7 Feb 2020
Being on the road often gives me time to ponder things – past, present and future. And I make a habit of stopping at least once or twice on a journey to chat to people and hear their tales and to visit interesting, often forgotten places. In Padlangs, I share some of the thoughts and stories collected along the way.
I met 80-year-old Isak !Aochamub at a service station in Outjo. With his dignified bearing and his advanced age, I guessed that he probably had a name from the Old Testament that he bore proudly like a badge. Like many Namibians of his generation born in the wake of the missionaries, Isak’s parents had given him an English name taken from the bible, revealing the strong Christian influence of the times.
What was striking about Isak however, was the love of his life - a sexy 34-year-old. The sea-green 1985 Toyota Hilux shone with care and devotion. It brought back fond memories of my student days when I had the identical model.
Chatting to Isak, I soon discovered that over the years he did not have the money to have the vehicle serviced or to renew or upgrade the interior, so he did it himself. This resulted in a fully self-modified bakkie, which gave his vehicle an authentic charm that most modern vehicles of today lack.
The seats were covered in colourful patchwork fabric; a SWAPO flag and a small pin with the Namibian flag decorated the dashboard; a selection of screwdrivers stuck out of the centre console to be close at hand in times of need, and the grill was a self-modified apparatus that resembled a metal gate. The only real sign of the times was a string of loose-hanging cables with USB connections to charge cellphones, something which brings in additional income for Isak.
While looking around and appreciating the character of this personalised vehicle, I noticed a small vice grip on the inner door. “What is this?” I enquired curiously, pointing to the tool. “It is my vise grip,” he replied, “I use it to roll down my window.” That got my thoughts racing. What is the use of a vise grip? Surely not a replacement for a manual window crank handle? When I returned to Windhoek, I dug a little deeper into the history of this useful tool and found this interesting bit of information.
The inventor of the vise grip was a Danish blacksmith, William Petersen, who lived in Dewitt, Nebraska. A natural inventor, he realised that what he needed in his blacksmith shop was a tool that could combine the function of a pair of pliers and a vice. He built several models trying out his idea, first in cardboard, then in wood and finally in metal. He was issued with his first patent for one of his early versions in 1921 and later for the locking lever in 1924. He began selling the vice-grips from the boot of his car, gradually building his business. He formed the Petersen Manufacturing Company in 1934, which only opened their first official manufacturing plant in 1938. The tool quickly became popular and ‘the new vise-grip wrench’ was hailed as the world’s most versatile hand tool.
During WWII the plant was operating at full capacity to supply the defence industries. The vice grips were even shipped to England for the aircraft industry and some of the welders working on the Liberty cargo ships welded them into the hulls of the ships in their haste rather than spend the time removing them.
After the war, vice grips found their market with the returning soldiers, who were eager to settle down with their families and build their dream homes. The tool continued to be refined and in 1957 the easy release lever was added.
Today the vice grip, also known as a locking pliers, is well known as a multi-purpose tool and is found in almost everybody’s toolbox. After my research, I had renewed respect for this handy implement and Isak’s portable pocket-sized window handle, which is one of the best, most unusual and useful ways I’ve seen to use a vice grip.
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