I often think about the path I took that lead me to make custom bicycles. I sometimes conteplate what it would have been like had I continued with my previous work in the construction business (most likeley would have involved a trip to the nearest psychiatric ward or prison). Sometimes I think back to the decision to come over to Italy. Had I stayed back, maybe I would have become a cad jockey in a cubicle, still sitting in front of a screen for most of the day; a lifeless soul.
A few days ago I had the chance to discuss my journey with students from The College of Architecture from Texas A&M University at the Santa Chiara Study Center here in my “hometown” of Castiglion Fiorentino. This wasn’t an event that was new to me. I have worked closely with the school over the years, helping out with architectural critiques, filling in for sick professors and generally just hanging out with the kids. It’s always fun to take a peek into American culture from this distance, learning new idioms like guerilla knitting and yarn bombing and other nuances from back home. Many of them are experiencing for the first time what it’s like to be away from home in a culture that is VERY different from things back in The States. I can relate to them, although in contrast to my almost primitive visit more than twenty four years ago, they are equipped with the with tools that make their lives much more comfortable (notice I didn’t say better or more fulfilling..) like cell phones, email and gps.
At the end of my discourse, there were still a few students awake and some had a few questions. One girl asked me a question in such a direct way that it really surprised me: WHY DO YOU WELD? My first reaction was, well, um..ok, give me a sec. You see, I have discussed for years HOW i got into welding and the various stories that enevitably stem from my first trip over to Europe with a backpack some 24 years ago. The strange part is that I had never been asked why.
Turns out it was a bit of a discovery. Back in 1992, I was rummaging around in a work room in the Study Center when I happened up on an old beat up metal box. I had seen pictures of something similar some time before, so i knew what it was. It looked something like this:
I remember seeing it occasionally as I would pass through the room, usually to get a mop or some other cleaning aparatus or study it during one of our wine bottling sessions (I worked a few years out of college at the school where I helped out in the kitchen and did some maintenance work around the complex as well as ran the espresso bar inside the school, all while honing my bike racing skills). I knew what it was, but I had never used one.
It was about the size of two shoe boxes, heavy as hell (transformer inside), and very rudimentary. It had some sort of dial gizmo for the current control and not much else. What better way to figure this welding thing out? How hard could it be with just one switch and a dial. Well, I plugged it in and waited, thinking that something would mysteriously happen on it’s own and, aside from a buzzing transformer…nothing.
One afternoon, I was chatting it up with Dino, Lidia’s marito who hung around the school while Lidia prepared meals for the students in the afternoon. I asked him about it, and like all Italian men of a certain age, he had what seemed to be some extensive knowledge on the matter and told me how it worked. Later that day I took it out back and began to play around with it. I remember being awfully frightened at the fact that i could kill myself and/or others in the vicinity. I had heard some stories about amps (it’s not the volts that kill you..it’s the amps, i used to hear on occasion..which, in fact, both will kill you in the right quantities). I found some metal parts here and there and began sticking them together with this strange box and ever since it’s been a love/hate relationship. From that day my goal was to make the perfect weld, something that eludes me some twenty-plus years later.
The “spark”, so to speak, was driven by the fact that I could create something new, from two pieces of metal. I could repair something broken and do someting creative and useful at the same time. These first few attempts at welding were scary to say the least. I had no idea what I was doing but I new that there was something about this medium that resonated with me. It wasn’t until a few years later, walking into a real fab shop in Mississippi, that I would discover the real potential of this little box.