Braille Monitor                                             April 2016

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Driving a Nail

by Dan J. Hicks

Dan HicksFrom the Editor: Dan Hicks is the immediate past president of the National Federation of the Blind of Florida, and he and his wife Gloria have long been strong and articulate Federationists. Here are remarks he made at the 2016 convention of the National Federation of the Blind of Florida:

It has been said that if you give a person a hammer, every job will look like it needs a nail. It has also been said that ideas are like genes: they travel from mind to mind, propagating in something like the way genes travel from generation to generation. Genes that help to make an organism stronger and able to survive to pass the genes on will be more common, maybe even prevalent. Ideas which prove beneficial to one mind will be passed to other minds. Hopefully, good ideas will drive out bad ideas. It doesn't always happen this way, but when it does, it can benefit everyone, and real progress can be made. Thus does cultural evolution take place.

More than thirty years ago, biologist Richard Dawkins used the word "meme" to refer to an idea which spread from mind to mind in this fashion. When I was about nine or ten, my father gave my younger brother Dallis and me each tool kits, complete with kid-size tools, for Christmas. He wanted us to learn to use and take care of tools, and I think he wanted to make sure we would keep our hands off his own adult-size tools. In the metal boxes were screwdrivers, a tape measure, a level, a saw, and a hammer. The saws were the weakest of the bunch, being small even by our standards. Neither were they very sharp, fit only for cutting small pieces of the softest woods. But all of the other tools were quite serviceable.

Mostly we used the hammers. It was made quite clear that we were not to use them on each other.

And, although these hammers were smaller than their full-sized counterparts, they were far from light, capable of doing real work—and smashing fingers and thumbs. So, before we were allowed to use the hammers for the first time, my dad gave us a lesson on how he used one to drive a nail into a piece of wood.

We scrounged the field in back of our house for scraps of wood, debating on just what we might build out of the mismatched pieces we found. The only thing that I can recall completing was a strange kind of box—which we used to hold other scraps of wood.

My dad had always been legally blind, and his vision worsened as he became an adult. Although Dallis has perfect vision, I have always been legally blind. My dad possessed a great technique to avoid hitting one's fingers while driving a nail. This is the technique he showed us: position the nail where you want it to go. Tap it gently several times with the hammer to get it started. When you feel the nail is in far enough to stand on its own for a moment, take your hand away and give it a good whack with the hammer—just one. Feel the nail with your fingers to make sure it is going in straight, and give it another tap. This will reorient the head of the hammer with the head of the nail. Take your fingers away and give the nail another good whack!

Repeat these last couple of steps until the nail is just about in. You can finish with a few hard whacks once you are sure the nail will end up exactly as you intended, but for most of the nail pounding, your motions will be an alternating tap whack, tap whack, tap whack!

I have always done it this way. It works well if you have no vision, low vision, or very good vision. I have shown this method to sighted friends and found them instantly adopting it as their default method of driving a nail. One guy told me his buddy looked at him strangely once when he was using it, and he explained that he has never hit his thumb with the hammer since he started using the hammer that way. His friend was convinced and immediately adopted the technique. So the meme has spread.

Still, I know there are other methods of driving a nail, and they must work for those who use them. Whatever works is best for each tool user.

My wife and I recently moved from a residential area where, on just about every block, houses had been torn down, and new, larger, more expensive homes were being built in their place. It gets hot here in Florida. Builders often start work quite early in the day.

On many mornings as I walked to the bus stop, I would pass by construction sites where workers would be hammering. I would listen to them. Often I heard the crack of nail guns or the steady bang-bang-bang of nails being pounded in with steady, equal strokes. But, on more than a couple of occasions, I would hear what sounded like tap whack, tap whack, tap whack.

I wonder—did the person hammering in such a way pick up that meme from someone who picked it up from someone, who picked it up from someone … who picked it up from my dad, or was it from someone who taught the technique to my dad? Did that particular carpenter happen to come up with the technique on his own? It's not a particularly radical idea. I could see it being invented many times over by people who don't like the feel of hard steel impacting their fingers and thumbs.

Or could it just be the sound of two workers who happen to have their pounding oddly synchronized, one of them hitting the nail much harder than the other? I prefer the other possibilities.

My dad is now totally blind and doing more woodworking than ever before, usually by himself. When I have visited my parents, I have been astounded and impressed by the quality of the workmanship in some of the pieces he has completed.

He says he can't imagine hammering a nail any other way than that which he showed my brother and me more than forty years ago. I can’t imagine doing it any other way either.

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