Recently I was sorting through a box of assorted "things." It was a toybox, but with my many children all grown and mostly married, the interior of the old toybox had not seen light for a while. And, as with many boxes as to which children have a hand in loading and unloading, it turned out to have many things in it that were unrelated to the intended contents of the receptacle. There were as many decapitated toys and (non-matching) disembodied heads as there were intact dolls and figurines, a fair quantity of forks and spoons, and a goodly number of various of my tools that had made their way into, but never out of, the box. After a few, "that's where that thing went!" moments, I encountered a very familiar piece that brought back vivid memories.
It was a small pair of Kraeuter-made diagonal cutters, wire cutters that people of my generation would refer to as dikes. For those too young to remember Kraeuter tools, in their day they were as fine a quality tools as you could get. American made, they were (and this pair still is) vastly better than almost anything that can be purchased today. And this pair took me back in time.
It was the early 1960s and I was a young boy. We lived out on the furthest chapped lip of southeast San Jose off Senter Road. There were some housing tracts out there, but no real commercial activity to speak of. My grandparents were visiting us, which was always a treat, as they lived in far-away Arizona. They came by train. My grandmother was cuddly and chubby and everything that a picture-perfect 1960s grandma could be imagined up to be. Grandpa was a quiet man, not much given to demonstration, as befit the generation of men to which he belonged.
One day Grandpa was doing something there at our house, I know not what, and was using a pair of my father's wire cutters to cut something. The pliers broke. And the next I knew, Grandpa was gone. He returned much later in the day with a small pair of wire cutters, the very ones of which I speak. I asked where he had gone. He told me that he had walked to downtown San Jose (I imagine to the old OSH on Santa Clara Street) and bought my dad a new pair of wire cutters. He was far from wealthy, and they were not cheap.
I was amazed. I asked why he would walk all that way to replace a pair of pliers, which were old already and which he plainly had not intended to break. He told me that when a man is using another man's tools and one breaks, he replaces it, and that is the end of it. To him, it was beyond question. It was just what had to be. So, like Abraham Lincoln returning the book, he walked 10 miles to buy my dad a new pair of dikes.
My father, of course, told him that he did not have to do that, that it was fine, that there was no need, all the things one would appropriately say to one's visiting dad in a situation like that. But Grandpa did have to do that, and it was nothing to do with my dad. He had to do that because of who he was and what he was inside, and a set of values that had been instilled in him over decades of being with men. It was just who he was.
The whole episode is as vivid for me 50 years later as it was then. Grandpa may have been a quiet, humble man, who spoke but little in his words, but he taught me something about himself that day that will live with me as long as I live. He taught me that his integrity was harder and stronger than even the best pair of wire cutters, and that a man does what is right, according to his values, even if it means walking all day to get a little pair of pliers. More than that, he taught me a lot about the roots of the tree I grew from, and what it meant to be a man among men.
Grandpa and Dad are both long since gone, and I am a gray-haired grandpa myself. What I have left are the memories and the lessons, and here and there an object to remind me of them, such as the little pair of dikes that has now been restored to its proper place in my toolbox. They are as sharp as ever, and I hope to someday see them in my grandson's toolbox. I will be sure he knows the story, and knows about the hardened-steel integrity that brought them to be where they are.