Solder: A Love Story

It would happen on a Sunday afternoon when everyone was relaxed and engaged in some sort of activity. If there was something to be fixed my mom would pull out her soldering iron and get ready to work her magic. The iron would be plugged in and gently settled in its little stand made of stained wood with a small coil of wire affixed to the top side. The can of flux would be opened and she would sit and look at the loose connection waiting for repair as the iron warmed.

As my brother and I waited she would tell us stories about her job at Bendix, proudly speaking of how she had worked on wiring the guidance control systems for the Saturn rockets. It was just the beginning of those space dreams born of all those science fiction novels and movies. She was so proud of doing her share. She wanted to see it happen more than anything, just the idea would make her blue eyes sparkle.

We were 50s kids fed on “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “Earth vs. The Flying Saucers.” Wernher von Braun was our idol as well as writers like Willie Ley. We dressed in 50s fashion, mom in her house dress, Bob and I in shorts and shirts, my hair curly and his in a crew cut. We belonged to our time.

Mom would check the iron one last time and it was indeed hot enough.

This process fascinated us. She would take the iron up and dip it in the flux. There would be a brief sizzle and she would hold the iron against her coil of solder and the silvery, mercury-like bubble would form. It would be just right…just the proper size…and she would pull back from the shiny little mound of metal and whatever was broken would be working once more. I was 8 years old, my brother was 6 and we were probably the only kids in our classes who knew how to solder a perfect connection.

I would sit and dream and draw and read whatever science books and science fiction I could find. Bob would do the same. He would take anything that was being thrown away and take it apart, always surprising us by somehow knowing how everything worked.

It wouldn’t be long before the whole family would stand outside at night in 1962 and watch Telstar pass overhead with many an oooh and aaaah. It was only seven years later when my mom sat with us and watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. She had stayed home from work that day and we all sat together, her eyes filling with tears as she watched.

Bob and I studied art and I went on to make it my business. He went for a job soldering boards for an electronic music company. He couldn’t leave electronic books alone and then discovered the beginnings of computers. One after another little basic machines entered the house only to become undone and disemboweled when their usefulness ended. He learned and taught himself day and night. He managed a CAD department and then he did systems work.

I spent a good deal of my time drawing schematics for electronic magazines. I would sit and draw, rerouting wiring to fill the space, using my Leroy lettering and electronic component guide to keep all the elements consistent. When a connection would occur in the drawing I would take the proper size circle template and draw the little “solder dot.” I would fill in this little pool of black and think lovingly of those Sunday afternoons watching the little silvery bubble and remembering the warm smell of the hot iron.

I never got tired of doing the work, just as my mother never got tired of wiring and soldering, or my brother never tired of endlessly puttering. It was the process. The Tao of the end is in the Tao of the means. The process is an act of love. It was the love for the work that put us on the moon; the same love that built this little machine I am typing this column on now; the same love that will take us to worlds unknown and produce seemingly unimaginable realizations of our dreams.

My brother sat at his computer table surrounded by piles of programming books and floppies, drinking his now cold coffee, a cigarette smoldering in the ashtray. He would work on a program, check out some software, do a drawing, and then go on Compuserve. It was all new then.

He was filled with the pride of having worked on developing a digital imaging system that would be used by NASA, cherishing the “thank you” letter he had received. Like my mother, it was his way of briefly touching the stars. He would stand with his daughters under the starry sky and share his sense of wonder and magic that was the universe. He would see the dream–the sci-fi dream–the infinite possibilities of cyberspace, the Web of Indra, the many jewels on the burgeoning Net.

As he sat and worked he looked into this magical kingdom, but by his side, just to the right, he would always keep the little stained block of wood with the coil on top where the old iron had been placed lovingly in its cradle. A spool of solder sat at its side holding the small silvery memory of that distant bubble in time.

My mother, Vera Kroenke, passed on to other dreams in December of 1983. My brother Robert did the same on March 15, 1997. Their dreams live on in the many people they’ve left behind. May we all someday touch the stars.

–JDKroenke