Repair Stories

Fix Things, Never Force It: Repair Lessons From Grandpa

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.

This plane crash that taught Kyle's grandfather the repair lessons he passed on

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.

We were of a different ilk — me the gangly boy with his nose always buried deep in the Internet, him the silent stalwart with his hands always working the land he loved. But shades of my grandfather color every part of my existence.

I recently found some letters that my brother and I wrote in our early teens, thanking him for giving us some money for college. In his letter, my brother thanked Grandfather for taking us to Goodwill to buy broken electronics. The sole purpose of these expeditions? Disassembly and exploration. Teardowns are in my blood.

When I left for college, Grandpa gave me a hug and a toolbox. I was the only one in the dorms with tools, and I was constantly fixing things for people. (We also used them for more nefarious purposes, swapping bathroom signs and locking the resident advisor out of his room.) Those were the first tools that were truly my own. They were not the last.

“Never force it.” That was Grandpa’s advice for tinkering, and it’s good advice for life. Work hard, but let things come. If what you’re doing isn’t working, try another way.

My grandfather died three years ago. But entropy loses again, because he lives on. In my tools and in my hands and in my heart. He instilled in me the spirit and blood of a tinkerer.

I visited his workshop the day of the funeral, to say goodbye. We were constantly joking with him about which tools would get inherited by each grandchild. I later found out that he actually wrote my name on some of the tools he wanted to reserve for me.

The last time he visited, I was able to show him my workshop. He didn’t have much to say, but he looked satisfied. He talked about the usefulness of pneumatic tools and teased me about my undersized compressor.

Grandfather was a builder and he was a fixer. He believed in the labor of his hands — that what you create with them is meaningful. It’s popular these days to relegate men like my grandfather to the past. We passively opine the passing of a dying breed — victims of progress and changing values — and move on with our (mostly digital) lives. I don’t think we should let that happen. Our world is in desperate need of men and women of action. People who always find a way to get things done. People who believe that what’s broken can always be fixed.

Kyle showing his grandfather iFixit, the free repair manual

And even though my grandfather was never quite comfortable with digital sprawl, I like to think that the same determination to fight against entropy that drove him is what also drives iFixit — the free repair guide for everything. I wrote my first repair manual in college, with the same toolbox he gave me when I left for school.

I had hoped that he would live to see iFixit make repair meaningful again, even if the world now is mostly silicon and code. The last thing I sent him was an article, published the week before he died, about our plans for an online community of mechanics and tinkerers. His funeral was on April 22, 2010, the same day we launched.

Grandpa understood what we are trying to do. And although he wouldn’t have said so, I know he would have been proud. For me, that is the greatest, most profound feeling in the world. He left me with a legacy to uphold: I will always aspire to be a builder, to fix the world in any way I can, and to fight entropy by whatever means possible.

I will be a man of action.