I hereby make a shameful confession: I don’t know which end of a hammer to pick up in order to use one.
This leaves me in a predicament any time there is a home repair. I stand helplessly by as my electrician or plumber deals with the mysteries of my house’s infrastructure. Luckily, they are both friends of mine, and very patient with my ignorance. I have to call another friend, Paul, every spring to get my outdoor watering system going yet again. I guess you could say I am not handy.
I come upon this condition naturally; I am my father’s son. I remember a morning in our kitchen over 60 years ago. My mother was preparing breakfast for my father, as she did every morning. The phone rang and she went to answer it, leaving the bread in the toaster. When she returned to smoke wafting up from the machine, she exclaimed: “Dave, why didn’t you do something?” His simple rejoinder: “I don’t know how to work that thing.” That’s me.
I know I am not alone in this condition. There are many of us at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to dealing with the physical world. We are to be pitied. And yet, there is a subset of the population — call it elitist, if you will — that maintains a sort of hierarchy wherein the “blue-collar” trades are a step down from the “white-collar” ones, where pushing a pen (or clicking a mouse) is superior to handling a wrench.
Since the dawn of civilization, or shortly thereafter, the “managers” and “professionals” took precedence over the working class. After the Industrial Revolution, at the end of the 19th century, it got even worse, when machines and mass production of goods made craftsmen, who turned out handmade wares all in their good time, into second-class citizens. And technology continues on its romp, to the point that now mechanics can’t deal with the computers that run our cars and you can’t get an appliance fixed, either.
This situation is less dramatic on the Cape for a number of reasons. First, many home owners are dramatically dependent on those who rescue us from all manner of disasters. Try to get a carpenter for a small or medium-sized job and you will soon see how elevated is his or her status. Cape Cod Regional Tech High School is an esteemed destination for many students.
Second, there is a healthy population of people here who still make things with their hands, including jewelry and decorative items. People come to the Cape to seek these crafts and the people who make them. Artisans are akin to artists.
Third, many here devote themselves to their boats, whether under sail or motored, and these mariners must be fairly self-sufficient in maintaining their vessels. Out in the bay you had best be able to coax a motor into action or quickly adjust a wayward boom or rigging.
Lastly, there are a fair number of retired folks, who putter about and pride themselves on their self-sufficiency.
Thirty years ago, I was teaching in New Jersey at a “selective” high school. Most of the students were the offspring of the “one percent”; their parents were hedge-fund managers, stock brokers, and corporate executives. They looked on teachers mostly as a curious class of folks who would toil in a classroom rather than make real money.
Each spring a small group of us brought a bunch of students up to the Cape for whale watching, dune hikes, and that sort of thing. Since I used to live here, I was in charge of planning most of the events. One year we had a free hour or so before the whale watch. I remembered my old friend Warren Perry, a longtime fisherman and, when retired, an interpreter for the National Seashore. (He worked at the old A&P in the winter.) He agreed to speak with our students on the pier before they boarded the boat.
What he did amazed us all: he had procured from his fishermen friends a wide sampling of the fish caught in the region. For each, he provided both the scientific and Portuguese names, how the fish was caught, and how to prepare it; he demonstrated a series of nautical knots and taught the students how to execute them; and he ended with a rousing anti-drug message. He was an absolute charmer. These kids had never met anyone like him — someone who did not wear a suit and tie, who talked in the vernacular, yet was obviously a force.
I like to think they were forever changed by this encounter with a Portuguese blue-collar character.