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MY DAD THE IMPROVISER
By Steve Van Nattan
My Dad, Wes Van Nattan, was the ultimate improviser. He seemed to be able to make anything in a pinch. He had a metal scrap pile concealed behind his work shop in Tanzania, where my parents were missionaries, and when they had to move to Kenya he nearly cried about having to leave the junk pile. It seemed like nothing was ever fully worthless-- always a chance it would be used to make something to keep things working. When you lived in the Third World in the 1950s there were many times when the part to repair something was 12,000 miles away in the USA or Europe. So, you made your own spare part.
Dad was building an open air workshop with a roof about 15 feet off the ground to work on mission vehicles. He wanted weight bearing trusses, and he found rails in a gold mine run by the German Nazis before the war and got permission from the British officials to appropriate them. They had never been registered as spoils of war, and the British officer told Dad that that made them public domain, and he said Dad better get out to the mine and grab them real fast if he wanted them. The trick was to get the rails, which were about 15 feet long, from the mine to our home.
He had to build two jigs, one in a trailer and one in the pick up bed, and carry the rails home, cradled on the two swaying jigs, in the worst of the rainy season through mud. I was along and kept praying we would not bog down suddenly and have the rails in the backs of our heads. He later welded them top to top and made "I" beams that were amazingly strong. An engineer who saw the work shop later said it was the most over built thing he had ever seen.
The photo is of a German gold mine in Tanzania before World War II.
My Dad was never sure anything he built was strong enough, and the result was massive almost eternal wonders. The other missionaries were delighted if he was in on a project (except for some who were a bit lazy about life).
Dad could also move things from one place to another with rollers and a pinch bar in a way that would make your jaw hang down. I don't know how many times I told him something could not be done, only to have Dad show how it COULD be done.
A missionary came to my Dad with a pressure cooker that had the handle broken off. Of course, in the USA welding a pressure cooker would be madness because of the hazard of the thing possibly rupturing under pressure and blowing food all over the house. Dad had some welding rod donated to him by the Eutectic company which was for welding aluminum allow. It was extremely high tech and very expensive.
Dad welded the pressure cooker handle back on and took hours cooling the thing off slowly to make sure no tension developed in the thing which could cause it to explode later. The pressure cooker chugged along for years without any issues. Dad also welded a chunk of aluminum back into the bell housing of a transmission from a Morris Minor. He had to allow for warping and play a lot of tricks, but it worked, and the Morris ran perfectly for a long time. All of these tricks were a one time event and had to work first try, and Dad never did then again.
I school pal of mine, Robert Capen, had made a wood lath frame for a two man canoe. He wanted to paddle around Lake Victoria. He had used some very strong local hardwood and brass screws. It was really exceptional work as far as he got on it. The instructions called for covering the lath frame with marine canvas. There was none in all of East Africa, and shipping it in from the USA would be a fortune. He gave the frame to me.
I had to take it home from Kisumu, Kenya where Bob lived to Mwanza, Tanzania where I lived. I also lived on the same lake he lived on which was the size of Ohio, Bob at the north end and I at the south end. We kids traveled back and forth to boarding school from home on the train and an aging lake steamer. I hauled the boat with some help to the lake steamer, and the captain gave me a hard time with good natured teasing about "these Yankees and their daft ideas." I laughed with him and asked him were I could stow the boat. He became fascinated with the canoe and its potential and told me to tie it on the top of the wheel house.
So, I arrived home to show Dad my acquisition. Dad was not taken back at all by the fact that I had brought home a boat frame that we could not possibly finish the official way. He began to hold court at coffee times speculating on what we could use to cover the boat other than canvas. Finally Dad got the improviser's great moment of enlightenment. The mission printing press was on our station, and they had a huge stack of used aluminum alloy sheets that were used on the Heidleburg offset printing press. They had been used several times and they could not be used again, and the printer had saved them on the same improviser's law that nothing should be discarded, at least not for a few years.
They were about 40 by 36 inches square, so it took quite a few of them to cover the boat. We painted the whole wooden frame heavily in linseed oil to water proof it, and then the aluminum plates were put on.
I patched worked them on the wooden frame, tacking them on with brass nails. We then used heavy cotton strips of cloth to cover all the seams, gluing them on with silver bituminous paint used to seal water tanks and roofs. Finally the whole thing got a coat of bituminous paint. The boat was still light enough to capsize and not sink because the aluminum sheets were so light that the wood lath kept it afloat. It was also very easy to patch compared to a canvas canoe. I stuck the tip of an African oar into the aluminum and poked a hole in it. A piece of cotton cloth was cut and pasted on the hole with bituminous paint and covered again, and that was it, all in about ten minutes.
[ If you use this technique you owe me something like pie and coffee at the Dahlia Cafe here in Liberty Hill, Texas. ]
When I launched the canoe I was horrified. It was amazingly unstable. I knew nothing about how to sit in a flat bottomed canoe, and I kept trying the move back and forth, from side to side, to balance the canoe and I nearly rolling it every time.
After taking on a couple gallons of water, I paddled ashore dejected.
We had an African neighbor who was a fisherman on the lake for his vocation, and I offered him to take a ride in the canoe. He got in, and he had the same problem I did, but he also had water instincts that I did not have. Soon, he figured out the trick was to not try to use body movement to keep the canoe upright but let it do it itself. He told me what to do, and I got in, and the two of us went paddling along the lake shore. We were flying compared to the local African heavy wooden canoes, and the fisherman was roaring with joy at the speed we could attain.
A few weeks later we were having a picnic at the lake for missionaries from several other mission stations, and some British colonial officers who were Christians had been invited. One of the missionaries who was a know-it-all saw my canoe, and he asked me to launch it so he could try it out. I told him it was a bit tricky, and he told me he was an expert with canoes. He was an expert at everything, according to him, and his reputation as to expertise was famous all over our field-- no one believed him. He did have one skill for which he was justly famous and deserved high credit-- he could build a fantastic out house with ventilation and all sorts of features. An out house in Swahili is Choo. The Africans who used his out houses were so impressed with them that he was soon known over the whole field as Bwana Choo (Mr. Toilet).
Well, Bwana Choo got into my canoe and nearly fell out into the lake on the other side. He got his composure and tried to peddle around. He was jerking back and forth and declaring my canoe to be the most unseaworthy boat in his long experience in nautical matters. I was depressed of course. The African fisherman had done just fine in the canoe, but Bwana Choo was supposed to be the expert on hand, so who knew, maybe it was true.
There was a British District Officer standing by watching quietly. After Bwana Choo climbed out of the boat with much assistance from by standers, the British gentleman asked to have a go. I gave the same warning about it being a bit touchy on balance. The man got into the boat without any lurching about, and once he sat a while and felt the boat under him, he took the paddle in hand and launched the boat like a spring hare out into the lake. All we heard was such things as, "Oh, I say, jolly good," and "Lovely balance," etc. By now I was very confused. How could it be that Bwana Choo, the expert on nautical issues, nearly fell out on the lake, and this Englishman was skimming off on the water and looking like he was having a very good time. No wobbles, and no panic at all. He spun the canoe around suddenly and exclaimed loudly about the responsiveness of it.
Well, Bwana Choo failed to hand in his credentials as to where he got all his expert knowledge in boat matters, but when one of the missionaries standing by asked where the Englishmen where he got his boating experience, he said, "I was an oarsman on the Oxford rowing team when I was at university."
All that to say this-- Dad was a great improviser, and when I looked at my Dad I could see that look of a man who knew he was pretty clever after all, and he later assured me that Bwana Choo was a silly brat in a grownup's body.
When I went off the college in the US I gave the canoe to the fisherman, and I heard later that he was very pleased with it. It must have made laying nets and pulling them back in a lot easier than the heavy African canoes he usually used.
This life experience with Dad the improviser has made me a bit weird I think. I don't know how many times I have gone into ACE Hardware to find something with which to improvise. The helpful old guy comes up and asks what I need, and when I tell him, he usually just shakes his head. I never seem to use what I buy for what it was made for. :-)
Oh, and one more thing-- stay out of my Texas junk pile.