An open letter to grandchildren | OPINION

As your moms and dads know all too well, each generation thinks up ways to break loose and invents styles and behaviors to artfully annoy parents. I know because I’ve been there and done that. And then you try the hyper-private thing. A parent asks, “Where are you going?”

You say, “Out.”

“Who will you be with?”

“Some of the guys.”

“When will you be back?”

“After a while.”

Good parents do manage to wring a few particulars from tight-mouthed sons but it takes work. Daughters are another issue.  Luckily it’s a phase that, for most kids, passes.

In some ways, kids of the 13th Century had it easy. Aside from starvation, disease, pillage and plunder, hundreds of years went by without much change to their neighborhoods. Generations cycled through the same houses, doing the same things, working at the same jobs with the same tools. One year was pretty much the same as the next.

Not so these days. I grew up with a technology that any thinking person could tinker with. When my car’s engine sputtered in a particular way, I loosened the screw securing the distributor. After turning it a couple of degrees one way I tightened it and fired it up. If it backfired and chugged fitfully, I turned it a bit the other way. Chances were that fixed it. Trial and error.

When the TV picture went bonkers I pulled vacuum tubes from its chassis (think motherboard) and socketed them into a tube-tester at the hardware store. When the tester’s needle didn’t swing into the green, a tube needed to be replaced.

Vacuum tubes made sense. Some had plates inside to hold electric charges. A signal from an antenna was amplified onto the plate so that electrons wandering by could be regulated like cars in a regulated on-ramp. If handled right, the electron stream was readied to do something useful and that’s pretty much why cathode rays splattered black and white images onto TV screens. No mystery.

Other faulty bits of early radios and TVs could be cut out and new ones soldered in. Parts were big enough for pliers or soldering irons. A little training and a person could follow a circuit like a road map, seeing how resistors and capacitors and tubes did their work to turn broadcast signals into intelligent sounds and pictures. It made visual sense.

That was then. This is now. People who grew up in that bygone era were smart in a way that fit technology that could actually be repaired. So we had radio and TV repair shops in most neighborhoods and car repair was done at the local service station. When simpler gadgets malfunctioned, they were taken apart on the kitchen table. And fixed.

Nowadays, car problems are diagnosed with analyzers that even tell which tire is low. Whatever happens inside a smart phone is totally incomprehensible. You don’t fix them. You throw them away and get another. TV repairmen don’t really fix anything anymore. They unplug components, toss them out and plug in new modules. That’ll be $300 plus tax please.

Kids have no idea what goes on in today’s phones, computers or e-readers nor do they get hung up by needing to know. Having grown up with mysterious gadgetry, they don’t question the leaps of faith it takes to accept whatever goes on inside. They can do that. I can’t.

I’m not totally comfortable trusting black boxes full of sub-microscopic secrets and that’s my excuse for not getting my mind around computer issues and stuff like programming new TV sets. What does that make me? Obsolete, antiquated, outmoded and dated. Guilty as charged.

The grandkids see me struggle to fix things that, in their world, would be in the bottom of the garbage can. They watch me with wonder, like anthropologists watching apes probe termite mounds with sticks. Look, they say, he’s learned to use tools!

That archaic way of dealing with things grew from necessity. Because television sets were notorious for jumpy images that rolled up or down screens, a lot of time was spent fiddling with Vertical and Horizontal Hold knobs or doing the tube-test thing. Cars ran okay most of the time, but parts weren’t made to today’s exacting tolerances so they needed a lot of fixing during lives that fell short of 100,000 miles. In fact it was a rare odometer that could even register beyond 100,000.

Aging cars, a.k.a. rust-buckets, jalopies or rattle-traps, were teenagers’ schools for automotive technology. Tearing a motor apart to replace rings and whatever was an important step toward manhood, a rite of passage. No auto-shop class needed. No computers, no black-boxes. Just a few of crescent and end wrenches and a couple of screwdrivers.

That’s the way my mind still works. Give me something observable to deal with and I’ll handle it. But give me a black box of mysteries all covered with push-buttons and I’ll pass it off to a grandson or granddaughter as quick as I can.

Comments may be addressed to robertgraef@comcast.net.


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