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Hammering home a point


I'VE BEEN hammering lately. It is good exercise. If you have stress, forget the Stairmaster. Take up the hammer.

I've shoveled, I've sawed and I've drilled, though not professionally, or even adeptly. Perfection has eluded me in everything I've ever built. Straight lines, intersections at 90 or 45 degrees routinely go unachieved.

So what if Euclid is abused, I have my own system: It favors approximation, compensation; it's friendlier, and antithetical to exactitude. If the thing leans a little rightward here, push it a little leftward there. If the line is more or less vertical, well, that's OK. Doesn't nature eschew straight lines?

Nailing down the feeling

Drilling and sawing require some skill, but any idiot with a muscle or two can dig a hole. Digging wastes you, utterly. Hammering spends your energy judiciously. It leaves you sore but exhilarated with a feeling that tastes of -- how to put it? -- victory. At least it does that for me.

My project of the moment is a mini-barn -- one of those eight-by-eight wooden utility sheds. Before I began I had to dig out the site and scrape the ground until it was kind of flat. That was the shoveling.

The side panels had to be sawed, and the front and back walls required a lot of cutting, not to mention the doors. That was the sawing.

The door frames had to be screwed on for extra strength -- that is, drilled in.

But all the rest of the shed I joined with nails. There were hundreds of them, a true host to lay low. From the start, I contemplated the slaughter with the relish of a Serb general, or like Genghis Khan, who once said he was soothed into sleep by the weeping and wailing of the widows and orphans floating over the battlefield. Death to all nails!

Though hammers are used for pounding, breaking, smashing, crushing, giving birth to smithereens, the mythological lore and symbolism surrounding the hammer is positive. It represents justice. Thor's hammer, when flung at evil-doers, never missed. It could also bring back the dead.

According to J. E. Cirlot's "The Dictionary of Symbols," the hammer also symbolizes creation and birth. It is masculine; its mate is the anvil. It is not an unhappy union, whatever you may think.

Hammers, in their great variety, have both sweet and deadly expressions: sweet when the word refers to that small wooden implement with its felt-covered head which strikes the note in a piano; deadly when it refers to the hammer of a pistol that explodes the charge.

Some people in history personified the hammer. Edward I, buried in Westminster Abbey in London, was known as the "Hammer of the Scots," St. Augustine the "Hammer of Heritics."

There's nothing sophisticated about the hammer. If you think about it, even the spade is based on a more intricate idea. The physical attitudes and maneuvers it requires are complex. The saw and the drill are brilliant inventions.

The hammer is the simplest of simple machines. It is the oldest tool, the most basic.

It's strange the way the feel of some mundane objects can influence attitude, even behavior. A very long while ago when I was a soldier I found myself being pushed around a lot by guys who wore stripes and brass and carried sticks everywhere they went. I wondered about these things, finely smoothed pieces of hard wood, shorter than pointers, longer than pencils. They called them swagger sticks because that's what holding one gave you the inclination to do. This is very mysterious. What is it that imparts that feeling of enhanced authority? Does it come out of the stick itself? I certainly don't know.

'Tool of tools'

What I do know is that compared to the hammer, the swagger stick doesn't do much. The hammer is the natural extension of the hand which, according to Aristotle, is the "tool of tools."

As the mini-barn took shape, the sound of the hammer rolled like thunder through the pines, caromed off the tweedy bark of the gum trees. The hammer is magic, I know. One day, when I was nearly finished, in an instant it transformed my thumb from pink to purple.

1% Richard O'Mara is a Sun reporter.

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