It sits in a small slot on the back of my drawing table, hardly noticeable nestled between the larger tools for it is only 5 ¼ inches long. It is deceptively heavy for a tool that fits so snugly in the palm of my right hand. Try as I might, I seem unable to part with it., though I make serious efforts these days to get rid of my accumulated clutter.
The deep grey metal patina is what stirs me visually. The tapered handle sports six rows of engraved leaf pattern one of which boasts in capital letters: PATdMAR19,1867. The tip of the tiny screwdriver measures less than 1/8 inch, but one can unscrew the larger end and find tucked inside two even smaller interchangeable points. Occasionally I use it in some art project for I love the feeling of the carved decoration and cool steel between my fat arthritic fingers.
How did I come to possess it? I found it tucked in a drawer in Vernet’s tidy basement workshop some thirty years after he died. His daughter, Lee, and I were cleaning out her folks’ property to sell following the death of her mom.
Vernet was a gentle man, next to youngest of 17 children. His sweet personality must have evolved from his mom, for his dad was known far and wide for his cantankerous ways. His parents worked a small truck farm in what was then rural Emeryville, not far from where Ikea sits today. When Vernet was about 14 he observed his father beating the family mule so cruelly that the mule dropped dead. Seconds later, so did his dad. A massive stroke.
Lee grew up playing softball and sharpening her mechanical aptitude with her dad. “I TRIED to teach her to cook and sew”, her mom would complain, “but she only wanted to be outside working on projects with her dad.”
His basement workshop was always off-limits to family. For one thing he kept a few bottles of beer and gin down there to sneak snorts when he wanted to hide the practice from his wife.
Mostly I picture him in blue bib overhauls and engineer’s cap. I have no idea where he got this particular tool I love but I can imagine. He was a Southern Pacific hostler and brakeman all of his life except during the depression when there was no work, at which time he sold tacos from a horse and wagon on San Pablo Ave in Berkeley.
Perhaps he brought it home from the rail yards? Perhaps it adjusted some small valve on the old steam engines that roared through West Oakland? Perhaps it was his Dad’s? I love it for what it is, and for the tender association I shared with him.