Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Boys and their Toys/A Farewell to Machines.

I'm a woman, I don't do machines, or leastways I put up with them when I must. I drive a new car because I dread it going wrong and at my most technical I might just change the needle on my sewing machine. I'm unashamedly a girly girl yet for years it had to stay locked inside. Much of the work I do in the College where I work involves supporting young engineering students. I've just left a group of them out in front of the Technology building, slowly dismantling a small and ancient railway locomotive rescued from a local stone quarry. I love the way that a whole group will stand around the job in blue overalls, discussing the best way to do something, or in vying with each other to try out their strength undoing some gigantic rusted bolt.

True, I'll probably never understand the fascination of all this as a girl but I can admire and respect the work they do and the obvious pleasure that it brings. There are always a few girls on the course in fact, usually ladies who unlike me, love getting their hands dirty, working on lathes and milling machines and solving engineering problems. It was something that my Dad tried to encourage in me for years. He failed.

My late father was a mining engineer, but he also loved to pursue engineering projects at home. Over the years, he amassed an array of lathes, millers, bench drills, grinders, workbenches and small hand tools. He built small model railway locomotives which took him years to complete. He hardly ever through anything out and there were always a plié of used and useless articles waiting to be plundered for parts or scrap metal. My Dad talked engineering incessantly, was deeply passionate about it and desperately tried to interest me. It made sense didn't it? I was a boy after all, or at least I appeared to be. It would have not have done to let on to Dad that I'd rather be across the road with Julie my friend, playing house, playing with dolls or doll's houses and shuffling around in our mother's heels.

I loved my Dad and I did my best to live up to expectations, holding and passing the required tools and looking on. I did have the pleasure of being allowed to saw pieces of wood sometimes and make model boats, but what my father really enjoyed was working with metal and machines. I am genuinely surprised to find now, working alongside engineers that I seem to have absorbed far more knowledge than I care to. Hint. I would not know the first thing about any of the machines but I can help the students with their Maths and engineering theory. Dad would probably be proud of me were he still alive. Maybe particularly so since Dad knew me for the last eight or nine years of his life as his daughter, accepting me and supporting me. Given what I know about engineers and their logical natures, it was a great gesture of warmth and love which I hadn't expected.

Since my father's death almost six months ago now, I have had the difficult job of clearing his old house and slowly getting rid of some of his things. A few things I will keep to remember him by: a fire screen made by him whilst at school, his HNC Engineering certificate, his first letter of appointment and echnical drawings of mines made while working for the British Coal Board. These things are all light and small. They will fit easily in a drawer. 1950's Myford Lathes and bench drills on the other hand, have to go. They are no use to me. The only machine I do covet is my mother's old Singer sewing machine and that I will keep in spite of having a newer electric model.

It is a bittersweet experience to say goodbye to all these things. To me, machines are very much dumb inanimate objects but when my father used them as he did almost every day until his last stay in hospital, the workshop seemed alive. Machines were still warm after he had finished using them and little bits and pieces of jobs in progress were here there and everywhere. Now the place is cold. The half finished jobs and projects will never be completed, it has made me cry on more than one occasion.

Some of the equipment has already been loaded onto a trailer and taken to the workshop of another much younger engineer. He paid me well both in cash as well as obligingly taking an enormous load of rubbish and bits and pieces to the waste disposal. He came with his son in law and the two of them made cheerful and light work of carrying all these heavy things away. Some of the remaining and older machines will go to the workshops of a local preserved railway line and so we're back to the rusting little locomotive my students were working on earlier!

All in all I won't miss them, what would I have done with them? I still miss him though I do have the memories. I sometimes wonder if my father ever missed the keen young engineer he wanted to turn me into. We all worry about not being able to live up to parental expectations, transgendered children perhaps most of all. Did he miss not being able to share that with a son who might follow in his footsteps? I guess I will probably never know.