Tinkertoys and Yukon Jack

Holidays meant everything to me as a kid; I didn’t have that much else to cheer about. So far as I remember, no playmate visited me until we moved to Powelton in Philly (1947 or ’48). Even there, I was more apt to visit the girl who lived upstairs (Mary?) to watch Howdy Dowdy (damned stupid show) they had a TV, we didn’t. Unlikely connection: My dad was J.R. Davis. Hers was J.R. Davisson. Must have driven the mailman bats.

I memorized the birthday of everyone in the family, anticipating a special aura attached to each one – and often finding it. For my brother Rod’s 21st birthday, Mom encased his present in 21 wrappings, including our bathmat. At the center lay a box (no, a sock!) containing 21 silver dollars.

Sickly little dollop that I was, my first healthy birthday came at age nine, when we hosted my only childhood party. I remember nothing of it but the fact that it existed.

Christmas was a big, big, big deal. Our indoor decoration was little short of insane. We hauled out innumerable boxes of 3/8-inch-thick, dark red, twisted-crepe-paper ropes, each with little foil-covered papier mache bells on the ends. (How old were they? One of them came with a note inside that read “Happy crossing, Moses.”)

After spending hours each year repairing broken twists, we thumbtacked or map-pinned the garlands in elegant swoops across the living-room and dining-room walls, one below the other in decreasing arcs. 

Brother Vic had been official decorator for many years. The title passed to me in my teens, and I took the idiocy to new heights. The longest paper rope, perhaps 20 feet, had previously been snaked, bell-less, around balustrades, but I attached a pair of those little silver bells to its ends and painstakingly multi-swooped it across the entire living room wall of our  court-end house off  37th St..

We set up the tree about a week in advance of Christmas and decorated it with an unending supply of bright but uninteresting glass ornaments. I obsessively placed each ornament so that it did not repeat a neighbor in either shape or color. I would check the tree on all sides, from every angle, before adding the heavy lead tinsel (losing a dozen brain cells for each ponderous strip). We had no lights on the tree. Probably couldn’t afford them. 

Finally, I set up my little metal figures on the library table under the tree. I took about a day and half to carefully position every farm and zoo beast, every last tradesman, train conductor, hobo and milkmaid. There was no such thing as enough.

The extended Davis family held Christmas dinner at Aunt Ruth and Uncle Frank’s in the suburbs. Aunt Ruth was a divorcee with three adult children from a previous marriage, all of them rather more pleasant than Aunt Ruth. She and Uncle Frank had one child together, Charles, a couple years older than me. 

As the youngest of my generation, I felt even more out of place than I normally did, sitting quietly, wishing myself elsewhere or spending time in the basement watching Charles, a pompous shit, operate his electric trains. Later, I’d sit at the end of the U-shaped dinner table, served last with cold vegetables and dry, saliva-sapping turkey.

But my Christmas presents at home were bodaciously cool. My stocking would be stuffed solid with individually tissue-wrapped metal animals, followed by a silver dollar in the toe. And over the course of the years, I was given or inherited from my bothers every known form of construction set: Tinkertoys, Erector Sets, odd slotted composite disks that fit (poorly) into colored plastic tubes, Lincoln Logs, pre-Lego lock-togethers, a set of massive maple blocks and boards, and I don’t remember what else. If one piece could be attached to or placed upon another, we had it.

Lincoln Logs pissed me off (I don’t know why – they still do). I cut my fingers trying to screw together the little nuts and bolts of the Erector Set but loved it nonetheless. Tinkertoys, though – they were king. I didn’t want or need the optional motor: From a bunch of simple rods and wooden circles with holes evenly spaced around the circumference you could construct a functioning steam shovel. Wouldn’t it be lovely if the rest of the world worked that well?

Yet the strongest construction images I retain are of my personally designed and constructed matchstick log cabins, usually made during the summer. I have no idea what got me started on them in my early teens, how long this contained mania lasted, or why I’ve never done anything remotely like them again. 

Each cabin grew atop a thin cardboard sheet taken from one of my father’s dress shirts. I lit each wooden kitchen match and blew it out (those were Smokey the Bear days), then severed its head with a small pocket knife. I glued alternating layers of matches in a square, framing windows and doorways as I went along, then forming a pitched roof. 

What glue did I use? Probably mucilage, the weak but universal adhesive of the day. The bottle had an inclined rubber top with an exit slit not unlike that of a penis. It always clogged when it dried.

I carved and glued individual floorboards from the matches, also tables and chairs and a chimney above the roofline (though not below – an igloo-like construction). Finally, I scissored shingles roughly 1/2 inch on a side from brown paper bags and glued them to the rafters. 

You can picture it, yes? No. Because, from laziness or personal peculiarity, I never notched the ends of the logs. I simply laid them one atop the other where they crossed at the corners, leaving a match-width open space between them on the sides. You could say I created log-cabin skeletons. I wish I had kept one, simply because they were so personal, so unlikely.

Years later, I got into making ever more elaborate Christmas presents for Julie and the kids. For awhile we had a ShopSmith, the only successful multi-use electric shop tool ever devised, serving equally well as table saw, lathe, sander, drill press and Swiss army knife.

After jig-sawing the outer rim off a circular oak dining table, I sanded its edges against the ShopSmith’s revolving disk, then set it on a vertical hexagonal plywood base painted alternately red and yellow around its six sides. (Not quite as kitsch as it might sound.)

I  also built an interlocking collapsible plywood playhouse and Finnish-birch chairs for the kids – clever projects from the back of Women’s Day in its glory years.

About then I became obsessed with form. Made two clocks, one circular, with the same red/yellow alternation in its quarters and the “numbers” – unnumbered  – etched as small circles with a sanding-disk drill bit. The other timepiece was a walnut plywood tetrahedron with the clockface on one side, the “numbers” simple painted triangles. None of my kids showed interest in either one.

Almost half a century after my kidhood, my lack of birthday parties was remedied seven-times over. Linda and Erin caught me out with surprise parties twice, on my 49th and 51st birthdays. The second was a particular doozy. Jim Knipfel and his friend the Grinch kept me occupied at Jim’s place for several hours with … well, pornography, then Jim walked innocent me back home. There I found damned near everyone I had ever known crowded into our friendly Baring St. kitchen. 

Erin had let out that I was a deep, committed fan of Yukon Jack, Canada’s overpowering 100-proof blast of citrused whisky. That day I received 18 bottles of Yukon Jack. There are probably more wonderful things in the word, but … 

No there aren’t.

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