Nails, Gears, and Chewing Gum - A Short Story

The sound of hammer on wood rapped out through the open garage door. A solid sound, the sort of noise that people accepted despite its volume because of its necessity. Anyone who was building something had to put their hammer to it at some point. You could hardly shout at your neighbor for wanting to build something, could you?

"No, right here, here, that's it. Careful."

Hammer met wood again, a hesitant but still firm stroke. The boy holding the hammer could not have been much older than ten or eleven years old, but the focus of his attention on the project was that of someone much older. He had a pair of wooden pegs clutched in his mouth, his left hand on the piece of wood he was working on, the other swinging the hammer down.

"Perfect. Great job."

The boy looked up over his shoulder, a beam of sunlit joy crossing his face. The man with him, an older man with brown hair going gray at the temples, gave him a warm smile and put his hand on his shoulder.

"We've got the frame done now. So what's next?"

"The axles and drivetrain! Then we can put the wheels on, and the steering!"

"Exactly. Go grab the axle mounts and let's get them attached."

The boy climbed up to his feet and ran for the other side of the garage with the speed of youth. The man took a moment to test their workmanship of the project to this point. The wooden frame and paneled walls of a box-car, the sort of thing that you saw in old TV shows and movies, was beginning to take shape. It was even shaped like an old jalopy, looking like an arched door frame from the front with a rounded back, a sort of canoe-style half-circle cut out of the middle to allow room for a seat, steering wheel, and even a rudimentary gear shift.

It was the sort of project that someone took on toward the end of July or beginning of August, as the school year got nearer and mothers talked to their children about buying the necessary back to school supplies. It was also the time for fathers to take them on fishing trips, to go camping in the woods, out to a baseball or football game, all sorts of activities like this one. That was part of why he was here. The other part of it was that building this sort of car was something he had wanted to do since he was a boy and never had a chance to do for himself.

The boy came back with the two metal brackets that would help hold the axles onto the car, two of them little more than U shapes with extra room at each end to use something to attach it to the car's body, the other two a little more elaborate with round interlocking plates that could spin, perfect for wheels that needed to turn. "We need to lift it so we can get them on there, right?" He asked.

"Yep. Now, normally for this sort of job, we'd need a jack and some chains to hold it off the ground, but since this is a bit of a smaller project..." He reached down and grabbed the car's sides, looking at the boy and nodding him over. "Let's flip it onto its back."

The boy hurried over, put the brackets on the ground, and helped him turn the car over so it was resting on its hood on the garage floor. Then he picked the brackets up and put them on the bottom of the frame, approximately where they would help hold the wheels to the car. One spot was easy to find because there was a hole in the bottom of the frame for the steering wheel to connect with the axle. He lined them up, then looked around for something to attach them to the bottom of the frame.

"How are we going to get them to stay on there?" He asked, face contorted in frustration and confusion. "We can't use nails, they'll go up through the bottom of the floor."

"Not necessarily. Go grab some of those nails there, I'll show you what we can do with them."

The boy grabbed a handful of nails but was careful enough to avoid sticking himself on their sharper ends. He brought them over and laid them out one by one on the car's undercarriage. The man scooped them off and held them in his hand.

"Now nails, remember, they can hold stuff together, but only if you put them in their proper places. You have to think ahead and figure out where they need to go to make whatever you're building stronger." He picked up the hammer and moved the front-most axle around a bit, then placed a nail against the metal bracket and hammered the nail through it, and through the bottom of the car frame as well. "This will hold the bracket, and the bracket will hold the axle, but when we turn the car back over, we need to bend down the nails so they lock against the wood. And so they don't poke you in the feet when you get inside."

The boy nodded, listening and paying attention. Then he accepted the hammer and nails and set about working on the axle brackets.

"While you're doing that, I'm going to get that gear shift put together so we can put that on there. Once that's all together, we can put the axles in, then the wheels. Then all that'll be left is the steering wheel and the seat."

The sounds of the hammer rang out again, this time with the more metallic ring of hammer on nail and bracket. The man moved away from the part of the garage that was the wood shop and assembly line, and over toward the metalworking part. A mass of half-assembled metal parts sat in the middle of a wooden table, most of them gears assembled inside of a metal box. The man picked up the tools already on the table, a screwdriver, a pair of pliers, and a socket wrench, and started putting together what would be a two-speed gear shift.

The gears were a bit too intricate for the boy to assemble, there were a lot of little parts that needed assembly, and trying to do the entire project in one day on top of constructing the car itself would be very difficult. Thus, he would handle the gearshift, and the boy would take care of the car's larger and easier to manipulate sections.

It occurred to him that, like the nails, each gear he put into the workings had to be put in just right for everything to work properly. But while the nails held the car together, the gears were what would help control it, controlling each direction, whether the car would be proceeding forward or backward, as well as helping to steer it. While it was not necessary to the full assembly of the car, a perfectly good box car could be made without anything quite so complicated, for the car they were building, it was essential.

"This is going to be the best thing we've ever built." The boy said, "The best."

"It sure will, buddy." The man looked up out through the garage door. Outside was the familiar gray corridor, a featureless wall, a light fixture that glowed a soft blue-white color. It only looked like a garage inside of it, with bare wooden walls, tables, and benches, a single incandescent light hanging from the ceiling to provide illumination. From the outside, it was a metal box with a door on it and two beings inside working on what looked like an archaic, quaint little workshop project.

He looked down at his work and resumed, finishing up the last few parts of the gearbox and snapping the cover on. "I'm finished over here. How are you doing?"

The boy looked up at him. A streak of dirt was smudged on his pale cheek now, but his startlingly blue eyes still shone brightly with enthusiasm. "Almost done, just one more bracket to go."

"Once you're done with that, let's take a break for a minute or two, okay? We're about halfway through, we can take a bit of time to make sure everything's put together the way it should be."

The boy nodded and returned his attention to his work. His focus was so sharp, that he placed the nail to the wood, dropped the hammer on it twice, then stepped back wit ha pleased look on his face, his mission accomplished.

"Good work, let's see it." The man walked over, checking all of the brackets and making sure everything was secure to the car. He nodded his approval and patted the boy's shoulder. "Looks good to me. Once we get the axles in there, we can turn it back over and get the wheels on."

"But we get to take a break first, though. What kind of break is this one?"

The man reached into the pocket of his jacket, drawing out a small silver package. "I thought, this time, we'd take a chewing gum break."

"Yes!" The boy grabbed the package, excited and almost tearing it apart as he tried to open it and access the insides. He removed a small white piece of gum and immediately tossed it into his mouth, chewing with rapid enthusiasm. "I love chewing gum!"

"Yeah, you do." The man smiled and took a piece for himself from the package. He did not chew quite as enthusiastically as the boy, though he did enjoy taking the break for himself quite a bit. "Why do you enjoy it, though? Can you explain why?"

The boy thought for a moment, chewing, his eyes focused on something distant. As he thought, the man glanced back toward the door. He saw another man there now, wearing a white lab coat and holding a tablet computer in one hand. He observed what was going on in silence, absorbing the scene, then made a note on his tablet and moved along down the hallway.

"I think... it's because it's sweet. It's chewy and fun. It's something I can have fun with and not really think about that I'm doing it. It just happens. And other people like it, too, so I like talking to other people about it. Like you!"

The man smiled again as he turned back to the boy. Those bright blue eyes shone at him as if there were a light behind them. "I'm glad you're glad. I like it because I know it makes you happy. And sometimes in life, we need to find things that make us happy, right?"

"Right. You know what else makes me happy?"

"Building?"

"Yep!" The boy, still chewing on the piece of gum he had been given, went back to the car. "We're almost done, we can't stop now!"

"Right behind you, buddy."

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