Reflections on Cotter Pins and Nails

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After reading Farm Collector for a number of years, I would like to share a story with your readers, some of whom I’m sure have gone through the same thing.

Not everyone grew up on a farm. For some of us city boys, we learned from those who did grow up on family farms. My Uncle Henry (Hank) was the eldest in my father’s family. He and my dad were very close. My uncle and his family lived only about a block away from us in Jamestown in western New York, then an industrialized city of about 45,000. My dad’s family had grown up in a rural area heavily populated by Polish family farmers. My grandparents were Polish immigrants in the early 1900s. Life was difficult and there was never any money.

As a boy, I spent quite a bit of time with my dad and uncle. When I was about 10, I became fascinated by mechanics. As I spent more and more time with Uncle Hank. I discovered that he was a rare individual with an incredible passion for things Rube Goldberg would have rewarded with a Nobel Prize.

At age 11, I was learning how to repair model airplanes and lawn mowers, do valve jobs and rebuild engines, change springs in dump trucks, and, if that was not enough, there were correspondence courses in electricity and electronics from the De La Salle Institute in Chicago. I was so fascinated by all this mechanical stuff that I never paid much attention to just how smart my uncle was. Today I know.

In about 1956, when I was 11, we were doing a brake job on a 1949 or ’50 Ford. We were in the process of putting things back together when my uncle handed me a ball peen hammer and told me to straighten out the cotter pin. My first attempt of straightening the pin on an anvil resulted in a smashed finger and not much else.

As he usually did, he showed me what to do, once: how to roll the pin and tap it gently, rather than smashing it like a stone crusher. I wasn’t all that impressed and commented on the drawers full of cotter pins. Why not just get a new one, or use a nail like I had seen other mechanics do? His reply was simple: There might be a time when there were no spare cotter pins, and you had to know how to use what you had. And besides, if you took a nail out of the fence to use as a cotter pin, the fence would have fallen down. Apparently there were no spare nails either.

He did not smile when he said that. I still wonder if the fence would have fallen down. I know my uncle was one to exaggerate just a little to make a point. I have old photos of the farmhouse they grew up in; I can believe that one nail lost could have caused a disaster. Life was difficult then. I spent much of my youth learning from this man. Mechanics and machine work were labors of love for both of us. I worked with him right up to the day I went into the service after high school and never regretted one day of it.

I’m in my early 70s now. My uncle and the wooden bench that the anvil rested on are gone, but the anvil now sits on my bench in my garage, and most of Uncle Hank’s tools are in my garage too, including the ball peen hammers I used to straighten many cotter pins. Two days before writing this down, I was working on a trailer doing a brake job. I couldn’t help myself: With a couple drawers full of cotter pins, I picked up a small ball peen and walked over to that anvil and gently rolled and tapped the cotter pin to a very nice straightness, and no blood blister to boot.

It’s still a labor of love and somehow there was a little smile of sunshine in my life. I guess I knew who was watching.

I’ve worked as a mechanic on everything from trucks to equipment to forging hammers to aircraft and never once forgot what I learned. “You take it apart like you’re going to put it together, and you put it together like you’re going to take it apart again.” There have been many learning experiences from that man, but I was taught that there was only one right way to do a job.

I am willing to bet there are thousands of stories like this, but this one is mine and I’m going to keep it. For some strange reason, when I finished writing this, I remembered last week was my uncle’s birthday. God has some strange ways at times.

John Carney, Busti, New York

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