Features & Stories

(Story and photos by Trudy Frisk)

It was definitely déjà vu. "I need something to wipe this with, " exclaimed the man fixing my bathroom. "I'll get a cloth," I began, but, too late. He seized a pastel face cloth; one carefully matched to its fellow towel, and began mopping. It took me back.

This fellow has done home repairs for me for many years. During this time I learned that, if I was missing a paring knife, mixing bowl, or spatula, the first place to search was among the pieces of his latest project. Sometimes I resigned myself and bought new ones. They never lasted, especially paring knives which he took, muttering that the one he already had was dull. No wonder that, to this day, I peel my vegetables with butcher knives.

But, the important fact is that he got the job done. Using some fairly unorthodox tools he could mechanic anything with moving parts, performs small electrical repairs, paint, paper, carpenter and plumb. He can jack up a house to put a new foundation under it, and weld a baby buggy. He has a mechanic's certificate and he knows when to call in the experts, but, he's one of the old time handy men, able to diagnose and repair a wide variety of balky machines using common sense and whatever implements are handy.

My father was like that. Father was a bailing wireman. Bailing wire, or hay wire, was the duct tape of his day, and Father used it for tasks from mending harness to holding a stovepipe in place. He particularly relied on it as a cure-all for our Model A's ills. When the car shuddered to an unexpected halt as it often did when we were out berry picking, we children climbed happily out to explore while Father propped open the hood and, armed with pliers and some wire, communed with the engine. There was never any doubt that he'd fix the problem. Usually long before we were ready to leave, he'd made repairs and we were off.

These handy men of all generations are carrying on the Western Canadian tradition of making do which began with our pioneer ancestors who arrived, equipped with little but determination and ingenuity in a harsh land. No wood to build a house on a prairie homestead? The settler rolled up his sleeves, picked up his shovel and made a home out of prairie sod. In rural settlements, even in towns, there were no 'experts." no one to call for help. Even if there had been, no one had money to pay them. Westerners learned to build and repair things themselves. And, if the first cabin was a little lop-sided, well, in time it became the barn or chicken house and the family built a trimmer, truer, house for themselves.

These pioneers cleared the land, sowed and harvested crops, milked cows, and repaired mowers, learning as they went. They became competent at veterinary medicine. With binder twine and bailing wire, they kept the West going.

Anyone reading the variety of items offered for sale in today's farm papers realizes how little has changed. The actual mechanics may be new, but the goal is the same, to be as self-reliant as possible. Lathes, welding machines, and vices, all testify to the skills of the average farmer or rancher. After all, when a part snaps on a harvester, time spent bringing in a professional welder, if one's available, is time wasted, while the grain, ripe and ready to harvest, is shelling out. Then, there's the expense. Why would a farmer, the epitome of prudence, pay someone to do a job, he himself, can do quite well?

A modern reader is amazed and impressed by the journals of Canadian pioneers. Did they require a raft? They felled trees, lashed them together, loaded on their gear and set off down the river. It was common for a young man 'fresh off the boat' to go into wild country, emerging a few years later able to build a cabin, handle a horse, patch a canoe, hunt and make his way through often unmapped territory. Given tea, matches, guns and bullets, they were able to take care of themselves in almost any situation.

Today's handy men are their modern equivalents. The products of a frugal era and often from isolated communities, they also share the inquiring minds and adaptable methods, which helped the pioneers, survive. Nothing better illustrates their ability to change than Canada's conversion to metric. Mumbling furiously about un-necessary expense, they bought metric tools to jam into an already over-flowing toolbox, and continued right on doing their own repairs. Not even entertainment technology left them behind. The same older farmer, who once hooked up a radio battery or carefully positioned a TV antenna on his roof, now surfs the Net for cattle prices. It's just being practical.

There are no college courses in Handy Man 101. No certificates. Though there are unofficial apprenticeships as fathers and friends teach a younger generation. These talented people who keep farm and home in good repair are seldom appreciated outside their own neighbourhood. Politicians and pundits get the headlines. Yet, when a truck breaks down or a water pipe springs a leak, who ever yells, "Quick, get two economists and a philosopher! We've got a big job here!"

In fact the day of the self-sufficient, all-round handy man may be dwindling, urged on by the complexities of modern life. And that would be a shame. Why not a Mayor's proclamation: "Handy-man Day"? Better yet, why not a Provincial "Handy-Man Week"?

Its time to give recognition and acclaim to a group of people whose skills and spirit are a proud part of the West.

(Trudy is a freelance writer living in Kamloops, B.C.)

Other articles by Trudy Frisk

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