The MacGyver Factor
Many of us remember the action TV series in the late 80’s called MacGyver. MacGyver could work himself into and out of every situation before the show ran out of time or commercials. He would use whatever materials he found around him – string, chewing gum, or a piece of tin foil – take his trusty Swiss army knife, and create a master solution to any problem. If Mac did not save himself and thwart the bad guys, there was no hope for humanity.
At one point in my career I was invited to join a team of very creative engineers embarking on a new design. Later I was told one of the reasons I landed the job was my high score on something the team called the “MacGyver Factor”. They were looking for engineers who could take what was at hand and use it to solve problems. Find a way. Make it happen. Get it done. Homer Miller would have done well as a member of such a team. He was making miracles happen out of common materials even before there was TV.
The Miller homestead I remember was not the first place the family lived, but it was the only place I ever knew. The house sat at the end of a hollow (or holler, if you still speak West Virginian!). There was electrical service and even a party line phone but the 2 rut road from the black top state road to the front porch stretched 1/4 mile, uphill of course, and was maintained by Homer with help from sons and sons-in-law. There were 2 or 3 log bridges which had to be rebuilt regularly. Water flowed freely from the hillside during storms and washed the road out creating deep crevices. It was a constant battle against the elements to keep the road passable so cars could navigate without dragging. Rocks had to be moved, and sometimes crushed to fill holes and smooth the way. Retaining walls constructed from logs and stacked stones held the clay bank off the road in several places. And Grandpa did all this without power equipment.
The photo was taken from Grandpa’s front yard and looks down the valley. That ribbon of dirt stretching out of sight around the curve is the dirt road Grandpa kept up. The ladies in the photo are, from left to right, Fran Miller, Judy Miller, June McLaughlin, Mary Nichols, and Geneva Graham. The garden on the right is Grandpa’s and he could grow anything.
I know something about making little gravels out of big rocks as my father bought land on a dirt road, too. Our road was always sinking down toward China and being replaced by oozing mud which was never in short supply in WV. As a young man growing up, I invested many hours and busted tons of big rocks into gravel for Woody’s road. It kept us out of trouble – we were too tired to think about mischief. Grandpa had a few years on me, and when I thought about him pounding away on his road, things seem to connect in my mind. Responsibility was what men shouldered and hard work was usually part of that load. A wise man named Jeremiah wrote these words many years ago, “It is good for a man that he should bear the yoke in his youth.” (Lamentations 3:27, New American Standard Bible). I wonder if Jeremiah lived on a dirt road, too.
Homer Miller could not pick up the Yellow Pages or surf the web to find a repairman or a handyman. He could only look in the mirror and see the one guy tasked with any job. I have been a homeowner for a while now and I can appreciate even more the ingenuity Grandpa showed in his designs and solutions. As an example, I take running water for granted. The city of Raleigh pipes it to my house. I turn a valve and use it for any purpose, and of course those nice folks at City Hall see to it a bill shows up in my mailbox. Grandpa’s house had running water, too. It just didn’t run very fast and there was not enough for any purpose, just the barest necessities.
Where did his water come from? One of my favorite walks at Grandpa’s was up the path behind the outhouse to a spot about 1/2 way up the mountain. That was the location of Grandpa’s spring, his water source. A spring is a place in the earth where water either bubbles up freely or will bubble up if coaxed a little bit. It is clear, cool, sweet water that tastes so good and quenches thirst like no soft drink can do. Grandpa opened a hole around the spring and buried an old cast iron washing machine tub. That tub would fill up with cool, clear water and serve as a reservoir. At the drain outlet he attached a pipe and through that pipe water flowed to the house. All we had to do was turn on the spigot at the sink and fill a glass. Homer and gravity did the rest. I think there were times when the spring went dry or froze solid but not when I was visiting. And I can remember my Mom lecturing us not to waste a drop and to get our hands washed likety-split. We did not play with water from the sink at Grandpa’s!
Tool repair was another specialty of Homer’s. During rainy and cold days when he could not get into the garden, or even days when he was mad at Grandma, he worked in his “pouting” shed and carved handles for tools. Hanging on his garage wall was a wide selection of first quality work. Grandpa used hickory and ash for those handles and when he finished, they were as smooth as a baby’s behind. When a shovel or axe handle broke, Grandpa would select a replacement, make repairs and get back to work. Making a trip to Lowe’s or Home Depot for a new handle was not an option. We had tools at our house with handles Grandpa carved and they lasted far longer than anything store bought. I think of him every time I pass the handle display at Ace Hardware.
Grandpa recycled and worked out green solutions to homeowner problems long before it was popular. A piece of thick wire or an old inner tube might be just the material needed to get something working so things were not thrown away. Sometime, if you are curious, pick up one of the Foxfire books by Eliot Wigginton, and take a look at some of the ways people solved their problems.
In a contest set in the hills around Harrison, West Virginia, Homer Miller would beat MacGyver hands down every time. Go, Grandpa!