The text crawling across the bottoms of television news broadcasts came into play on September 11, 2001 for very good reasons, and – for reasons unknown – never went away again. Soon after the original calamity was sorted out, news people ran out of actual news alerts to put into the endless crawl and began posting any scrap of evidence of life on Earth: “Senate convenes… Panda something… Atlanta temps seasonal… DOW opens down… Something panda…”
Staring at a television one day in an airport lounge somewhere in America, hypnotized by this dribble of nonsense, an alert caught my attention, “Man fires watermelon through Pontiac with homemade cannon…”
Try as I did to find out more, it was the last I heard of the story.
The homemade watermelon cannon is not what captivated me. Instead, it was the ambivalence over whether he fired the melon through the city of Pontiac, Michigan, or through an automobile which is no longer made, and most importantly, which would be cooler to see?
That’s what I love most about my country. Of course somebody made a cannon that shoots watermelons – but what did he do with it? That’s the question that really matters.
Americans make things. Okay, everybody makes things. Homo Faber – Man the Maker – is a well-worn anthropological touchstone. What separates Man from beast is our use of language and our propensity to make tools to make stuff to make our lives better. What separates Americans from the rest of Homo Faberdom is the urge to make things for the sake of making them. The product need not have any useful application whatsoever, though they often do. It’s making it that matters.
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NASA’s Apollo moon program is the prime example of American know-how, determination, and resources martialed into common cause. In the end, these expeditions produced several hundred pounds of rocks – arguably more than what might be gained with a watermelon cannon, but not by much. Americans knew going in that a box of rocks was going to be the likely payoff, and they did it anyway.
It wasn’t, “We are going to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade in order to own and subdivide it like Florida.” We did it because no one had ever done it and that was reason enough. The fact we got transistors and Velcro out of the deal was just good luck.
We did it because we couldn’t think of a good reason not to. Robert Kennedy summed us up with, “Some men see things as they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were and ask why not.”
When watermelon-cannon man’s wife asked him why, you know he shrugged, took a pull from his long-neck Pabst, and replied, “Why not?”
I credit this trait to the fact that when early Americans, Homo “Detritus,” were first drawn to, conned to, or dragged to the continent it was a simple fact of life that if they hadn’t brought it with them they were going to have to make it.
They must have been awfully busy making the things they neglected to bring because a hundred years would pass from when the Spanish, English, and Dutch started nosing around North America in the late 16th and early 17th centuries to the arrival of the first meaningful American inventions: Swim Fins in 1717, and the Franklin Stove in 1742.
There were two earlier outliers: The Massachusetts general court issued a patent to Samuel Winslow for a new way of making salt in 1641, and the court granted a patent for a mill for manufacturing scythes to Joseph Jenkes in 1646. (No rule or consensus has been issued to this day, however, on how to pronounce “scythes.”)
Swim fins are cool. I didn’t know that was an American thing, but I will now flop down the beach in mine with new pride. As for the Franklin stove, frankly, I cannot understand how it took so long to think of it. One has to live with a stone fireplace for maybe half of a winter to realize what an efficient device they are for emptying your home of heat while consuming the woodpile.
You’d think that just by accident some Mesopotamian soldier on a cold desert night would have leaned a shield or something against the firepit and noticed how it radiated heat while keeping the smoke out of his eyes.
Two or three thousand years of feeding forests into chimneys to little effect and nobody says, “What if we put the fire in an iron box so we could control it?” Pythagoras? Da Vinci? Galileo? Anyone?
It took an American, Benjamin Franklin, to say, “This is bullsh*#t,” and pull out the sketch pad and welding torch.
Ben Franklin is also responsible for the all-American consumer tool, the mail-order catalog. (Amazon owes him royalties.) He came up with the lightning rod, bifocals, and the flexible urinary catheter – in that order. You can mark “Poor Richard’s” life challenges by his innovations: First, his aging feet start getting cold – wood stove. Gets tired of going out and dealing with the idiots on the streets of Philadelphia – mail order. Keeps sitting on his reading glasses – bifocals. Alexander Hamilton’s cursed central bank – lightning rod. [Fill in your guess] – flexible urinary catheter.
Americans are also problem solvers. Thomas Jefferson invented the swivel chair so he could begin spinning in his grave over what we were going to do to the government he helped create before he was even dead.
Like the Apollo program, we make things to solve problems we don’t have. Truck nuts, for example, and video games. And we make many things to solve problems we do have: Chemotherapy, dental floss, cardiac defibrillators, hearing aids, and traffic lights.
Granted, our innovators are not always pulling in the same direction. Americans invented radiocarbon dating and the Creation Museum. We also discovered that science could be invalidated simply by not believing it. That innovation will literally change the world.
Speaking of the End of Days, Americans claim the invention of mobile phones, personal computers, the Internet, and e-mail. We also invented light-emitting diodes (LEDs) so we could see all of that stuff charging in the bedroom.
Another what-took-you-so-long American invention is crash test dummies. What were they using before that? I doubt in their wildest dreams the inventors ever thought they’d see one in Congress, but why not?
And, of course, the most American invention of them all – the Global Positioning System (GPS). We will never again have to stop and ask for directions.
One could go on for pages on the contributions, great and small, Americans have made to the universe of stuff. But it would be chauvinistic, perhaps even nationalistic, to do that without also acknowledging the innovations and expertise of the other nations and cultures who have made so many amazing things while somehow never landing men on the moon. Six times.
But thank you, France, for the mayonnaise.
Americans have been killing it in the Department of Making Things for its entire tenure, but we’re by no means alone or even always out front in these modern, global times. A lot of the stuff we make we make in other places, and a lot of other places make their stuff here. But what America has that these other places don’t have is a society of “putterers.” (Does French or Russian or Mandarin even have a word for “putter”?)
Americans can’t help but putter. We putter in our garages, and basements, and backyards. Armed with an arsenal of tools made in China and affordably priced at box stores strategically placed every six miles across the U.S., Americans are busy making things. A cannon that can shoot a watermelon through a car, or mid-sized city – no one’s really sure – does not come out of thin air. It comes out of someone’s garage and is no less a miracle than Steve Jobs’ Apple computer. (While impressive, the Apple computer was not actually made in a garage and could not then nor today shoot fruit.)
I’m not sure if my father was a putterer. The label invokes some sort of leisurely pursuit. An aimless tinkering. I never saw a repairman or professional tradesman in our house. Everything Dad did around the crumbling house I grew up in with my five siblings was purposeful and profoundly necessary. He never called a repairman or professional tradesman to fix anything. The garage was stuffed with tools, and whatever he didn’t have for the job at hand would be acquired – a tradition I embrace to this day.
We once jacked up the sagging center beam of our two-story house three inches with big screw jacks and cheater bars in the basement. My job was to run upstairs every time we took a turn on the jacks to see if the plaster was falling off the walls anywhere. I was nine or 10 when I learned that with determination, three rented screw jacks, and some amazing swears, you could move worlds. The house settled and groaned in the night all the rest of my youth. The little kids thought it was ghosts. I knew it was my dad and me.
My dad fixed everything – even our television. When the set would go on the blink, he’d unscrew the back and poke around with some kind of tester while looking at the scrambled picture in the reflection of the hall mirror he’d take down and propped on the sofa in front of the TV. After a while, he’d come out with three or four vacuum tubes in his hand. They looked like light bulbs with pins for a base. He’d mutter something about RCA and vertical hold, then disappear to the hardware store. I can’t remember him ever coming back without the solution.
He could finish concrete, mud sheetrock, wire circuits, and spent an entire summer retrofitting a modern hot water heating system throughout the house. I was sent into the dark little places with a flashlight to get the other end of whatever he was pushing through the wall. This is what we did on weekends.
Dad seemed to know everything, but looking back on it now, I realize he was figuring it out as he went. He worked all day as an engineer at a plant that made heaters and air conditioners. He’d never built anything or worked in a trade of any kind. He grew up during the Depression in Chicago without a father. He was put to work on weekends fixing things, I suppose, for his mother and sister. They didn’t do a lot of family picnics. Neither did we. Weekends were for working.
In high school, when I wanted a cabinet to lock up my record albums and protect my controlled substances from invasive brothers and sisters, it never occurred to me not to build it myself in the basement. By the time I got a car, I was 19 and in college, but that summer I lived at home making roadworthy a 1955 Pontiac Star Chief I bought with chickens still living in the trunk. I plugged rust holes (you could have safely fired a watermelon through that Pontiac), rebuilt the carburetor, rewired the lighting, and tore the dead radio apart. I went down to the hardware store with a handful of questionable tubes and came back with the solution.
NASA landed the Viking 1 spacecraft on the surface of Mars in the summer of 1976 – the same summer I landed in Alaska, where I would spend the next 23 years. We didn’t even get a box of rocks out of Viking. I got everything I would ever be out of Alaska.
Alaska in the ‘70s was still the wild west. The oil pipeline was hosing the state with cash and there weren’t enough people there to build all the houses, schools, and bridges to nowhere that needed building.
I lied my way into every job I took – cannery forklift driver, high-iron construction monkey, logger, commercial fisherman, marine electronics technician, construction contractor. I had contracts to build three houses in 1979 without ever having actually built a house.
But I figured it out. Like I’d watched my dad figure it out. The most important thing I learned from him was, “Anything that has been done is doable.” Where he learned it from, I can only imagine. My best guess is he got it as his American birthright.
He’d watched Chicago improvise its way through the Depression. He joined the Navy and helped his country improvise its way through a war that left it at the top of the food chain for the rest of his life and mine. Once you do that, how hard can jacking up a stupid house be?
We often hear boasts of the American Can-Do spirit. We’ve earned it, but I don’t think it’s entirely accurate. Can-do implies expertise, which is pretty evenly distributed across humanity. What Americans have is more of a Must-Do spirit.
Dad could have left the sag in the floor. We wouldn’t have minded. At least we knew where to find our marbles. But dad couldn’t stand it anymore than his generation could stand the fact that the moon was just circling out there with nobody on it any more than a man, perhaps in Michigan, could stand the absence of a watermelon cannon in his life once he’d thought of it.
“Man fires watermelon through Pontiac with homemade cannon…”
I could watch news like that crawl by all day long.
Tom Bodett is an author and broadcast personality heard regularly on NPR’s satirical weekend news quiz Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me. He has been the national brand spokesman for Motel 6 since 1986, which allows him to live in the middle of a hayfield in Windham County, Vermont, rather than near an actual job.
Headshot of Tom courtesy of Beowulf Sheehan.