-Jerky, the Stall-Out, and the ever-popular “Push-on-the-clutch Push-on-the-clutch -FOR-THE-LOVE-OF-ALL-THAT-IS-HOLY-PUSH-IN-ON-THE-CLUTCH!!!!”, as my dad liked to refer to it, after the moment, with animated horror in his eyes. He had a way of delivery that virtually oozed with sincerity, I’ll give him that. Normally he was a calm, reasonable father, so I had to assume the clutch, wherever in that moment it had gone, needed pushing. In.
But I digress for the moment.
The second problem was the sympathetic combination of the two hands – one on the wheel, the other on the shifter. My hands would move in mirror image to one another, so if I was lifting the shifter, the driving hand also lifted, and vice versa. Shifting into second gear wasn’t so bad, we just veered into ditches, waterways, to the edge of bridges, tangled jungles of tumbleweeds that were everywhere in Southern California, and the occasional bicyclist or homeless sot. But third or first gear was a darker issue. The one and only time I ever heard my father say a bad word was a First-Gear event. That has stood out in my memory lo these many decades.
And so it was one undistinguished,ly sunny, hot day in the City, working our way Herky-Jerky to the hardware store. It was another test of courage on my dad’s part, and grim refusal to accept the obvious on my own part. “The obvious” being, of course, that I was not cut out to drive a stick.
As we sat in stony, stunned relief in the parking lot of the store, my father spoke from his fetal position against the passenger door, his body attempting what his paternal dedication would not allow, to flee through the very membrane of steel and glass. This man, though he was a doctor, had grown up on a farm, driving trucks across orchards with the natural gift of the otter to a river, since just a little before his feet could reach the pedals. We sat, for an uneasy eternity, two broken people, wondering what could possibly come next.
After the emotional din in each of our heads settled for a few moments, He looked across the expanse of the bench seat between us, and asked a stunningly brilliant question.
“Glenn, do you know how a clutch works?”
The question stunned me in its simplicity. My outward answer was, “no, I have no idea how a clutch works.” My inward answer resounded more loudly, “No, I have no idea why I never thought to ask!”
So, in a brief and simple way, he explained the whole contraption in a way I could easily visualize – friction plates, the synchro gears of the transmission, the effect of the lever for the shifter, the effect of the pedal on the plates – the whole thing.
I have no idea what we bought while at the store. It seems perfectly likely that we forgot what we came for. What I do remember, however, is the feeling of being awake for the first time in my life. I started that truck up, eased that clutch out, letting the plates slide gently at first, and smoothly increasing the pressure until they were pushing us smoothly, and calmly down the highway. I could be wrong in my memory, but I don’t believe I ever did the Herky-Jerky again. It was like lifting the hood off the eyes of a hunting falcon. The question to be asked, apparently, wasn’t “how”, but “why”. That was what I was wired to need to do anything well. If you could tell me why something needed to be done, I could figure out the how. Or another how that no one else had thought of, one that sometimes solved problems people had been struggling against for a long time.
I’m not saying everything has been smooth grease and roses since. But that summer, I assembled a motorcycle from a frame and a box of parts, and made it run. I’ve gone on to be a successful submarine sonar technician, fixing some of the most complex electronics in the world, and teaching others the art of it. I have figured out the function – and more critically the reason for the non-function, of completely unknown equipment based on fundamental theory. Post-Navy, I evolved into a sought-after field engineer for sawmill computerized systems, and later a systems analyst and consultant in the field. And as I look back on where I advanced, and where I failed, almost always it revolved around whether I remembered to, or was able to use “Why” and “How” as a delicately balanced pair of stepping stones, moving one forward, then the other at the right time.
If you have one of those people in your life, the ones who always seem out of sync, always breaking things, try this: Ask them if they know how. and ask them if they know why. And listen very carefully to where they’re at. Sometimes they’re trying to figure out why when they should be learning how. And sometimes, well…the other way ‘round. If you want to teach them, learn to listen, and to understand which moment they’re in.
On that way home, I felt a freedom like no other, having finally done something mechanically that was actually how it was supposed to be done, without breaking anything or anyone. My heart soared. And then suddenly, there at the left-hand turn from Barton Rd onto Michigan Street, I reached for first gear. I heard for the first and last a bad word come from my father’s lips.
And I knew why.