Taking Things Apart

I guess I inherited a mechanical gene from my Dad, and him from Grandpa. I never traced it back further…

I was a very curious kid growing up in a rural area of southwest Texas in the 1950’s. At a very young age, I demonstrated this through the ability to handle basic tools and an insatiable need to know how things worked or fit together. Initially, this meant taking things apart. I left a trail behind.

Later, I learned to put things back together.

Here’s a fact. It’s easier to break something down than build it up.


something like this

I was probably 3 years old when I took a screwdriver to a small wooden parts cabinet that was on the ground in the old leaning, stand-alone garage out back. I think it was part of some government surplus purchase Grandpa made from time to time… he was always looking for deals and sometimes a “lot” would include a few more things than was actually wanted. A rectangular hardwood box with brass corner fittings and tiny wood screws to hold them in. There were 10–12 small drawers with brass pulls that could slide out, each with screws holding the parts of each drawer together. Well crafted, well used, smelling and feeling slightly of oil so it must have held some kind of small parts or tools. There was decent surplus stuff to be seen everywhere after WWII.

I sat on the ground outside the back door and took it apart. Completely. Every single screw and joint. Left the parts in separate piles. Fortunately, Mom and Dad did not care since it wasn’t something being used and sort of junk anyway.

Not all of my curiosity targets were as innocuous, though.

Besides being a farmer, Grandpa ran a local machine repair shop specializing in tractors and farm implements but known to tackle almost any challenge to help someone. Dad worked there, too, so I was well acquainted with the building and the large mesquite-lined lot it sat on next to the highway in town. There was a regular stream of engines to be repaired, parts to be replaced or fabricated, greasy metal to be cleaned in kerosene.

not as neatly laid out as this… but in spirit

More than once, I found some small engine around the shop and “broke it down”. That is, reduced it to all its separate pieces, usually laid out in a neat fashion on the concrete shop floor… or in the gravel outside the big doors. I can still vaguely visualize the “parts map” of a couple of them.

Not much later, I could actually be assigned some assembly jobs, tasks typically requiring an adult mechanic to do. It felt good to fit parts together smoothly. I think it’s one of the German genes that run in the family.

In retrospect, I gained a wealth of knowledge in this natural way but I’m sure it wasn’t easy on my parents or relatives. Math came easy once I was introduced to it. Decades later, computers were love at first sight, and though I did fall victim to the siren song of hardware, I finally realized the mind-boggling power of software. Natural curious inquiry and creating logic paths are a great combination.

I know I caused a few problems messing with things in my very early years — a vague incident involving a customer’s carburetor — but I don’t recall ever being disciplined.

Except, at around age 5, for walking out the shop and across Highway 90 to reach the railroad tracks.

I don’t remember it but apparently told my parents that I heard the train whistle and wanted to stand close to the tracks to feel it go by.

And that I looked both ways for trucks and cars before crossing the highway.

Sounds like me. To me.