April 24th, 2009

Recollections of Electrical Shop

>(Note: Yet another story from my youth, recalled during my days as a columnist for Fidalgo Magazine.)
I picked up a magazine the other day and saw an advertisement for a DVD program … touted as an educational program “where virtual reality and hands-on reality come together.”
When it comes to “hands-on” projects, there’s been nothing “virtual” about the reality of my experiences.
Erector sets were big when I was a kid. For some reason though (maybe because I once pushed a screwdriver into a wall socket?), I never discovered an erector set among my Christmas or birthday gifts. Instead, my “hands-on” toys were of the non-electrical sort … building blocks and the like. What could happen … an eight-inch high wall of Lincoln Logs was going to fall and crush my ankle!?
As I grew older, however, and the Sixties space race heated up, politicians and educators across the land concluded we needed more kids with “hands-on” experience in the wonderful world of electricity. So it was that in the eighth grade I was enrolled along with all the other guys in Electrical Shop.
The first thing I’ve got to say in my own defense is that I was good on paper. If we’d never actually moved from our desks to the massive tables covered with colored wires, diodes, capacitors, soldering irons and other intimidating electrical stuff, I probably would have aced the class. As it was, I was destined to take my place in the “average” category.
I don’t blame my parents (after all, erector sets were not only electrical, but costly), but the fact is I didn’t have the “hands-on” life experience that would have made life in Electrical Shop less intimidating. Many were the times my teacher would stand over my work, shaking his head and muttering, “Remarkable!” I quickly came to understand that word could be applied in an unflattering manner.
My crystal radio set inspired the “remarkable” response. Funny, isn’t it, how we can all start with the same “recipe,” the same “ingredients,” and end up with entirely different finished products?
I worked with the same odd little electrical doodads as the rest of the guys, wound the same 600 yards of fine copper wire around the same toilet paper tube. The same little puffs of green smoke filled the air over my project as I applied the pointy end of the soldering iron to the spots designated on my diagram.
It’s just that when my crystal set was complete, it didn’t look quite the same as the others. And you can be sure there was no debate at all about which radio station I would listen to. The only station whose broadcast “waves” made it through my headset was the one located about six blocks from school … and even then the words and music were intelligible only when all of the planets were aligned in a rare pattern.
I’m pretty sure I scored right up there with the rest of the guys as we tackled projects like wiring a dollhouse doorbell or hooking up a tiny light bulb to a chubby “D” battery.
Then for some reason the teacher decided to challenge us with another project … design and construction of an actual soldering iron!
This, in retrospect, was a multi-faceted project that would challenge the abilities of any teen. I clearly recall sawing off a round piece of wood for the handle, sanding it, drilling a hole through it and then applying several dozen coats of varnish. Despite the mind-numbing effects of the vapors from the varnish, I also recall clamping a short metal rod into a vise, then pushing a heavy file repeatedly over one end in an effort to create a sharp “tip.” I’m pretty sure things were still under control at the point where wood (handle) and metal (soldering iron) were joined as one unit.
Here again, however, there were some scary parts of the project – steps that involved an electrical cord, lots more copper wire and some weird, goopy gray stuff that hardened shortly after being slopped over the wire-wrapped metal rod. Finally! Project complete.
There was a deep, ominous hummm preceding the explosion, which was really more of a “pop.” My iron had heated up all right, but I never really got the chance to see if it was hot enough to melt solder. Well, nobody hurt.
Having completed the mandatory semester of Electrical Shop, my teacher, counselor, parents and vice principal recommended I steer away from “Voc-Tech” courses in favor of more traditional classes like English and History.
So it was that when I saw the advertisement about the “electronic gadgets” DVD the other day, I experienced a brief flash of nostalgia for those good ol’ shop days. But the recommendations of my elders ultimately prevailed. Without thinking I turned the page. There I read another ad and immediately picked up the phone to place my order: for a software program with features including grammar-check and thesaurus.
No gloves or goggles necessary here – I’m working with the low-voltage “power” of words.

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About Photographer Steve Berentson

A fourth generation Skagit County native who was moved kicking and screaming from this island community in 1960. I finally reclaimed an Anacortes address in 1980, and I have been in constant celebration of my return since that time. Many of us who call Anacortes home love Fidalgo Island for its natural assets: among them are rugged beaches, pristine lakes, thousands of acres of forestland and some awesome views of the Skagit Valley and surrounding islands. Another element of my love affair with this community is its people, both natives and immigrants. They will “star” in many of my journal entries.

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