The Clown

Jeffrey L. Bromberger, Lost Past His “Sell By” Date

22 October 2021

Sometimes, the only time that perfection matters is the time when nobody can recognize it but you.

When I was very young, home was a tinder box full of crazy.  And I mean full bore, balls to the wall, pedal to the metal, batshit crazy.  All you have to do is look at me these days and just imagine what sort of forge created it all, eh?

In order to keep me (and my sister) free from the raging psychoses that dripped from the walls like blood in a Hollywood horror film, my father used to bring us to our paternal grandparents nearly every weekend.  I don’t want to even consider the politics of that move, but I am eternally grateful that it happened.

Most days, it was my grandmother (and her twin sister) that looked after us.  Taught us to play ball in the street, walk on the Boardwalk, go to the beach, etc.  It was fun times – probably the best times there ever was (and may ever be).  But, above all, for me, it was night-time that I waited for.  My grandfather worked late hours, and would usually be home by 11 PM most nights.  So I’d sit with him as he’d eat dinner.  And after dinner, it was time for me to get my butt into bed.  Yes, I was always a late night guy, still am, but Grandma wouldn’t hear of me sleeping until noon.  We had to be up no later than 8 to do the chores before we went out.

And as I was in bed (and my sister was in the hide-a-way sofa next to me already asleep), he would softly tell us stories.  Most of them, looking back, were recycled tales he made up for my uncle’s youth.  They were all fun and fantasy.  But they weren’t the best of the stories he told.  I liked the real life tales about how, during the war, he worked those complex hours in the machine shops.  I was a normal, red-blooded boy, and talking about machinery was always more fun than anything else.

He’d tell about how you soldered metal using pickles, sharpened tools using newspaper, dropped hammers and other amazing things.  And even if it didn’t make 100% sense to my mind at the time, it was important to me – something very real.

It didn’t matter whether you could see the problem or not, but there are times you have to be perfect even if nobody else can easily recognize it.

One of the stories he used to tell was about this odd piece of metal that was lying in his old toolbox.  It didn’t look like anything I had ever seen – it had flats, curves, angles, milling marks, and polished sides.  It was unfinished, both in fit and finish.

I’d ask him what it was, and he said it was a piece of something that his factory was making at that time, but it was no good.  It was scrap, meant to be melted down and eventually tried again.  Of course, as a kid, I could not *see* where it was no good, so I’d ask how he knew it was problematic.  And the details would be shared…

“It’s a bracket for holding up the barrel of some sort of small tank.  And while it looks fine to you, I know that it is 13 thousandths of an inch too big on one side.  We had tools that could tell us that sort of stuff at the factory, and this one was off by 13.”  To me, at my young age, you couldn’t imagine a thousandth of an inch much less 13 of them.  That was such a small amount!  I mean, I could read a ruler pretty good by then and kinda knew how small an eighth of an inch was, and here we were talking about something so much smaller!   But he was insistent: “when you are that much off, it could cause you to aim at one thing and hit something else.”  He’d do his best to explain trigonometry to a 4th grader, but all I understood was that angles got bigger the further you go from the start of them.  It got the point across, I guess.  It didn’t matter whether you could see the problem or not, but there are times you have to be perfect even if nobody else can easily recognize it.  Perfect because you have no other option but to be.  Anything less than perfect and all you had was a chunk of garbage.

Every time I went to their home, each time I had to go diving into the hall closet for some reason, I’d open the toolbox and make sure that this odd chunk of metal was there.  Same strange shape, same “off by 13” – nothing ever changed – it was still defective, and therefore cosmically flagged as waste.  I’d always rub it like it was some strange religious talisman – as if my fingers could take away the dull finish and shine it up like a genie’s lamp.  Maybe rub it into spec?  Who could say.

When he passed in 1992, I recall coming back to New York from the Pacific NorthWest, where I was struggling to work on a PhD.  I wasn’t expecting his passing, so it was extremely hard on me.  Probably the hardest thing that I’d experienced up to that point.

Once, during the week of  shiva, everybody had finally cleared out of my grandparents’ apartment except my grandmother and myself.  My parents and sister had some errand to take care of and this was a quiet time between the next batch of guests coming to be with us.  It was our chance to talk and listen.  It was during this break when my grandmother offered me the chance to have something of his to keep.  She remembered how I loved to play with his pipes, or his hats, things like that.  I went to the closet, opened that old toolbox and chose this piece of metal instead.  She didn’t know why and, at the time, I may not have known why either.  Maybe it was just more solid than a hat and less fragile than an old used tobacco pipe.  I told nobody else (beside her) what I had claimed, and it quietly went into my suit jacket pocket and flew back to Vancouver with me.  Just a chunk of metal, and an imperfect one at that.  It was, and now would always be, 13 off.

Fast forward 5 or so years.  I was back in New York – the PhD didn’t happen for me up North the way it was planned.  And I had taken up a new hobby to try and focus my mind – target shooting.  It’s something that I still do to this day.  As you really get into the serious business of shooting competitively, you realize that there’s another thing you need to learn – how to make your own ammunition.  It’s not a “nice to do” thing – it is a “MANDATORY, LIKE BREATHING” thing.  Without going into the process of how and why we remanufacture our own rounds, let’s just say that it’s a complex and painstaking process when done for high accuracy.

The first rule is to get a reliable instruction book, read it a hundred times before you start, and then once you do start, you keep referring back to it.  And the book talks about everything that’s needed to get the job done correctly and safely.  One of the “safe” things is to check the size of your creations so that you know they will fit perfectly in the barrel of the firearm you’re going to use them in.  How “perfect” do they have to be?  Well, there’s usually allowances for one thousandth of an inch, and if you are not very picky, sometimes you can get away with maybe two thousandths of an inch.  It was then that it hit me.  Here I was, just starting out in reloading (which is a form of machine shop style work), and I’m measuring things for the first time down to sizes that I can’t see.  Well, I couldn’t see it  back then.  Now, you kind of get used to seeing (and even feeling) what one thousandth of an inch is.  So, for my grandfather to talk about being 13 off, it finally made real sense to me.  If you’re that far off, you might as well be a million miles off.  At that point, you’ve missed the boat, and there’s no way to bring it back.  If you need that level of perfection, you have to start over and keep doing it until you’re right.

So, I raise a toast to Herman.  Somehow, with a chunk of metal that failed an inspection, you managed to teach me the importance of accuracy – doing the job perfectly, without compromise, within specifications.  Without this, I’d have no professional career in IT.  I’d never have reached the heights in shooting that I have.  I wouldn’t have been able to rebuild the motor and transmission that’s going into my Mail Jeep.  All of this, my legacy from a bedtime story and a piece of metal that’s 13 off.  Thank you.


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