Thursday, September 16, 2010

If I had a... Oh. Never Mind

It’s 1:15 in the afternoon and I’m stuck in traffic. There’s nothing unusual about this; we’re in Northern Virginia, a few miles south of Washington DC, and the area is undergoing a massive upheaval as construction for an extended subway line befouls circulation for miles around. Everywhere you turn are pillars that will support new bridges and overpasses, road torn to shreds and awaiting re-tarmacking,  closed lanes and iridescent traffic cones. I once calculated that the average speed on roads in my neighborhood is 12 miles per hour. NoVa already has a rep as the third-worst driving experience in the country and it’s not getting any better.

I’m waiting for the light to change. On my right, a huge orange machine is gouging red clay and leaving teethmarks while a portly construction worker is hitting something with a hammer. It suddenly strikes me: he’s hitting something with a hammer, just as people have been hitting things with hammers since the first tool-using anthropoid picked up a rock and hit another rock with it. The hammer is man’s primeval implement, weapon, artifact, and valued property. Hammers are handed down from father to son. A hammer’s purpose hasn’t changed in tens of thousands of years; it is par excellence, the great-great grand-daddy of all tools. Here’s a guy still enjoying the afterglow of Sunday’s Redskins victory, and he’s hammering, as untold generations did before him. How cool is that?

Hitting things is a basic human activity. We hit nails, balls, targets, and each other. The hammer is a way of making the hit more powerful, more focused, more lethal. We use the hammer to do the most basic of construction chores—securing one piece of something to another piece of something. We use it to make and pound out dents; little ones put brads into delicate woods, giant ones sink pilings into the earth and through bedrock. Hammers on anvils beat red hot metal into plowshares and swords and don’t care about the final product. It’s all in the relentless force generated by muscle and mass; hammering—it’s all repetition, and no one has really improved on the basic concept—a handle, a head, a trajectory and something to be hammered.

The hammer is a powerful symbol, too, and with its agricultural cousin the sickle, it caused an entire generation of students to hide under their school desks in fear of a nuclear attack. Pete Seeger sang that if he had a hammer he’d change the world, which came to represent the progressive movement in the early 50s and gave socialism a bad name.

I suspect hammers will continue to have a purpose and a place in society for the foreseeable future. And I also am almost certain no one will ever sing, “If I had a crescent wrench.”

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