I like old garages where I am able work in a familiar space I created, for better or for worse. I don't have a neatly organized or functional workshop in my garage. In fact, when I start working on a project, my space quickly becomes a disorganized mess of wood, tools, sawdust and assorted equipment. That's the way I like it. I enjoy being surrounded by the clutter of all types of tools and machinery. This is a more relaxed and laid back workspace where I can just escape to from time to time. Often I am more than happy to exchange my office and computer work space for the rickety old garage where the smell of pine lumber, oil and grease fills the air. This is a place where I use my hands to repair things, build and create solutions to material problems. It is more hands on and less brain stressful.
I grew up with a garage in the backyard all my life. Back home in Attawapiskat, a remote northern community on the James Bay coast, a garage is treated more like a cache to hold anything of value. In the isolated north, just about every usable object that ever appears is a valuable item because of the great amount of effort and expense that went into bringing it into the community. That fact was even more important in my parents generation when any metal object or tool was highly valued. I can remember dad's garage stuffed with outdated metal equipment, parts and tools. He wasted nothing.
Dad's old garage was jam packed with motorcycle and snowmobile parts, heating equipment, engine bits and pieces, gear chains, metal cogs, cutting blades and buckets of screws, nails and bolts. It got to the point where dad was actually storing obsolete machinery that no one had any clue as to what they were originally used for. To dad it was like a treasure trove.
Most garages back home were the same. Some held modest collections of old outboard engines or a snowmachine or two. Dad's featured a little bit more than most because he was involved in contracting and he was more or less a handy man. However, there were people like my cousin Robert Kataquapit who kept an ever expanding compound of mostly old snowmobiles, all terrain vehicles, cars and trucks. He was a self taught mechanic and one of the few in town that could work on an engine. He needed a big garage. Somehow he performed small miracles in this garage even though he was constantly looking for the right tool somewhere in a pile. We visited his place many times to repair our old trucks, tractors and snow machines over the years. As disorganized and unconventional as his place was, Robert had a knack for bringing dead motors back to life.
It was always a pleasure for me to watch my dad, Robert and a group of Elders and relatives around an old truck discussing the inner workings of the engine. My role was as the assistant who handed them the tools and it was exciting to be part of the serious matter of repairing a valuable machine. I was captivated by the conversations in that old garage. I remember listening for hours as the group theorized on the operation of a carburetor from an old truck. I watched for hours one afternoon as they reverse engineered the jig saw puzzle of transmission parts from an old John Deere tractor. Robert's ingenuity, or 'injun'-uity as we jokingly referred to it, amazed us all. He was very creative and could simply invent and produce the right part by filing things down to shape, carving his own plastic piece or melting plastic or metal objects to a desired form. He taught himself through trial and error.
When I finished high school in Attawapiskat I was hired on as the first shop assistant for the new technical wing for Vezina Secondary School. This job represented a big change for me because it was the first time I actually had the opportunity to work inside a modern fully furnished and equipped woodworking, mechanical and welding shop. For a change, I didn't have to work in a cramped space full of old greasy metal parts. I worked safely and comfortably inside a brightly lit and well designed shop with a concrete floor. It was a joy for me to help young students get their start in the trades with knowledge I had learned through hard work and effort in real hands on situations.
I loved the new modern shop but I still found myself wandering back to Robert's garage to check out the project of the day. Here I could fit in very easily and get wrapped up in the conversation focused around solving some mechanical problem. There was lots of fun with jokes and stories and I felt at home in that space. I feel the same way these days when I step into the soft light of my 50 year old garage and I putter around to my hearts content.
When I look up at the clear blue sky these days I am missing something. For about a year now during this wretched pandemic I have hardly seen any contrails...