“how do you know how to build rc helicopters?” she asked

I was talking to a talented artist at the company recently and found myself talking about a few aerial photos I had taken over the weekend using the Quadracopter and the new camera mounting and FPV rigs.

It was an obvious question, but it caught me off guard. She asked “How do you know how to build RC helicopters?” I was dumbfounded.

My answer at the time was shallow – all I could think to say was “I don’t know.”

I followed up with, after a beat or two, “I have been building things since I could move my hands. Mud pies. Cars from spare electrical parts left over from the maintenance men. Fires from sticks in the deserts of Mexico. Contraptions. It didn’t matter what. At our house when something broke, a safe with a lost combination (my first venture into social engineering although we didn’t call it that at the time), a hidden compartment, a washer in need of a new belt, a broken a can-opener, it was a given that the broken unit would be given to me for repair. Though the youngest for many years, now the 3rd of 6 kids, I was the one who either fixed it or took it apart in a determined effort to build robots. Or cars. Or dragons. Or spaceships. Or sometimes the diagnosis was above my paygrade and we needed a professional to fix it (hint: plumbing). I didn’t mind this as I could watch them.

There is a carpenter somewhere in Connecticut who hates me because I watched and wanted to help him redo our front porch. He tolerated me, and I learned a LOT about carpentry.

And realize giving a kid like me electronics to fix is a serious conflict of interest. If I FIX the can-opener then it must be returned to the kitchen for family use. If, however, it was un-fixable, then the motor, the circuits, the power supply that converted the AC current to DC was mine for whatever I chose to do with it. It was parted out into shoe boxes I kept under my bed and had dreams wondering why the motors didn’t work when plugged into the wall directly (hint: alternating current. who knew?)

I remember in 4th and 5th grades in particular I really hadn’t mastered the art of NOT touching the wires and shocked myself many times. 110 V AC when you weigh less than 100 pounds is quite a jolt. But I’d keep quiet for fear I’d lose my role as repair/rehab/mad-scientist in the family. It never occurred to me to unscrew a particular fuse (young kids – fuses were round things you screwed into what we now call a “breaker box” and if they blew you had to replace them. NO LEVERS.)

My Dad was in residency at Bridgeport Hospital at the time and regularly brought home used medical tools. Scissors for cutting bone, cauderizers (basically small portable soldering guns),  scalpels, you name it. And these would be carefully cleaned and then assembled into whatever the project of the day was. I was the go-to guy in the neighborhood to build your slingshot for years because I had access to surgical tubing (“used” of course like everything else he brought home but what did I care?). And I was good with a pocket knife and tools. I made wrist rockets before wrist rockets.

Tools. Then it hit me. The answer to Erica’s question. “How do you know how to build RC helicopters?”  The tipping point for when I REALLY started to make things was when we moved into an old house in Bridgeport Connecticut. When we moved into the house it had all of the windows boarded up. From the inside. The old widower was a nervous sort and her husband, having died many years earlier, her response was to go into lock down. She either passed away or was being moved to an assisted living complex and her children put the house up for sale. My parents bought it. And with that house gave me the most amazing gift. Tools.

The basements in the Northeast, at least in Bridgeport where my family was originally from, have oil furnaces that heat the house. Oil is dirty, particularly fuel oil, and basements were covered in a constant level of black soot and plenty of humidity (the better to rust with). This basement in particular hadn’t been cleaned in years and I guess the sellers just didn’t want to deal with it. I didn’t mind.

For an explorer such as myself this cellar was HEAVEN! I found closets of jars for canning supplies apparently used by the lady of the house many years earlier. And I found drawers and drawers of ancient soot covered hand tools. Hand drills. Hammers. Awls. Files. Nails of every sort and size. Pliers. EVERYTHING. Tools I never knew to ask for because I didn’t know what an awl was. How can you ask for something you don’t know exists never mind understand how it was used?

I. Had. Tools. A quick trip to the library and I found a book on wood working and figured out what all of this stuff was. Old wood screw clamps for example aren’t obvious in what they are used for. Libraries answer those questions.

I cleaned the tools as best I could. And the hardware store was a 10 minute bike ride away on the way to Bradley’s or Caldors’. Shoveling snow and odd jobs were enough to buy a few nuts and bolts and 3-in-1 oil (this was before WD 40 folks). I found wood boards and 2x4s floating in the rooster river. Picked up junk along the streets. It didn’t matter. If it was a material I could cut and shape then it was mine. (side note – smell plywood before bringing it home. Of all of the woods in the “wood” family plywood is apparently peed on the most by dogs or people and there is usually a reason it gets thrown out. I learned that. You’re welcome.)

I built a go-cart. It was agile but slow. I didn’t understand bushings or bearings. The steering mechanism was a broom stick with rope wrapped around it. The “wheel” portion for the driver was a barrel that when you turned it shortened one side, lengthened the other of the clothes line to turn the front axle. And that was how it was steered. Believe it or not it worked. Sort of. To be fair there isn’t much steering going on when going down a hill on a neighborhood street.

I dreamed of entering the Pinewood Derby until I read the rules and realized I couldn’t afford the parts (Fiberglass! Really!? I hadn’t evolved that far yet.)

The tools, when cleaned up, most of which I still have, look like this one from
RICHARD PICK & HELLER CO. And yes, this is one from that basement that is on my workbench right now. And has been my “go to” pick for the last 30+ years.


And the tools WORKED. And tolerant parents let me do my thing knowing that if a lock in the house needed to be picked (ironically you don’t use a pick to pick a lock. Long story) or an appliance fixed I was the go to guy despite being the youngest of the older three.

I tell this story for three reasons. This evolution had three critical ingredients:

First – my parents gave me the freedom to wander around a basement covered in soot and I found TOOLS. And I used them to help the family but also to build, create, explore, create.

Second – A bit of luck.  I got a bit lucky that they left two closets full of hand tools, jars, nails and rust covered awesomeness in a black basement with rock walls. A kid in a family of six children with little income had zero chance of acquiring an entire set of hand tools. I got lucky. I inherited them as far as I was  concerned.

And third, I became the master over materials that for most children were objects. Wood and steel was suddently maleable to me. It was material I could turn into whatever I wanted. And that let my imagination go everywhere. This kid had hit the industrial age.

Almost every single thing I tried to build failed. Didn’t work. Crashed. I didn’t care.

I never got the physics quite right in the beginning. I can’t tell you how many rockets I have sent into space or at least a neighboring neighborhood miles away when my intention was a safe launch and recovery. Wind up silkspan and balsa airplanes powered by wind up rubber bands lost to thermals that lifted them into oblivion (high wing models fly great – and you lose them. Low wings NEVER fly right unless you weigh them down because they lose aerodynamic lift with a loss of speed. Thus a rubber powered low wing airplane always lands badly. Which is why real airplanes keep their engines on when they land.) Just a tip for the real pilots out there.

I never put my name or phone number on those home-made paper-towel or toilet paper roll based rockets with hand-carved balsa cones and writing-pad-back-cardboard cutout fins because I figured it was better to lose a rocket than get in trouble for landing a rocket in someone’s window. Or to explain how that airplane landed on someone’s car. It was a different time and the idea of causing problems for the family was something that I would never do. Sadly I think there is more tolerance for this in modern times when everyone gets a trophy for everything. If I broke something I had to fix it and then got grounded. Prudence you know. Let the plane/rocket go and use a different engine next time. Or adjust the wind-angle for launch. Being determined I kept over powering the rockets and trying to predict the wind and the chute delay for recovery.

So to Erica who asked “how do you know how to build RC Helicopters?” all I can say is that it was a bit of luck, I started building, and now I can’t remember a time when I didn’t.

Of course building is much easier these days with rubber handle pliers (fewer of those shocks!), Dremels (oooooh), hardened steel screwdrivers, metric hex tools, affordable ball bearing sets, etc. But it got started in a filthy basement that I explored, cleaned and found the most wonderful gift of all – an old man’s tools. I thank him. I hope he knows that his tools changed my life. They enabled me to CREATE!

Thank you Sir, whoever you are.

I still have most of his tools. I still use them daily. Extensively last weekend. They sure knew how to make great tools back then. And that pick pictured above is PERFECT for working on quadracopters. Go figure.


And that lets me take videos like this:

Soot covered tools. Rule. That’s the best answer I have for you Erica. And thank you for the great challenging question that led me on a wonderful trip down memory lane. I appreciate that.

the long now (continues)

From the site:

“There is a Clock ringing deep inside a mountain. It is a huge Clock, hundreds of feet tall, designed to tick for 10,000 years. Every once in a while the bells of this buried Clock play a melody. Each time the chimes ring, it’s a melody the Clock has never played before. The Clock’s chimes have been programmed to not repeat themselves for 10,000 years. Most times the Clock rings when a visitor has wound it, but the Clock hoards energy from a different source and occasionally it will ring itself when no one  is around to hear it. It’s anyone’s guess how many beautiful songs will never be heard over the Clock’s 10 millennial lifespan.”

I must photograph this clock. I hope there is time…