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Tom the Tinker

Tommy Ensminger was my best friend from the time I moved to Princeton in 1957 until I moved to a new neighborhood on the other side of town four years later. He lived across the street from me and we went everywhere together, doing the things that seven- to ten-year-old boys do. We were fascinated by gadgets, both mechanical and electronic, and spent many hours talking about the robots and other complicated machines we'd build if only we had the parts. Too bad there were no Radio Shacks (at least in my part of New Jersey) in those days!

After I moved away, we slowly lost touch. As we entered our teens, I saw little of Tom, even though we went to the same high school. After that I went to college for a couple of years, while Tom entered the Navy. Thirty years went by. Then one day a letter arrived—a long, multi-page missive handwritten on onionskin, embellished with many marginal notes. Sent from Tom's home in Skowhegan, Maine to me in care of the Geology Department at Princeton University—where he knew my father had worked—it was intercepted by the former department secretary, Peggy Cross, and forwarded to me in Hightstown.

Tom Ensminger

Reading the letter, I learned about Tom's life since leaving the he had worked as a technician at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab years before my own ten-year stint there (funny that our paths had come so close to crossing), and then eventually ended up in Maine, living in a house that his mother (a realtor) had owned until her death.

Tom and his friend Barbara met me as I climbed out of Gertie. The skinny-as-a-rail boy that I remembered from the Fifties and Sixties had grown into a cheerful man with a majestic girth; the blonde crew cut had turned into an enviable waist-length ponytail. Of course, my full beard, bald pate and shorter brown ponytail were new to Tom!

We chatted as Tom barbecued some steaks on a huge gas grille that he'd rescued from the junk heap. Tom does a lot of that. He likes to fix things up—same as me—so when he knows that a neighbor is going to throw away a bicycle, a clock radio or something like that...or if he sees a good-looking item at the junkyard...he'll rescue it, fix it up and then either keep it or sell it for a few dollars. Tom is retired on disability, so this helps pay the heating bill—not a trivial consideration when you're living in Maine in a big old poorly insulated house.

Steak dinner

Barbara was inside preparing the rest of the meal, and when the steaks were ready we brought them in and sat down at the dinette table. Tom and Barbara are both heavy smokers, so the atmosphere was soon blue with haze...but the company was good. After dinner Barbara explained that she had to get to bed so that she could rise early for her job at Wal-Mart, so Tom and I were left to hash over old times and catch up on what's happened since we last saw each other...thirty years' worth of catching up condensed into one evening!

In some ways Tom reminds me of my father, Donald Baird. Like Donald, Tom is interested in technology—but only up to a certain era. In my father's case, anything after the eighteenth century is of little interest. With Tom, the clock seems to have stopped sometime around 1960. Although he likes electronics, he doesn't have anything computerized or digital in his house. In fact, most of his gear isn't even transistorized—it uses tubes. (His pride and joy is the portable tube tester he picked up for a song at a flea market.) Radio Dial When I pulled out my pocket digital voice recorder to take a note, he asked "Is that a wire recorder?" Tom collects eight-track cartridges and equipment...cassettes are too modern to interest him, and as for digital voice recording...well, he frankly admitted that he doesn't understand anything about how digital electronics work. He's very comfortable in his analog world, and doesn't seem eager to venture beyond it.

On the sideboard in Tom's living room stands a magnificent radio, a Masterpiece VI, made by the McMurdo Silver Corp. With an elaborate multicolored dial and at least twenty tubes—all encased in heavily plated metal shields—it's an impressive piece of gear that must have been a real high-end item when it was made. Another one of Tom's junkyard finds, it was not in fully working condition and Tom knew nothing about its maker. But he was planning to tackle its repair as soon as he got around to it.

This is the drawback to Tom's not having a computer. After I got home, I was able with just a few minutes of Google searching to find out all about McMurdo Silver...a dashing young genius who went head to head with E.H. Scott in the ultra-hi-fi market of the 1930s before finally being bought out by Scott and committing suicide in 1947. Pavek Museum The Masterpiece VI was apparently Silver's last and most deluxe model—I found a picture of it on the website of a broadcasting museum in Minnesota. (The Masterpiece VI is the one on the left.) I also found a host of companies selling schematics and parts. Unfortunately, by his own choice Tom is cut off from the riches of the worldwide web. I feel bad about this. I wish I could open this door for him...but I tried that with my father, and he just never took to the web.

Fix-it table

Tom and I sat up rather late talking; he told me about his many fix-it projects—the radios, the bicycles, the small appliances, the renovations to the house (most of it is closed off right now to conserve heat)...the three cars (a 1988 Plymouth Horizon, a 1975 Dodge Dart Custom and a 1928 Dodge straight-six sedan)...the 1959-vintage French motorcycle...oh, there's lots to keep him busy! The dining room table—and pretty much very other table except the dinette we ate on—is crowded with things waiting to be fixed.

When I could no longer keep my eyes open, I said goodnight and headed out to Gertie for some sleep. The night was not as chilly as the previous one—surprising, considering that I was hundreds of miles north and inland of the Cape. I slept cozily with my comforter over the sleeping bag, and Gertie's interior was 55° when I awoke the next morning—ten degrees warmer than the morning before!

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