I remember there was a flamethrower.
At least once—possibly twice—I have mentioned my 6th-grade teacher, Mrs. Halverson. She was awesome. Kim Halverson was the kind of teacher every kid should have. She made you want to be good just because. For no other reason than that. In my 6th-grade year, she read to us all the time. She would read novels, short stories, poems, and just about anything else that had words. I now work at a middle school and know how much time teachers have on a given day to cover a topic. And to this day I still cannot understand how she did all that she did. She was the best. The best!
One day she read to us the story of Leiningen Versus the Ants—first published in 1938.
Leningen was a plantation owner in Brazil who had to face an oncoming horde of soldier ants. He is warned that he must flee or he will die—as the ants devour everything in their path. Leningen defies the warning as he refuses to lose everything he has built, to mere ants. In the story, Leningen devises a series of traps that temporarily thwart the tiny invaders. Unfortunately, eventually, the ants prevail over Leningen’s devices and craftiness. Before he loses everything, Leningen floods his plantation and wipes away the ant onslaught and most of what he strived to protect. But, in the end, he did prevail.
My memory says that what happened next, happened that night. It may have been a few days later, but I digress. The point is that within a very short period of time of having had Lenningen Versus the Ants read to me, Trumbo’s World played out before my eyes in technicolor.
Trumbo’s World is an original MacGyver television series episode that first aired on November 10th, 1985. In this episode… Wait. For those that are unfamiliar with the series, MacGyver works for a foundation that helps people. This job, for reasons that I never really understood (or cared about), always seemed to put MacGyver in dangerous and/or life-threatening situations. For more about MacGyver, you can visit the Wikipedia site, MacGyver Online, or Live & Learn: A MacGyver Fansite.
So yeah, in this episode MacGyver finds himself in the Brazilian Amazonia jungle, about to be besieged by marabunta (large swaths of army ants). Sound familiar? The ants are coming and MacGyver helps defend a small plantation-like fortification by using moats, fire (flamethrower!), and other things that are very much like the solutions used by Leningen.
One point in the written story, that I vividly recall, is a description of how the ants downed a deer (my memory says it was a horse, Wikipedia says a stag… potato, potato) and stripped its carcass clean down to the bone within seconds. I also vividly recall telling my mother about this story and how unbelievably cool it was, and how unbelievable the devouring of the animal was. Then, she educated me. She told of how she—when, as a child, and living in the jungle—was almost devoured by ants. How her mother saved her. And, how the recovery was very painful.
Okay. Ants can do what the story said they can. I know I never looked at another ant the same again. Ever.
So, yeah, ants and such… MacGyver, at one point, used a generator and a coin to weld a connecting rod. I was blown away. Welding?!?! With a battery and money?!?! Well, if MacGyver can do it, it must be possible! MacGyver wouldn’t lie to us. Television might. But, not MacGyver. (I know what I wrote) And so, I stored that nugget of emergency-skill-knowledge away for a rainy day.
Two years later, it rained.
The lawnmower I used was old. Almost as old as me. It had been through a lot. Four moves. Bad terrain. Maybe a little unwarranted abuse by someone that had to use it. I’m not naming any names here. I’m just sayin’. That’s all. Yeah, it had been through some things, and age was showing. Especially in the back. In the housing frame. Near the right wheel. Next to where the handle attached itself to the housing frame. This mower wasn’t a riding mower. I’ve never had one, and probably never will—I’m fine with that. I like mowing the lawn. It’s good exercise.
Anyway, there was a crack. And, with every use, it was slowly getting worse. Oh sure, I could help take direct tension off of the damaged area by angling the handle differently and pushing the mower along with a subtle change in leverage, but the crack was still growing.
Upon inquiring of my father, I discovered that to have it repaired was out of our financial capabilities for a while. That also indicated to me that we were not getting a new lawnmower anytime soon (we never did later, either). Nurtz…
Remember the nugget I mentioned earlier? I did. “Dad, can I try to weld the frame back together?”
“With what?” My father was clearly intrigued by this. He knew as well as I, that we did not own—or have access to—a welder.
“Our car battery, jumper cables, and a quarter.”
I then explained the MacGyver episode and how the welding would be done. How I would need to use the car battery because we had no generator (MacGyver talked about this, I think. it’s been a long time since I watched that episode). How I would be safe. How I knew what I was doing because at fourteen I had so much experience with make-shift welders and such.
Now, some might think that my father—or any father—would have busted out laughing at an idea that came from a television show drama. My dad did not. He understood enough about the principle to let me try it out. I had had some rudimentary welding in middle school shop class, and so understood basic safety and such. Well, some time to set up, and a quarter later, I was welding.
It didn’t work out so well the first time. The quarter was just melting the already weakened metal together, rather than adding metal to hold the fracture. Also, I drained the battery. Oops. I hadn’t turned the car on. I didn’t know what an alternator did, or how much juice I was pulling from the battery when I was practicing my George Washington spot weld.
A recharge later, a little more practice, and I had the break pretty well repaired. Sadly, it wasn’t enough to maintain a good, solid repair. It was always a temporary fix. But, the simple fact that my father trusted me enough to let me try it, and was surprised at how well it worked, made me feel pretty good about myself and my MacGyver skills. He made me think that I could do anything (MacGyver, not my dad—although my dad was supportive and let me do my own thing, so maybe both MacGyver and my dad). MacGyver felt like a real person. Like that kind of adult any kid would want as a dad, or uncle. I know it was fictional television. But, I also know that the tricks used were also based on facts. I had a science teacher verify one episode that involved Hershey chocolate bars and a corrosive chemical leak and how chocolate does react to that particular chemical to make a chemical weld. MacGyver wouldn’t lie to us children. That would be wrong.
Eventually, we were able to get the lawnmower professionally welded and I was able to stop spending my weekends in the garage becoming exhausted while spot welding with George Washington. What I had to use to mow the lawn while that took place is a whole other story. Regardless, I was very grateful for what I had learned from MacGyver all those years ago.
That television show also fueled my passion for makeshift gadgets and gizmos. As a teacher, I know that I can be an influential person in the life of my students. I can only hope to achieve the same level of positivity and encouragement in the lives of those whom I work with that both Mrs. Halverson and MacGyver did for me, all those years ago.
*Author’s Note: This very morning I had to use a paperclip to reset a student’s calculator. The paperclip. So versatile.