Shop talk

Sitting around at lunch with a bunch of friends one day the conversation turned to the deteriorating language of the “younger generation” both girls and boys. We agreed that it was pretty one-note with apparently the only key on the phone for texting being “F.”


Because our parents were the Greatest Generation and, more to the point, our grandparents from the First World War era (raised by Victorians) we all remembered that our mothers never uttered a cuss word. If we had ever heard one from her lips it was so memorable we could remember the time, place and situation with clarity as well as what word she used — usually “dammit to hell” or a variation of. If the reason was really dire maybe “Oh, s---,” which was immediately followed by her looking around to see who might have overheard, and a quick back pedal to “Doggone it anyhow” if little ears were near.

The men never swore in the house. “Bad words” were for the barn or machine shed or wherever men gathered to discuss the ways of the world. And that brought on another spate of “remember whens.”

The “new” trend these days is the “Man Cave” — a room designed and decorated just for the man of the house, or if only a man lives in the house, maybe the entire abode. We farmers’ kids recalled the “Shop” where the men of the family, if they weren’t in the field, spent most of their time building or repairing the machinery needed to run the farm. We grew up with WWII. All resources of the country were directed toward the war effort so no one ran to the parts store for a new anything. Farmers were their own machinists or quickly learned who in the community could do the work and what he’d trade for it.

The Patriarch was usually Grandpa. His generation was still in control, with the younger men either at war or helping to maintain the farm. Farmers had been declared essential to the war effort much to the dismay of some sons aching to join their classmates in uniform. If the boys had somehow slipped under the radar and joined the military, some daring farm families even allowed their daughters to drive the tractors when needed, but never did the ladies get into the inner sanctum of “THE SHOP.”

Grandpa’s shop was a big, drafty shed with a dirt floor. High work benches lined a couple of walls. A big wide door opened on one end where farm machinery could be driven in to be worked on. Near the middle, like a chopping block in a kitchen, was an anvil and a forge where much of the fabricating of parts was done. On the rare occasion I was allowed to be there, my favorite thing was to watch Grandpa heating, then pounding and turning a piece of steel, then heating it again to white hot and beating it flat and cool. Sometimes, if the work was not too crucial, I even got to turn the crank that worked the bellows to aerate the coals. But my time was limited. Probably only to satisfy my curiosity I was given the privilege of staying for a few minutes, then shooed back to the house to “tell Grandma we’re ready for dinner” or something equally as mundane.

And it was dirty! Oily, greasy, smelly dirt that ground into everything: hands, overalls, gloves, hair; a kid’s delight, but also definitely a tattle tale, because you couldn’t go to the shop without bringing back some of that glorious dirt. If you’d been sent to get the mail but detoured to the shop, your shoes would tell.

My brother was luckier. He was allowed to loiter if he didn’t get in the way. The day he brought some of the vocabulary back to the dinner table with him, however, definitely reinforced the rule of no “bad words” in the house around the ladies. His proclamation that I wasn’t a lady yet didn’t make an impression, (and I gloated just a little).

Today’s Man Cave has little similarity to the fore runner. Grandpa’s Shop had small dirty windows, no place to sit but the one high stool needed at the work bench for close work, and of course no TV. My dad and uncle nearly caused a family dispute by bringing in a radio so they could listen to the college football games one fall. The liquor cabinet was one dusty bottle of bourbon carefully secreted (so the kiddies couldn’t find it!) on a high shelf behind the bedraggled old parts book and a stack of rags torn from old towels. If there was a glass, it was the discarded tin top of an old thermos.

The occupants of today’s Man Cave have no historical reference to define their sanctuary. They know little of the traditions behind the place they plan to call their own, wide screen TV, flavored vodka and all, but they might start with no bad words in front of the ladies, and sisters count.

Virginia Walters lives in Kenai.


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