Saturday, January 12, 2008

Directions from an Old Compass

Old Brass Compass
Dad's Compass
It's January, and everyone's thoughts are turning to New Year's resolutions. I've never been able to get into the spirit of that activity. I'm more likely to turn over new leaves when the new leaves appear, say in April. Of course, that may just be my predisposition to procrastination.

Instead of looking ahead, my thoughts have turned back in time. I came across my father's compass a while ago, a really nice hand-held compass of the early 1900's. There's something solid and reassuring about the brass case and etched points: N, S, E, W. I'll admit that I'd never take it to the woods. My modern plastic instrument with rotating dial, firmly attached thong, and large stable base seems more practical... but less meaningful.

The compass was made in France. With complete confidence in the universal need for such information the maker has included a permanent mark indicating the declination (the difference between true north and magnetic north) to be used in that country. How like my father! With him, there was always the right way to do something, and then there was everyone else's way. It could be frustrating, but I learned early on to know that truth was a solid concept. Dad would never have understood the modern idea that "whatever works for you" is fine.

Dad's compass has a button on the side to lock the sensitive, ever quivering needle. This protects the magnetism when transporting the compass. I could insert comments here about the generation of men who learned to lock their emotions deep inside. I only saw my dad cry twice, ever. But instead, I'll tell you that he taught me to value and care for tools. Whether locking a compass needle, cleaning a shovel after use and slipping it back in the tool shed, or tuning up the lawnmower for a new season, one treated useful items with respect so that they would last. When I was ten, I was deemed to have reached some level of understanding of this concept and was given my first axe. I was the happiest girl in the woods. Oh, ok, I was probably the only girl in the woods.

A compass will guide you through a forest, but only if you make the right choices based on the information it provides. Dad was big on right choices. I'll never forget the day I came home with a beautiful sky-blue marble that I had found on the school bus. It was an oversized shooter, and was covered with milk-white swirls of glass like mare's-tail clouds against the summer sky. It was clearly the loveliest marble in my collection. But I hadn't come by it honestly. Dad made me turn it in at the school office. I don't know if it was ever claimed by a rightful owner, but I do know that I learned that good choices are not always pleasant or easy.

I still have most of Dad's tools, not just the compass. They are much more than just a lovely antique brace and bit, or a bucksaw with a stripped turnbuckle that will now lock in only one position. They give me a strange sense of connection with Dad and his values whenever I use them. And that direction from the past points me into the future. Happy New Year.

by Joan H. Young
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