|Where Do You Stop?
Chapter 3: The Real Value of Junk
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IT IS NOT SURPRISING that when I found myself bored, when I didn’t know
what to do with myself, when I was a little on edge and needed to find
or devise a way to relax, or even when I was just looking for a way to
pass the time, I sought inspiration in junk.
Most of the time, I found it there. The ready availability of intriguing materials is, I think, a spur to creation more often than the arrogance of artists allows us to admit. Fortunately for me, I lived in a family where there was plenty of intriguing stuff around. My father and Guppa not only held on to a great deal of what most people would have discarded but scavenged and accumulated bits and pieces of what other people actually had discarded. They regarded any useless thing with the attitude that its true, deep, hidden, or overlooked utility would be revealed—eventually. This attitude was summed up in the words they muttered when they tossed the thing into a corner of the cellar instead of tossing it into a trash can: “Never can tell—might come in handy someday.”
For me, these things already had their uses, since they were fodder for my browsing. I know that my mother understood the value of browsing through junk, because whenever she noticed that I was bored, didn’t seem to know what to do with myself, was fidgety and at loose ends, or seemed to find time hanging heavy on my hands, she would suggest that I pass the time by browsing through junk. Oh, sure, she might begin more conventionally by suggesting games or puzzles, but if I showed no interest in that sort of thing she would say, “Well, then, if you have nothing better to do, why don’t you straighten up the cellar,” and I knew that “straighten up” was her way of saying “poke around in.”
I HAVE SAID IT BEFORE: so much depends on chance. At my mother’s suggestion, there I was, down in the cellar, poking around in the junk, when I came upon something intriguing: the remains of an old windup record player. I don’t know where it came from, but whatever the source, it had, fortunately, reached our cellar in a state that made it completely useless as a record player but ideal as a diversion. Thank goodness, it had no amplifying horn, no pickup arm, no needles. If it had, I would never have seen it as raw material; I would have seen it as a record player, and I would have been blinded by that perception of it. I might have tried to fix it, and I might have filled the afternoon with the effort, but I would probably have failed and emerged from the experience frustrated, diminished by failure, possibly scarred for life. Instead, thanks to the providence that had dictated the evisceration and amputation of certain record-playing essentials, I saw only an engine, just something that would make something else rotate. Happy accidents had presented me with the ding an sich and a tacit invitation to make of it whatever I would. Its life as a record player was over, but there was a vital spark in the old gadget yet. All I had to do was discover its true, deep, hidden, or overlooked utility.
THE THING AS I FOUND IT was, essentially, this: a motor driven by a spring that the operator wound with a large crank (see Figure 1).
The motor was mounted vertically inside an oak box, with the shaft emerging
from the top of the box. Mounted on the end of the shaft, outside
the box, was a platter, covered with green felt. The record was supposed
to spin on this platter, of course. A small lever beside the platter
moved a brake into position to keep the platter from spinning while the
spring was being wound, or to release it to allow it to turn. Mounted
farther down the shaft, inside the box, was an intriguing trio of metal
balls. Attached to each ball were two strips of thin, springy metal.
The opposite end of each of these springs fitted into a slot in the rim
of a metal collar that fitted over the shaft, one collar above and one
below the arrangement of balls. These collars kept the balls in orbit
around the shaft, suspended by their leaf springs. The lower collar
was fixed in position, and the upper one slid on the shaft; however, its
movement was restricted by a screw that projected downward from the top
of the cabinet, its end against the upper collar. By turning a knob,
I could move this screw in its threaded fitting and vary the location of
the movable top collar. When the screw was at its lowest setting,
the top collar was pushed closer to the fixed bottom collar, and the springy
bands were extended outward, pushing the balls into an orbit more distant
from the shaft, where their greater angle of momentum slowed its spin and,
therefore, the rotation of the platter. When the screw was at its
highest setting, the springiness of the metal bands brought the balls inward
to a closer orbit and allowed the shaft to spin more quickly, rotating
the platter more quickly, just as spinning skaters spin faster with their
arms at their sides than with their arms extended. The adjustable
orbiting balls acted as a governor, a limiting device. Their original
purpose had been to allow the operator to keep the platter spinning at
the 78 rpm of old shellac records, so the range of adjustment was kept
short, just a narrow band at the center of the machine’s possible range
of speeds. The original purpose didn’t interest me, though.
I wanted to see the machine spin at its extremes, so I began dismantling
I HAD LEARNED that the best time to bring such things up was over dinner,
preferably late in the meal. I knew, too, that I had to be careful
not to give the whole plan away at once, since my father had noticed—and
on occasion had pointed out to me—the fact that some of the projects I
undertook didn’t turn out quite as I had advertised them before I began.
It would be best, I reasoned, not to announce my intention to build a lighthouse,
especially since lighthouses were a touchy subject in my family.
I’d once hoped that my father would build one for me, right through the
center of our house. He’d started, but in the middle of the project
he’d thought better of it—though I certainly wouldn’t have put it that
way—and abandoned the project. It would be best, then, to claim that
I had something else in mind, something more modest. I asked permission
to build a shack.
I SUSPECT that my father didn't have much faith in my ability to build a clubhouse or a fort or a hut, or even a shack for that matter, and that he expected me to build, no matter what I called it, an eyesore, because he allowed me to build it only if I built it at the top of the hill, where my failure would be hidden by the grove of bamboo.
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Where Do You Stop? is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, dialogues, settings, and businesses portrayed in it are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 1992 by Eric Kraft. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.
Where Do You Stop? was first published in hardcover by Crown Publishers, Inc., 201 East 50th Street, New York, New York 10022. Member of the Crown Publishing Group.
For information about publication rights outside the U. S. A., audio rights, serial rights, screen rights, and so on, e-mail the author’s imaginary agent, Alec “Nick” Rafter.
The illustration at the top of the page is an adaptation of an illustration by Stewart Rouse that first appeared on the cover of the August 1931 issue of Modern Mechanics and Inventions. The boy at the controls of the aerocycle doesn’t particularly resemble Peter Leroy—except, perhaps, for the smile.