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The old lathe

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Christine Tailer

By Christine Tailer
HCP columnist

It is a chilly, wet morning, and I am in no rush to head outside to do chores. I sit warm in my rocker, sipping my coffee, thinking back to the days when I would pop out of bed and run downstairs to see what my father might be up to in his shop. It was a magical place, down in the basement.

I sit rocking, remembering the whirring sounds and oily smells as I watched Dad work on his lathe. It seemed like magic to me, the way he could fabricate just what he needed, whittling away the metal, shiny curls spiraling off the piece and falling to the floor.

Even in my childhood, the lathe was already old. Dad had found it in a metal shop down on Canal Street. Like many city folks, we did not have a car. We simply walked or took public transportation everywhere we went, but there was no way to get the lathe onto a bus or into a taxi, and so our father securely strapped it onto his hand truck. 

I remember how proudly we walked beside him as he trundled the heavy load home. We all felt as though we were on parade as we made our way back up to 17th Street, somehow knowing that we had just acquired the world's best treasure, though we really had no idea why. We simply knew that our father was thrilled, and we were ever so happy to hang out with him in his basement shop as he fabricated whatever metal pieces he might need while building the prototype of his latest invention.

So, when my father stoically recognized that old age had stolen his ability to work the lathe, he asked if Greg might be able to put it to good use. He did not have to ask twice. Greg and I packed our bags, put straps in the back of the pickup truck, and headed east, across the mountains, to bring the Atlas home with us. Once again, the lathe was securely strapped down for its journey, and once again, I felt ever so happy.

I now know that this particular Atlas quite likely dates back to the late 1930s. It has a 54-inch bed, and can turn a piece of metal up to 10 inches in diameter. I have learned that most all of its kind were put to work during the Second World War in support the Allied war effort, either fabricating new parts or reworking old ones, though I do not know this particular lathe's actual history. All I know is that it ended up on Canal Street, in New York City, in the early 1960s. It was said, back in those days, that if one was so inclined, one could build a complete helicopter from parts procured along Canal Street.

Once back home, Greg lovingly took the lathe completely apart, stripped and repainted the painted parts, cleaned and oiled the mechanical parts, and then put it all beautifully back together. I stood aside, and watched in wonder as Greg, for the first time, turned the lathe on with a flick of the 80-year-old switch. Oh, how I remembered my father's flick of that switch.

Then, with nothing short of artistry, I watched as Greg worked the many handles, turning them as they needed to be turned, and in so doing moved the appropriate cutting tool along the piece he was fabricating. Metal curls spiraled off and fell to the floor below. You can imagine how my heart felt close to bursting. If there is a cloud nine, I was surely on it.

My father may no longer be with us, though I still have several of his creations, a brass cannon, a few clocks, and many photographs of his other inventions, perhaps the most amazing of which is of his tubular metal boat that looked more like a floating steel bridge sitting atop a giant rubber air mattress, than it did a sea vessel. 

To say, however, that dad is no longer with us is really not quite true. Every single time Greg flips that switch, and the old Atlas spins to life, I know that my father is standing right by his side. I imagine Dad leaning in close to peer over Greg's shoulder, and in his soft voice inquiring curiously what Greg might be fabricating now, a chisel disc spindle for our neighbor's farm implement, an insert for my Orchard tractor's refurbished gear shift knob, a plug for a vintage exhaust system, or maybe a shaft for an antique milling machine. I know that Dad is smiling, and I also know, that once this cup of coffee is finished, and our animal chores completed, that Greg and I will head down to his shop, and work a bit of metal magic. 

Christine Tailer is an attorney and former city dweller who moved several years ago, with her husband, Greg, to an off-grid farm in Ohio south-central Ohio. Visit them on the web at straightcreekvalleyfarm.com.  

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