When I was a kid, we knew a handyman whose name was Horace Armstrong but all the kids and adults called him Mr. Armstrong. For quite a while, it didn't even occur to me that he had a first name. But we all liked saying his name, Mr. Armstrong. It sounded solid and dependable.
Everyone in our family, and a lot of our friends' families, hired him to build and fix things around the house. Mr. Armstrong lived nearby on a farm-like property that's not there anymore. He kept chickens and ducks for fresh eggs, as many people did back then. We chased the chickens, and the ducks chased us.
I always enjoyed his workshop the most, which was right behind his house in the shade of two large oak trees. It had a faded, been-there-a-million-years look to it, with its peeling, multicolored paint and tattered roof. Inside, the workshop were lots of weird tools scattered about. It was hard to imagine what some of those tools were used for, but I knew that Mr. Armstrong knew what to do with them. That's because Mr. Armstrong could build anything. You name it, cabinets, chairs, tables, storage buildings, fences, gates, walls, windows, doors, anything.
He could fix anything too. If it was broken he could fix it. And if he built it, it couldn't be broken. Mr. Armstrong built things to last, solid and dependable, just like him, and was glued and screwed and clamped and bracketed together. You couldn't break it if you tried, and occasionally, being kids, we did try.
Mr. Armstrong was about one hundred and fifty years old and so was his wife, or at least they seemed that old to me. I don't remember much about Mrs. Armstrong, other than that she was large and friendly and baked homemade pies. She would give us a slice of pie with a glass of milk when we visited. The Armstrongs were just good, plain folks.
In my memory, Mr. Armstrong was always dressed in grey overalls and a long-sleeved plaid shirt with the sleeves turned up. His hair seemed to stand straight up and was grey with some red in it. His skin was covered with freckles upon freckles. He could lift or carry anything by himself and rarely asked anyone for help in any way. In fact, he hardly spoke at all and, when he did, his voice sounded garbled and fairly unintelligible to me, and he was quite hard of hearing. He was somewhat gruff and hurried in his demeanor and wore a scowl on his face a good part of the time. Nonetheless, his appearance didn't mean anything, and we knew it. If something struck him as funny, he had a wonderful smile that would slowly creep over his face, like the sun coming up in the morning.
Mr. Armstrong was also generous and kind and would often give us a toy which he'd made himself, a truck, a plane, or a puzzle. Each of these gifts were made of wood by his rough hands and given without ceremony. He just did it out of kindness, for all of us kids.
Now, I know that you have seen men working on the roads. Sometimes they have giant spools of cable lined up in a row. They dig long trenches in the road to lay the cable in, or string it overhead for phone or power lines. Anyway, one day, Mr. Armstrong brought one of those giant spools over to our house in his old work truck.
The wheel, as we came to call it, looked exactly like one of those giant spools on the outside, because, in fact, that's what it was. It stood about five-feet tall. Mr. Armstrong had replaced the insides with something totally amazing. He built seating for two riders opposite and upside down to each other, with their backs against the inside of the outside wall of the wheel. Climbing in on one side, I sat on the bench seat facing the center, with a place for my feet and a bar to hold onto. Mr. Armstrong rolled the wheel a half turn, which turned me upside down, and my sister Mary Ellen crawled into the other side. We were now seated and laughing wildly. Looking through the bars, all we saw were each other's feet. And when we moved, the wheel rolled, with us inside.
We lived on a mostly level cul-de-sac. There were about twenty kids in our neighborhood, and in about two minutes of hearing about the wheel, the other eighteen were in front of our house begging for a ride. We were out there until dark that day and many days after that. We discovered that several kids could act as guides for the wheel, while others rode inside. The riders would come out dizzy and elated as can be after their turn. Once their heads stopped spinning, they would take over as guides and work their way back to another turn in the wheel.
I remember Mr. Armstrong standing there with my dad, and what happiness he brought, the day he brought the wheel over. The wheel became the most popular attraction in our neighborhood. It was like having a carnival ride in our own yard, and we played in it until we were all too big to fit anymore. When that happened, we gave it to some family friends with smaller kids, as Mr. Armstrong had done for us. Maybe it's still out there somewhere, rolling around, with kids getting dizzy and having fun.
I'd like to think so, for that was one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me. And I'd like to say again, "Thanks, Mr. Armstrong."
Adapted from Before We Say "Goodnight" by Hank Frazee