Erector Set

image of Frances pinning Tim while his son Gabe lowers a pulley from Erector Set crane

Frances pins Tim while his son Gabe lowers a pulley from Erector Set crane.
The following story takes place three decades earlier, no pictures survive.

Portland, Oregon  ~1952~

It is mid-morning, and I am with Mom in our small rented house up on Marquam Hill, 3417 Southwest 12th Avenue, only a few blocks from Doernbecher Hospital in Portland, Oregon, where she works evening shifts as a registered nurse. Tommy, less than a year old, must have been there too but I don’t see him in my mind’s-eye. Maybe he was napping. Or maybe he was awake but so well behaved that he didn’t wrinkle my memory enough to persist in it. At his age I was dealing with upheaval in my family’s life fueled by my father’s fall from “the Calling.” I had intensely happy times, as all kids do, but also torments and rages about how poorly my world fit me, like shoes too tight and stiff. Mom and Dad didn’t openly fight, but tension, disappointment, fear, anger, poverty and depression had their effect on this impressionable first-born child. Now Dad was starting a new career. The family outlook had improved greatly in the four and a half years between my babyhood and Tom’s.

I woke early sometimes and gazed all alone through the front room windows at the white-capped mountains to the east as the liquid sun rose magenta over the Cascade Range. Mount Saint Helens was nicely rounded like an ice cream cone, its violent eruption still decades in the future. Rainier and Adams seemed near it to the left, Hood and Jefferson more or less straight out the window, and the Three Sisters with Bachelor way to the right. I had been warned not to stare at the sun, but just as it crested Hood it did not seem too bright for a brief direct glimpse and I couldn’t resist. Then I would close my eyes and see the fireball in its compliment color, bright green, gradually fading to red as the residual image gave way to the hue of the blood vessels in my eyelids. I was a gazer; I’m still a gazer. In a few years I’ll be a gazing geezer.

I’m five or six years old, playing (or seriously working) on the beige rug of the living room, following written and diagrammatic instructions in a little book. Mom is busy with housework, mainly ironing, while listening to the radio. The program is “The Second Cup Of Coffee Club,” with a catchy theme song, and hosted by a man with an alert and pleasant voice who talks about wide-ranging topics, interviews a few guests, advertises cleaning products, and acts as disc jockey for currently popular songs and older ones.

I was building a Ferris wheel, perhaps 18 inches in diameter. It was rare for me to be following instructions, but in this case the design was complex enough, with its segmented circles and out-of-plane spokes, that I buckled down and built it by the book. There was no motor in my simple set, but there was at least one axle rod and many little girders and screws that became the base, the supports, the wheel and the miniature passenger “cars.” My recollection is that it took several days to complete, quite a few hours anyway, and I was warmed with a special joy and satisfaction when at last I could rotate the big wheel and appreciate the construction journey and the result.

My baby brother Tom was too small to play with it, but my mom and dad both congratulated me and gave the wheel a spin to demonstrate their participation in the accomplishment of something worthwhile through attention to detail and stick-to-it-iveness.

Erector Set Ferris Wheel (not mine)

Days went by, and weeks, during which my admiration for the Ferris wheel and my relationship with it began to fade. I remember something bothering me: since I had carefully followed someone else’s instructions, could I really call the project mine? For all I knew, thousands of other kids were building the very same thing. What exactly was “mine” about it. Just the metal substance? Or the time I put into it, or the willpower to keep at it until the job was done? Something was missing.

One day Dad brought home an old sewing machine motor and gave it to me to play with. It ran on 110 volts from a wall outlet, and nowadays it would be deemed too dangerous for a five-year-old. But back then, at least in our family, a bit of serious safety training was assumed to be adequate for preventing the electrocution of the child.

It was fun to observe the pulley spinning on the motor shaft at different rates as I depressed the speed pedal, to touch the pulley and feel the force, even to hold it immobile with hand in mitten upon start-up and appreciate the relative strengths of the motor and my own muscles.

Inevitably my imagination put two and two together – could I make the motor turn the Ferris wheel? For days I turned the idea every which way in my mind until I hit on a strategy that might work to both (1) transform the passive axle, on which the wheel freely turned, into a “live axle” that would drive the wheel, and (2) couple the motor to the axle by means of a big rubber band. But there was a big problem. I would have to take most of my Ferris wheel apart to accommodate the required changes. What a lot of work I would be throwing away! And what if my motor-driven idea hit a snag too huge to be overcome? I might wind up with no Ferris wheel at all and kick myself forever for taking such a gamble, with no stomach for rebuilding the whole thing per the book.

I consulted Mom, who was home and available much more than Dad was. Should I take the plunge or keep intact what I had already made? I certainly did not have enough Erector Set pieces to make a second Ferris wheel without sacrificing the first. She easily expressed her opinion but made it clear that the momentous decision was entirely mine. She pointed out that I had already learned a lot by constructing the project from the book, and it didn’t seem necessary to keep the result as a trophy. To her, the knowledge and skills were the payoff for the effort, not the hardware.

I guess that was what I wanted to hear. Within minutes I was unscrewing bolts and nuts (losing a few in the carpet), and having nearly as much fun in wrecking as I had had in erecting, though now it went much faster of course.

Then came the improvising phase. What I had imagined was just conceptual; now I had to build, unbuild and rebuild sections, sometimes over and over, until the details both looked good and worked! There were times when things seemed to be falling into place easily, and other times when difficulties piled up, seeming to conspire against me, such that I grew angry and felt like quitting. I even came to rue the decision to destroy the original project, now that I had nothing to show for all those hours.

The new vertical supports seemed simple but had to be rebuilt several times to accommodate the motor. The live axle problem was solved by using set-screw pieces – a large pulley for the drive and a bracket to secure the axle in its hole through the wheel – thanks to the forethought of the A.C. Gilbert Company <>, who apparently anticipated motor-driven projects like mine. Motor mounting was a bigger challenge because it had to be oriented correctly in four axes: up-down, front-rear, left-right and rotation. The minor detail of the rubber band turned out to be a major one, because as I tried different types and lengths of rubber, they either fell off the motor’s drive pulley right away, or they were too stiff and the wrong size to get a grip, or too stretchy, or simply broke before the wheel even began to turn. Dad offered an old inner tube for me to cut circumferentially, giving a range of diameters to choose from, but the material was too thick and stretchy, while not “sticky” enough to grip without either slipping or climbing out of the drive pulley and falling off.

I was falling into despair and an emotional funk when Dad offered yet another possible solution in the form of a large roll of strong waxed yarn that he used with his leather awl to sew heavy material. He hinted that it might work if looped many times around the pulleys to make a custom-sized belt. I jumped on the idea and made at least ten passes around the two-pulley assembly, then spiraled another pass to bind the individual strands together in an organized bundle. It worked! Not stretchy, but sticky; that was the solution – the wax did what I had thought rubber would need to do: get a grip in the pulley grooves.

It was a very happy day. I stood back and watched Mom and Dad, in turn, gradually press the speed pedal to make the Ferris wheel go faster and faster. I rode on it in my imagination, feeling a surge of excitement as the cars rose up backward then came down forward, just as I had experienced at the Jantzen Beach amusement park on its magic island where the rivers joined forces, and also at The Oaks park in the southeast quarter of Portland.

The memory of that Erector Set effort and the sense of fulfillment from staying with the task through completion and being willing to sacrifice something already accomplished, if necessary, for the sound possibility, the reasonable hope, for something even better – has stayed with me  these 62 intervening years. On numerous occasions, in electronic projects and in musical/lyrical compositions, I have arrived at similar decision points, and I have taken the memory of my mother’s council as a suggestion that sometimes the path to greater things involves editing out something that is very good in itself.

Even before I married Frances, I discovered that the editing scissors she applies to her own poetry, prose and music run in the same vein (but with less hesitation). Luckily I was primed from an early age to appreciate it!

~ Tim

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