Other, manlier (or would it be boylier?) boys had fathers who would frown at recalcitrant small appliances, Gary Cooperishly declare, “Let me take it into the garage and tinker with it a bit,” and then return a few minutes later with the goddamned thing working better than when it had left the factory. These fathers had table saws, and jigsaws, and personalized soldering irons. My own dad didn’t tinker, and had a couple of screwdrivers. When something would cease to work, the best we could hope for was that his cursing it under his breath while my mother stood over him saying, “Well, do something!” might somehow rehabilitate the appliance. I entered junior high school ill equipped to compete with the sons of jigsaw owners.
Mercifully, a boy of my vintage didn’t take shop classes in Westchester until he’d learned to grow his own vegetables — specifically, radishes. The first week in Agriculture, my classmates and I harvested those planted by the previous mob, and then spent the balance of the semester growing a crop of our own. I could dig and water just like a real boy, and got through the semester unhumiliated.
But then: eighth grade. I took wood shop. The scions of table saw owners snickered incredulously at my reticence, born of feeling confident that I’d cut off a finger or two, and ineptitude. In addition to the napkin holder, I made a skimboard on which I was never able to skim.
Metal shop was next. I made a trivet that was recognizable as such only to those willing to squint, and a chisel, though mine, as noted earlier, wasn’t a household in which much chiseling (in the literal sense, smartass) took place. I was gratified to note that mine resembled a spoon less than that fashioned by John McWilliams, my principal tormentor (and intermittent best friend) in elementary school.
In electric shop, I made a little motor that actually worked. I hadn’t been as excited since the day I made a little radio, following instructions provided in the World Book encyclopedia. I don’t think I’d ever been more excited than when I took it into the bathroom (as I recall, touching a wire to a faucet improved reception) and heard Buddy Holly singing “Peggy Sue.” But my favorite shop by far (all right, the only one that wasn’t pure torture) was print. I loved the way the ink smelled. I loved the huge trays of letters that had to be placed one at a time. I printed some cocktail napkins that said The Mendelsohns. I managed to leave the l out, but my mother, who’d earlier feigned delight at my napkin holder, once again pretended to be thrilled. As a graphic designer, I’ve loved working with text to this day.
At Santa Monica High School, auto shop was the province of taciturn badasses with 1950s coiffures, tobacco-stained fingertips, and much crud under their fingernails. I felt about as well qualified for it as I would for military service a few years later, and thanked God that it wasn’t compulsory. As though PE, my sole class not segregated in terms of academic aptitude, wasn’t bad enough!