Nantucket Essays

Wisdom of Hands

~ by Robert P. Barsanti ~

“Do you know anyone with a 1967 Bug?” my personal mechanic asked me. He stood in his side yard and was holding a y-shaped piece of metal. “This is a trailer hitch for a Bug and I hate to take it to the dump.”

My knowledge of Volkswagen Bugs begins with the movie “Harold and Maude” and ends when I was 6 and rode, with my brother, in the “trunk” of one. One of my family friends had children that swam on the same swim team as we did. He drove us, in that dangerous and life-threatening time of the late seventies, to Kitty’s for pizza and soda after we “beat” Meadowbrook. The car, as I dimly remember, barely hit 35 miles an hour with two adults, four children, and six towels jammed into it. I can’t imagine a Bug towing anything; the hitch probably should go on the front.

Nonetheless, it snugly attached to the rear frame of the car, with the reflective knob emerging from under the bumper and extending out behind the exhaust pipes. Someone had made this. Someone had designed it, shaped the steel, welded everything together, and set it to working. I don’t know how long it worked, be it for almost fifty years or less, but it stayed where it had been put until recently.

We did not know the story behind it. We did not know the maker; but that doesn’t stop me from making one up. A young mother, with two small children, wants to go back to sailing again. She only has the family day-sailer, but she feels it would be great to bring the kids back to the water. So, she asks her father for help. Perhaps, she really wants Dad to buy her a new car or get her a sailing membership, instead goes out into his workshop and fashions a trailer hitch for her little car. She can tow the sailboat to the lake, put it in the water, and everyone can putter about in the boat for the afternoon. Problem solved.

I don’t know. This artifact comes without author or story. Everyone who might remember has forgotten or has died. Their stories have been washed away and left us with the car and this hitch. But in itself, the hitch speaks in the wisdom of hands. In the tight frame of a problem, hands shaped the solution, forged it, and then bolted it on.

In the recent past, Nantucket has been shaped by the wisdom of hands. The island does not smile on the pre-fab. All of those engineers and designers who create lawn furniture for L.L. Bean and the Home Depot don’t figure in the salt, moisture, or nastiness of island weather. The sand shifts under the house, the floors sag, an the doors refuse to close. We live outside the normal frame of corporate design and marketing.

Instead, under the grace of people who can afford it, the island has had a steady supply of craftsmen who build things well (and an equally steady supply of charlatans looking for a check). You come to them with a problem, like “How can I tow a sailboat with my 1967 VW Bug?” Then they look, think, reach into the workshop, and begin making something that will fix the problem and mend the world. Years ago, a friend of mine found herself in a house with three growing children and three smallish bedrooms. She presented the problem to a neighbor and he crafted a series of built in desks, beds, and, dressers. Each bedroom now looks as if it were a stateroom on a sailboat. Problem solved.

Whoever made that trailer hitch labored. Labor, in the language of the Shakers, is to worship: “Hands to work, hearts to God.” The actual shaping and forming the metal is work, but this work is spiritual. Labor to solve a problem for today and tomorrow, even if the solution is as simple and prosaic as a boat hitch. Today, very few can identify the Killen spiral on the side of a house, but many can walk inside and feel the soundness and the firmness of the construction. Work is done for a paycheck, labor is done for the community. The work, and wisdom, of hands will last beyond your signature, your story, and your time.

In the twenty-first century, we have decided that the work of the hands is not as valuable as the work of the mind. We encourage our young people to take Mandarin Chinese and Political Geometry, but not to take shop class. We dismantle the metal shop so that we can build another computer lab. In this, we steal from the future. Anything that can be done on a computer, be it accounting, engineering, data-processing, or filming juggling cats can be done cheaper and faster Somewhere Else. Some of our young people will be at the top of the ziggurat and will design the new programs and make the new software. But much of the wealth of the future will still arise as did the wealth of the past: our children will be paid to solve problems with their hands. This wisdom of hands will build and repair chimneys, will rewire old
Volvos, and will remove tumors from a liver. That work, that labor, will outlast their names.

I am currently typing this article on top of a beautiful mahogany table Andy Bennet built more than ten years ago. The top is three feet wide by six feet long, and appears to be a solid piece of wood. Each leg was cut, shaped on the lathe and attached so that after ten years of milk spills, pizza, birthday parties, lego assemblies, and several wrestling matches, the table is as solid as time. In over ten years of humidity, dryness, and water dripping from the ceiling, the surface has neither warped nor stained. The chairs around it, bought on the cheap from Boston Interiors, are hanging on with nails, wood glue, and electricians tape. The table is more solid than we are.

Andy built this table, eleven years ago, so that it could be auctioned off for Del Wynn’s family. Time has washed the memory of Del from most of the island, but he was an craftsman, poet, athlete, and character who became infected with lyme, and then Lou Gehrig’s disease. Andy brought this table to the Muse for a fundraiser in July. Del was so well-loved that a work of labor as impressive as this table disappeared in an ocean of feeling. We bought it for the lowest, and only bid. By August 20, Del had died.

The island will forget Del and the great cheer he showed in his chair in the balcony of the Muse as all of this stuff was auctioned off for him. The money raised in that auction is long since gone. In the waves of the years, the island will forget Andy Bennet, it will forget the Muse, and it will forget me. The table will outlast us, if only for a little while. It will sit in some other family’s living room, beautiful, graceful, and solid. The nameless, unstoried fruit of true labor grows heavy today and for years to come.

Articles by Date from 2012