Fix Things, Never Force It: Lessons From Grandpa

Remembering a tinkerer in an age of silicon and code
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My grandfather was a man of action.

When he was just a teenager he manned an aircraft carrier in the Pacific theater of World War II, then he served as a flight engineer during the Korean conflict. Decades later, when time and exertion had weathered his body, he showed us his favorite photo from the war: A plane that crashed on landing, but just managed to avoid sliding off the deck of the ship. He helped put out the fire.

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After Korea, he was chief facilities engineer during the height of the cold war at Los Alamos National Labs maintaining buildings for classified nuclear research. He left the employ of the government and went to work for IBM, overseeing the construction of their big plant in South San Jose. A while back, the entire compound was razed. They replaced it with a Lowe's and a parking lot.

Such is the world of things.

Grandpa spent his life making and maintaining things, so he knew a lot about entropy: The second law of thermodynamics that guarantees everything will eventually wear out. Every day he built things; every evening, the sun set and entropy gnawed away at what he built. Not much, just a little.

But Grandpa was more efficient than entropy: He never stopped fixing, improving, and building. He built more in his lifetime than anyone else I know.

After IBM, he scraped together enough money to buy a cattle ranch in Powell Butte, Oregon. It was a life of hard, grueling days and relentless work. Every season was a struggle -- physically, mentally, and financially. Growing hay and cattle in the high altitude desert of Eastern Oregon is not easy.

In the mid-seventies after the cattle market crash, Grandpa knelt in the middle of his fields, crying out to God for a way to save the ranch and feed his family. They made it through by sheer force of will -- the will of a man who lived through the Depression and two wars. A man who believed in sweat, guts, and gumption. A man who refused to give way to entropy.

On the ranch, the new encroaches on the old. Grandpa's ranch is right next to Prineville, and the power lines leading to Facebook's new data center run over his land. My mother recalls playing hide and seek beneath the giant transmission towers that would someday power the future -- a world of code and silicon, not of things.

The Internet came a little too late for him. By that time, he was set in his ways -- unimpressed by highfalutin technological ideals. My brother's construction engineering courses always interested him more than my computer science education. I understood. Grandfather was a fan of the tangible: the feel of wood grain, the heft of a wrench, the smell of hay baking under the summer sun.

I was always in awe of what my grandfather could do. As I was growing up, when a faucet needed fixing or we needed a lighting fixture installed, it was my grandfather who did it. He brought his toolbox with him every time he came over. I remember being enthralled by his workshop, with his oddly large bandsaw and drawers of strange woodworking tools.

Like the tools and the wood that he worked, Grandfather was rough-hewn. He could be hard and gruff. As a child, his demeanor drove me to tears more than once. When I would accidentally interfere with his work, he would grunt, "Get out of my road." He wasn't offended by my presence, he just needed to get past me to get things done. Finishing the job was primary. All his intellectual effort went into finding the most efficient way to accomplish the task. Slight emotional casualties along the way were acceptable. It took me years to understand that.

But he was quietly affectionate in his own way. He never spoke praise, but you could see it in his eyes. I remember seeing that look on his face when I became an Eagle Scout, just as he had been so many years before. It was the first time I knew that Grandfather was proud of me.

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Kyle Wiens is the CEO of iFixit, the free repair manual. He writes and speaks regularly repair, e-waste, and informal economies.  More

He is also the founder of Dozuki, a software company that helps manufacturers publish online technical documentation. He has testified on electronics reuse before International Trade Commission and is actively involved in developing global environmental standards. Kyle's writing has been published in Wired, the Harvard Business Review, and the Wall Street Journal. He has appeared on radio and television networks including MSNBC, the BBC, CBC, and NPR. 

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