In 1929, Charles Sale authored a small book of humor entitled The Specialist, about a country handyman, Lem Putt, who one day decided to become “the champion privy builder of Sangamon County.” He took all aspects of his craft seriously, first and foremost the question of location. He suggests building a privy near a woodpile since “a timid woman . . . is too bashful to go direct out so she’ll go to the woodpile, pick up the wood, and go back to the house to watch her chance.” This means that the wood box will get filled by noon. He suggests beams over joists since nobody likes a “diggin’ party.” (“Aunt Emmy ain’t gettin’ a mite lighter. Some day she might be out there when them joists give way and there she’d be—catched.”) He prefers lean-to roof designs over a pitched roof (less room for wasp nests), a hook and eye over a spool and thread to fasten the door (“either the spool or thread will give way and there you are . . .”), crescent moon designs over a window for ventilation, and a nail to hang the catalog as well as a box for the corn cobs (“Pa’s of the old school and would prefer the box”). When asked how long the average mail-order catalog ought to last he opines, “. . . by placin’ the catalog in there, say in January—when you get your new one—you should be into the harness section by June.” He also railed against Mr. Sears Roebuck, who put too many stiff colored pages in the catalog. It was “hard to figger.”
In 1687, when Sir Isaac Newton published his Principia Mathematica, he established, in just three sentences, the laws of motion that allowed the human race to, at last, penetrate everything from the movement of a pea on a plate to figuring out how to send men to the moon less than three centuries later. It was a time when a keen observer of natural phenomena could, without the benefit of a laboratory, penetrate the great mysteries of life.
In the country, the common man can still observe and then answer the question, “How does it work?” One can lift up the hood, tear off old drywall, dig out the septic, or poke holes in rotten joists to get at the answers. Maybe the submersible pump had gone bad (or the electric connections had crimped and broken) and that’s why the neighbors ran out of water. Or the distributor cap was cracked and the truck wouldn’t start. Or the hot water recirculator had sprung a leak. Or maybe it was simpler—the battery connections were fouled and the posts needed a brushing along with the connectors and now the old Farmall fires right up.
Our town has more than one Lem Putt. Old man Woodcock, when hired to take a daily ride up Red Mountain to feed trout in a flatlander’s pond, figured he could cut down his visits by shooting a woodchuck and stringing it up over the water. (Trout love maggots.) Russell Bain invented a homemade rotisserie for the annual Ox Roast using mattress springs to keep the steamship rounds firmly attached to the spit. When Dotty and Jim first built their house out of sprayed concrete, many of the windows were purchased at automobile junkyards—some of them still show their inspection stickers.
Slowly, the world reveals itself. Did you know that carpenters have a “Blue Book” that tells them the exact angles to cut wood for roofs and stairways? Or why a V-8 is referred to as a “V”? (The cylinders are set at an angle to each other, reducing an engine’s size and weight.) Or why vets make cows swallow a large lozenge-shaped magnet? (To attract the bits of metal—nails, for example—that cows inevitably consume.) Or why, in an evaporator, the sap moves by itself through the various channels and comes out thick and sweet at the other end?
And since anyone reading this page is a cook, how many of us can say why a cake falls, how much alcohol is burned off during cooking, whether a sirloin steak is related to a sirloin tip, or how brining works? Given a lifetime of experience, we become specialists—unlike those who just go out to eat. They might know where the kitchen is, but not what to do once they get there.
If satisfaction is to be found on earth, and some people might argue the point, it most likely comes from knowledge and a job well done, whether on the farm or in the kitchen. Allow me to end with the words of Mr. Putt, the man who specialized in privies.
“Sometimes when I get to feelin’ blue and thinkin’ I hitched my wagon to the wrong star. . . I just pack the little woman and the kids in the back of my car and start out, aimin’ to fetch up at Elmer’s place along about dusk. When we gets to the top of the hill overlookin’ his place, we stops. There sits that privy on that knoll near the woodpile, painted red and white, mornin’ glories growin’ over her and Mr. Sun bathin’ her in a burst of yeller color as he drops back of them hills. I heaves a sigh of satisfaction, my eyes fill up and I sez to myself, ‘Folks are right when they say that next to my eight holer that’s the finest piece of construction work I ever done. I know I done right in Specializin’; I’m sittin’ on top of the world.' "