My Mad Science Mentor: Part 1
Recently did this podcast thing which got me thinking about days long past and how events and people shape the person you eventually become. The ep in question digs into some of the events of my “dumb ol’ dad drama,” which is a ludicrous story to which I’ve never quite figured out my Hollywood ending, but the moral of which has basically settled in my psyche as ‘Parents are imperfect and people make stupid decisions and it sucks.’ My brother Bart apparently remembers me phrasing this somewhat differently, but give or take 20 years who knows what the hell I actually said? Give the episode a listen if you like and feel free to make all sorts of generalization about how the incident explains what a screwball I am.
Anyway, I don’t really wanna blog all up on that today, instead, I’d rather reminisce on one shining positive influence I had as a kid. Now I’ve had baseball coaches, great teachers and professors, and a few other adults who are deservedly enshrined in my memories, but not many names come to mind as people whose opinions were truly cherished and whom I was constantly trying to impress. Maybe because I am and always have been an aloof and cynical numbskull or because my brothers and I were hyperactive beasties, but we didn’t socialize much outside of our small church youth group and I was left to my own devices in most settings. The curse of being a clever kid is that people think you’ll figure everything out on your own.
But if there was one specific adult whose opinion meant more than the sun, moon, and stars to me, it was my maternal Grandfather Harry Caldwell. Grandaddy was practically Merlin in my book and had the most wondrous skill and craft in carpentry, candy-making and possessed the truly arcane wisdom of electricity, being an Electrician by trade for Raleigh City Schools (later Wake County Public Schools).
Grandaddy quit school in the 4th grade but he had what one of my other personal heroes calls, ‘The Knack’. He also had ‘The Shop’ out in the grandparent’s backyard, which housed his treasured tools, table saws, and other accouterments— anything a crafty genius might need to fabricate whatsoever might spring to mind. The Shop was a refuge and a workshop, but it was also a treasury of wonderful things. One of the relics from out in The Shop was an old hand crank field telephone from WWII that he would drag out to demonstrate for my brothers and I. He would set it down for inspection, show us how to wind it and encourage us to give it some elbow grease, and then innocently show us how to touch two small screws- resulting in a terrific shock and Muttley-esque laughter from Grandaddy. He pulled this gag for years, long after we were wise to it, but it always gave him a laugh. The radio now resides at the City of Raleigh Museum and I’m a little wistful that it’s probably not shocking many kids these days.
Harry’s legend stretched far beyond The Shop though and he was renown figure in our church community as he had helped engineer and build the first Living Christmas Tree in Raleigh in the early 1980s. The LCT was an annual Christmas pageant that Tabernacle Baptist Church used to put on that involved three or four dozen adults and kids climbing up a gargantuan 30-foot tree-like structure composed of huge trusses anchoring tiers of narrow risers, clad in panels of chicken wire woven with fresh, sticky white pine bough cuttings, and heaped with Christmas ornaments and thousands of intricately daisy-chained strings of Christmas lights which were wired up to a switchboard for one a helluva light show. Kids, of course, had to go to the tiptop because space was tight, and there were definitely no OSHA-approved harnesses— which was okay really, since the higher sections were so narrow, even if you fainted at some point in the 90 minute show, you’d either be pinned in place or if you slipped off you row, you’d certainly get caught in the web of crisscrossed support beams beneath the tree. The Living Christmas Tree is a great tale itself, so someday I’ll dedicate a whole post about it, but when retelling the legend of Grandaddy I’d be remiss in not citing his grand contribution to TBC history.
But back to the legend: When you have a grandfather who has a secret hideout where he regularly makes toys and furniture, who helped create the centerpiece of a spectacular, beloved event that people from all over, not to mention NC Governor Jim Martin, came to see each year, understandably you start to look for excuses to tap the master’s genius. So, whenever I had a class project that even remotely called for some sort of math, science or fabrication, I always sought to garner Granddaddy’s input. And he always had something I could wow the class with.
IN FOURTH GRADE we had a balsa wood project, which I believe was for Math class, but very well coulda been Science class. The aim, as I recall, being to build the tallest structure that we could that would hold the most weight. We were limited to 8×11” sized sheets of balsa wood the Teach distributed throughout the class and I remember coming at the idea thinking triangles were the strongest, and planning to glue three lengths together like so: /_\. So the trick was to max out the area of our limited materials and try to get the strongest support. Come the weekend, I’m in Grandma’s kitchen with the glue gun, working on my project, and my triangles just weren’t cutting it. They kept splitting down the face under any sort of pressure and it didn’t seem likely they were going to hold up anything heavier than a spiral notebook. But Grandaddy knew a thing or two about maxing out some structural integrity, so he introduced the idea of using a square, which took the best advantage of our 8×11 sheets, and clued me in that a square could be TWO triangles, and then even FOUR with proper interior buttressing. So tracing up my plans on some spare balsa wood from The Shop, I max my squares into six or seven 5” pillars with ‘X’ supports down the middle and capped and we start loading them up. I can’t recall if we were down with Pythagoras in 4th grade, but I can remember loading my structures up first with the phone book, then a few issues of the World Book Encyclopedias (1956 edition) and then a 5lb bag of sugar and being blown away. I was jazzed, those joints were rock solid and I was sure to get an A! But Grandaddy wasn’t satisfied. He puts one of my pillars on the ground and goes to step on it and it breaks. What the heck, man? Now my platform is short a pillar, but Harry’s not quitting yet, no sir. He goes back out to The Shop and comes back with a plank of scrap wood, and then takes two more of my project pillars, puts them down, puts the plank on top and delicately steps on the platform AND HOLY SHIT IT HOLDS. Then he steps down and encourages me to try standing on it, and I’m nervous, because I need at least a few of these things to turn in, but I give it a shot and the thing is still gold. You wanna talk about literal magic? I ended up dragging two five-pound bags of sugar and the plank with me to school in my backpack. When we get to project presentation part of the class, I’m literally bouncing in my seat. My turn comes and I step up, demonstrate the phone book, then drag out my bags of sugar, and then, the coup de grace— I shift my structure to the floor and step onboard. Cue wonder and applause, right? Well, I honestly don’t really remember much of the class’s reaction, but I did get an A, and I’m pretty sure I was the only kid in the class who literally stood up on their balsa wood structure.
When I started to jot down all the memories and projects that Grandaddy helped me with, I realized I was gonna be a bit more long-winded than usual, so I’m gonna break this story time up into a few separate posts. In the next post, I’ll get into how Grandaddy got me started with rockets and electricity, and in a third, we can cover how Grandaddy inspired my turn as a rock star.