We need the younger generations to know how to fix our stuff — and world

My parents were both big city kids. My mom grew up in New York City. My dad was from Detroit, Michigan. Growing up, when there was a plumbing or electrical issue in my mom’s residence, they called “the super” for a fix. I’m not sure what they did in my dad’s house, but whatever it was didn’t involve my grandparents doing the work themselves. Both my sets of grandparents were people of means and they could afford to hire repairmen and pay for them. 

My parents were renters for the first decade of their marriage. My dad didn’t want children, so mom and he were OK bouncing around at the whims of my dad’s employers and their landlords. When my brother and I were born, my parents were still renting. The first home I remember is the Pin Oak Apartments behind the Town and Country Shopping Center in Mishawaka. Mom and dad bought their first home in 1969. 

I don’t remember my dad being the mechanical sort or a fixer-upper of any kind. He had a green metal tool box which held the basics: hammer, screwdrivers, a hand drill, file, sandpaper, putty knife, pliers, and a wrench. Outdoor tools were rakes, shovels, a Reel mower (It was never sharpened, so you can imagine how poorly it cut), pruners, and hedge trimmers.

 When something went wrong at our house, my mom called a repairman. The only time I remember my dad attempting a home renovation project was when he installed some adhesive-backed carpet tiles in the bathroom. It wasn’t long before the moisture loosened them and they were removed and discarded.

Suffice it to say, when I bought my first home, I didn’t have many home repair and improvement skills. I had worked as a custodian in high school and a neighborhood realtor had employed me to paint the interiors of some rentals he owned. Beyond cleaning and painting, I had no skills. I was willing to listen to others and try things myself, sometimes with bad results. For example, after an acquaintance told me I didn’t have to cut the power to install new electrical outlets, I was in for a shock!

When I started dating my wife, her dad Hank, who grew up on a farm and was an engineer at Bendix, started to teach me homeownership skills. Hank owned some rental properties where he did most of the maintenance. After it was clear that his daughter and I were serious about our relationship, he put me to work helping him install ceiling fans, hanging drywall, and fixing assorted items. Hank used to rescue vacuums from the neighborhood trash and get them back to working order. 

I never saw a project Hank wasn’t willing to tackle. When my wife and I bought our home, he fixed doors, installed a garage door opener, resuscitated the outdoor grill, ran a gas line for our new dryer, installed ceiling lights, put in bathroom exhaust fans, installed a new doorbell (during which he shocked me, literally; I’m very sensitive to electricity), and built a workbench in our garage out of mostly scrap material. He used me and our son as his apprentices. He gave our son the full run of his garage and tools, only insisting that he put items back where he found them.

Hank died in 2005, but his legacy lives on. For years, I volunteered with Habitat for Humanity hanging drywall and vinyl siding and even shingling a roof one year. I can even handle some minor repairs at my and mom’s houses myself. I leave the plumbing to my wife, who was schooled by both her dad and her brother (a retired plumber) on how to fix a leaky toilet. 

Our son has an analytical mind which led him into science and technology. His early experience with his grandfather Hank taught him to be curious and not afraid to make mistakes trying new things. He never met a computer he was afraid to open up, explore, and tinker with. And now he has a son, our first grandson, who enjoys coming over to our house, going into our garage, and getting all the tools out of the tool box and down from the pegboard. I’ve never met a 3-year-old who knows what needle-nose pliers and a caulk applicator are.

Young people like my grandson give me some hope. In a world of made-for-TV do-it-yourself home makeover shows, I have found reliable repairmen and handymen hard to find. It seems like when I call for appliance, plumbing, and heating repairs these days, it’s the older generation that is coming out to do the work. And what I hear from them is that younger people don’t have the skills or the work ethic to succeed in the repair business. Many of these young-gun real estate “investors” are the ones flipping houses. Caveat emptor!

In a world of planned obsolescence, it’s more common to see a flat-screen television on the curb for trash pickup with nobody like Hank to rescue and repair it. We are drowning in disposable plastic waste. I had a friend who grew up during the depression who told me he never threw anything away in those troubled days. He repaired, re-used, and repurposed. He helped put himself through college working as a television repairman. And since the  percentage of people who grow up on a farm is diminishing, those do-it-yourselfers are a dying breed as well. 

My hope is that more young people will see the value of learning, experimenting, tinkering, and educating themselves in the sciences. We need the younger generation working to make our world a better place. The “Hanks” of this world are dying off. Who will take their place?