How To Build A Fire Like Your Grandfather
LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
Over the years, if we were lucky, we received good advice from people of older generations. Sometimes, however, that advice doesn't stick. I'm not talking about the big life issues. I mean the little things - how to change the oil in your car, how to shake hands properly, or how to sew a button.
In 2009, Erin Bried published a book with advice about things your grandmother knew. Her new book is called, "How To Build A Fire And Other Handy Things Your Grandfather Knew." Erin Bried is in our New York studio. Happy new year to you.
Ms. ERIN BRIED (Author, "How To Build A Fire And Other Handy Things Your Grandfather Knew"): Happy new year to you, too.
HANSEN: There seems to be a lot of great advice on how to be thrifty. Was that a common thread among these grandfathers?
Ms. BRIED: Absolutely. They were all born before 1927. So they all lived through the Great Depression, and I heard a lot of stories about being resourceful and making do.
One of the grandfathers I talked to was Joe Toth(ph), who was an electrician in Pennsylvania. He was born outside of Buffalo, New York, and he had 11 siblings. He used to wear knickers, as did all the boys at the time, and they had these elastic bands or, you know, bands under their knees. He would do his part to help his family by walking around the neighborhood and looking for fruit trees. And he would climb these trees and he would fill his pockets, and because they were holey, his entire knickers, with fruit. And he would waddle home with his entire pants full of fruit, and that's what he did as a young boy to help feed his family.
But I think those lessons about being thrifty and being resourceful stayed with them from childhood throughout their lives.
HANSEN: The ability to change a tire is invaluable information. So it only follows I should ask you, how many tires have you successfully changed on your own?
Ms. BRIED: I'm happy to say I have changed three tires to date, and thankfully not all at the same time.
HANSEN: And did you get the advice from these gentlemen?
Ms. BRIED: Well, it's easier now that I have this advice from them, but because I've interviewed grandfathers as the source of this book, I've heard a lot of people say, oh, this is a great book for boys, this is a great book for men. And I heard the same thing about the grandmother book, "How To Sew A Button," this is great for girls and great for women. Man or woman, everybody should know how to change a tire or cook their own dinner. It does not discriminate.
HANSEN: Did you actually ask these men how to write a love letter? I mean, did they blush or did they volunteer information readily?
Ms. BRIED: I heard the sweetest love stories talking to these guys. And the one that I always think of is again from Joe Toth, and he met his wife before he shipped off to the war. And she was actually dating his best friend. And he told his friend, if you screw up with Frances, she is mine. And his friend did screw up, and then he shipped out to the Pacific, and spent a few years on a boat, and he stayed in touch with her by writing love letters the whole time.
And he told me he would look through a big book of quotations, and he'd find inspiration, and then he'd sort of riff off of this singular quote that he found. And he said he thinks he really won her heart because he addressed every letter, Dear Mush, and he signed every one, Loves ya, your JoJo.
HANSEN: I personally don't need this piece of advice, but how does one properly wax a mustache?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. BRIED: You know, I have to say there are two tips in the book that are for men only, and that's how to wax a mustache and how to grow a beard. And I have not personally tried either of those, I'm happy to report.
HANSEN: Do you remember the advice, though?
Ms. BRIED: Sure. You just, you know, you get a wax that matches the color of your mustache. And you get - there's a tiny little mustache brush, and you just brush it in and work the wax to the side, and then you can sculpt the ends however you'd like. You know, you can do the Salvador Dali whoosh, or the, you know, the Snidely Whiplash curl. You can get really artsy with that.
HANSEN: At the beginning of your book, you say you only knew one of your grandfathers. What's the best piece of advice you learned from him?
Ms. BRIED: Well, you know, I have two great memories of my grandfather, and one is he used to let me shine his bald head with a rag, which I got such a kick out of. And he also taught me to play the guitar. And I still have the guitar that he loaned to me. And he passed away a few years ago, but I still have that guitar, I still play it. And I still wonder what else I could have learned from him if only I'd asked.
And that's an important lesson I took away from the book. It's that a lot of people in my generation, you know, we think we're too smart to ask our grandparents these questions or we think, you know, they're just old, we must know better. But if we don't sit down and ask these questions of our grandparents, these stories will be lost forever.
Actually, Bill Holloman, one of the gentlemen I interviewed for the book...
HANSEN: Who was a Tuskegee Airman, I'll point out.
Ms. BRIED: That's right. He was the first black helicopter pilot in the Air Force. He passed away a few weeks after our last interview. And I just feel so honored and privileged that I had the chance to ask him these stories that even his children had never heard. He was a Red Tail, which meant he piloted the planes that escorted bombers on missions. And he said when he got there he sent Hitler a telegram and told him he was coming for him.
And I said, well, did Hitler ever write you back? And he said, he didn't write me back, but he listened and then he quit.
HANSEN: Great story.
Ms. BRIED: Yeah.
HANSEN: I should point out, this isn't just a how-to book, you know, step one, step two, step three. It's all about living. Are you taking a particular piece of advice from your interviews with these gentlemen to heart and putting into practice?
Ms. BRIED: Yeah. One of the common threads I noticed in all the grandfathers is when - I called many of them out of blue, and some of them I had introductions to through their children or grandchildren. I called them and I said, I need your help. And without hesitation, every single one of them said, what do you need?
And this reminds me of a story I heard from Bill Holloman. He grew up in St. Louis, and he said his family wasn't flush during the Depression. His father was a postal carrier, his mom stayed at home. He had a few siblings. And his mom always set three extra plates at dinner, in case he had, you know, he ran across any kids who were hungry at the ball field or whatever, who wanted to come home and needed a meal.
And when I think about what all these grandfathers had in common and what makes this so-called greatest generation so great is that when times were hard, they pulled together. And now, when we're faced with hard times, we have that same choice. We can either come together or fall apart. And I think, you know, what I learned from them is the way I want to live my life. I want to come together. I want to answer the call. I want to help out where I can.
HANSEN: Erin Bried is the author of "How To Build A Fire And Other Handy Things Your Grandfather Knew." She's also a senior staff writer at Self Magazine, and she joined us from our New York bureau. Thank you so much.
Ms. BRIED: Thank you.
HANSEN: If you have a piece of advice that you would like to share with us, visit the NPR WEEKEND EDITION Facebook page.
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