Phillips screwdrivers, memories, and trusting the process
Hey there. I’m Kyle. My presence on these digital pages is not new, but this column is. Beginning this week, Mechanical Sympathy will explore the ways we interact with machines, both in upkeep and use, and how those stir the soul. Read my introduction to the column here.
We all have that one tool that makes us feel good when we use it. The plastic handle of my Phillips screwdriver is perfectly softened by a combination of Brakleen and oil, a texture formed by countless grabs as I worked half by feel and half by pure nostalgia. Things just don’t go wrong when this Phillips comes out.
Maybe part of its appeal is less concrete. The screwdriver I still reach for on late-night, must-finish, or otherwise consequential projects is the same design as the one nestled in my father’s toolbox. You know, the very screwdriver with which I first learned how to take out screws. When I needed a Phillips for my own toolbox, you can understand my effort to find the right one. It needed to sit in my hand the way Dad’s did.
Except it’s not replacing anything. The object is not the memory. This Phillips stirs up a lot of things within my mind and heart, but what that humble tool doesn’t remind me of—what it cannot remind me of—is a certain black Ford Model A coupe. Dad and I never worked on that car. It just sat. For years I was just short of bitter about it. Then I realized I had it all wrong.
There are only 24 hours in the day for everyone. There were always enough projects, often coming from four or even five places, to soak up every last second of Dad’s time. He could have used those precious few hours to work on his car, though the vehicle could not be enjoyed by the whole family, or even by the two of us, since even then plopping a child on a bench seat without a seat belt was frowned upon. Instead, he chose to indulge me and my interests. He shepherded me through the proper use of tools and techniques to fix my bicycles, R/C cars, and that pesky go-cart that never ran quite right unless Dad was around to start it.
There was always time to take apart another lawnmower that he had found on the side of the road to see why it wouldn’t run and was left for scrap. I think at one point we had 14 push mowers stacked inside the garage door. Sorry, Mom.
The Model A sat patiently, though it was not languishing, as I once thought. Today, it sits in my garage and it is I who is left to clockwatch through responsibilities until I have an hour—two to three, occasionally—to get out that Phillips and turn a screw or two. Over 1000 miles away, Dad is turning the screwdriver that started it all on his own ’30 DeLuxe coupe. We talk about cars now every time I call home. After all those years of him giving up his time and enabling me to chase whatever shiny mechanical thing caught my eye, he deserves Model A time. This car and a menial, plastic-handled Phillips #2 are as close as I will ever get to going back and doing it all again. The hard part is being honest that I would have had it any other way.
It’s not the Model A or the screwdriver that ensure I never forget those evenings and Saturdays tinkering in the driveway, but the love and care that I didn’t recognize at the time. His was very much the unconventional approach to make a gearhead son. A strange method, born from necessity. Whether the Model A was in the garage or not really made no difference. It was the support and encouragement he gave me to be curious and understand the mechanical parts. Appreciation for history and beauty was to come later. Because Dad accepted that Phillips screwdriver was going to be used improperly 20 times before I finally understood what I was doing, he allowed me to learn so much more than turning a screw. He taught me trial and error, maintaining tools, fixing mistakes, and when to ask for help—all without touching our beloved Ford.
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