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  • Written by Henry Petroski
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Confessions of a Future Engineer

Written by Henry PetroskiAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Henry Petroski

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List Price: $9.99

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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 384 | ISBN: 978-0-307-42720-5
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Anyone wondering what sort of experience prepares one for a future as an engineer may be surprised to learn that it includes delivering newspapers. But as Henry Petroski recounts his youth in 1950s Queens, New York–a borough of handball games and inexplicably numbered streets–he winningly shows how his after-school job amounted to a prep course in practical engineering.

Petroksi’s paper was The Long Island Press, whose headlines ran to COP SAVES OLD WOMAN FROM THUG and DiMAG SAYS BUMS CAN’T WIN SERIES. Folding it into a tube suitable for throwing was an exercise in post-Euclidean geometry. Maintaining a Schwinn revealed volumes about mechanics. Reading Paperboy, we also learn about the hazing rituals of its namesakes, the aesthetics of kitchen appliances, and the delicate art of penny-pitching. With gratifying reflections on these and other lessons of a bygone era–lessons about diligence, labor, and community-mindedness–Paperboy is a piece of Americana to cherish and reread.

Excerpt

Chapter 1

All You Need Is a Bike

On my twelfth birthday, our family moved from the city that we knew to the suburbs that we did not. We traded a world of curbs, sidewalks, and stoops for one of driveways, lawns, and porches. But the city savvy developed on the streets of Brooklyn would not be enough to comprehend all at once the backyards and basements of Queens, especially for a young boy. I would have to learn a new geography, a new language, and a new way to behave and occupy myself. It wouldn't happen all at once, and in the process I would become a young businessman and lay the foundations for becoming an engineer, all in an era when technology was growing increasingly attractive, important, and humbling to me and to the country.

On the drive from the old to the new house, my father repeated what he had been saying for weeks: that we were moving up in the world. We were leaving behind an icebox for a refrigerator, a bathtub for a shower, a party line for a private phone, the subway and trolleys for buses and a car. I kept waiting for him to say "and a tricycle for a bicycle," but the words never came. How could I expect him and my mother to worry about my single birthday wish with all the other things on their minds? We had lived among boxes for the last week or two, and our meals had become increasingly bizarre as we cleaned out the cupboard and emptied the icebox. Last night we had had only vegetables: green peas, creamed corn, and diced beets. Dessert was tapioca pudding. This morning, we had all sat cross-legged on the bare kitchen floor around the coffee ring my father had brought home last evening, the only fresh food we had had for days. After I listened to a spirited rendition of "Happy Birthday, Dear Henry," I halfheartedly blew out the twelve mismatched candles on the cake that we ate with the last quart of milk from the icebox. My present that year would be moving into our new house, I guessed. My wish would remain unfulfilled.

I rode silently with my siblings in the backseat of the car, all of us cradling something special in our laps. My brother, Bill, held his dog, Blackie, and a box of caps for the guns he wore in holsters at his side. (My brother's given name was William, but we always called him Billy or Bill.) My sister, Marianne, whom we called Mary, cradled in the frills of her party dress what must have been a dozen dolls. Skippy, our other dog, lay at my feet as I opened and closed a birthday card from which a clown popped up to taunt me. It was winter, and last week's snow had all but disappeared, save for the dirty piles in the shade of the parkway's retaining wall. I daydreamed of Skippy pulling me in a dogsled, away from my family and their set ways. But without my own ways or means or wheels, I was still very much dependent upon them. A bicycle, I knew, would take me a long way toward my goal, but in the rush of the move it looked like my birthday was going to pass without any presents.

None of us children had yet seen the place our parents had bought. Like our house in Brooklyn, the new one had been purchased from a couple whom my father knew from his days as a bachelor. He was not an adventurous man, and so he reacted to offers rather than made them. When his old landlords suggested that he buy a house from them, he agreed, even to their price. Had they not moved ever upward by capitalizing on the appreciation of their real estate holdings, my father might never have taken the initiative to buy a house like this himself. We were grateful he was sentimental and kept in touch with old landlords. It enabled us to move from a row house to a tract house.

I came out of my daydreams on what seemed a street of extraordinary beauty, which our father said was ours. Though the trees lining it were bare of leaves, their branches arched over it as the ceiling did in St. Patrick's Cathedral, which we had visited once after a Thanksgiving Day Parade. The trees were planted as regularly among the driveways as the columns in St. Pat's were among the pews. The houses were set way back from the street, like side altars from the nave. There was a privacy that we had not known on our treeless street in Brooklyn. Except in winter, it was difficult to see the houses for the trees.

Many of the houses on our new street had exposed front yards whose lawns ran to the sidewalk, but the grass in front of ours and of several of our closest neighbors was hidden behind thick hedges. The walkway to our front door was flanked by two enormous blue spruce trees, which concealed the entrance from everyone but those who approached it head-on. The house was not vulnerable to strangers; it was a fortress within which we could retreat.

The house's distinctive style of a red-brick bottom and a brown-and-white timber-and-stucco top was English Tudor, we were told. In fact, it shared an elevation and a floor plan with virtually all of the neighboring houses. Their individuality came mostly in how the second story was wrapped. Some were shingled and some were sheathed in clapboards, with the color of the shingles or siding often providing the house's main distinguishing feature. The area today is described as "a rather homogeneous semisuburban district, largely made up of conservatively styled brick homes." On our street there was little brick above the first floor, as if the material were too heavy for the builders to carry up to the second.

My father had parked the car at the curb, and we stood for a moment at the front gate, my sister's hand on its unfamiliar mechanism. We were caught between awe and adventure. The dogs could run free, my mother told us, and we let them go. We stood mesmerized by the tableau. Before us was not a sinuous yellow-brick road, but a gray concrete walkway running straight as an arrow between the spruces to the front door. The house loomed also above some shrubs, seeming to dare them to try to overtake it, which they almost would in time. If this was not exactly a castle, it was our home, and we were all anxious to explore it. I showed Marianne how the latch on the gate worked, and swung it open.

We passed single-file between the trees, Mary showing her exuberance by running ahead. Billy advanced with his hands on his

six-shooters, looking from side to side. I moved at a pouty pace, resigned to walk instead of ride a bike for the rest of my life. My mother looked over my head, something she would not be able to do in another year, and my father lingered by the gate, closing it behind him and looking up at the trees.

As we approached the porch, which I would try to but never fully succeed in calling that, I saw several newspapers folded in a curious way sitting under the bushes beside the stoop. They were recognizable to me as papers only by their columns of type and bold headlines. In shape they resembled the makeshift flyswatters my father fashioned in the summer out of the papers he brought home from work in the evening, but these did not need a strong hand to hold them together. They had been soaked by rain and looked heavy, like wrung-out wash ready to be hung on a clothesline. I pointed out the litter to my father, and he commented that it looked like several days of the local paper, which the previous owners must have forgotten to stop delivery on. When the paperboy came to collect later that afternoon, my father paid him for the week but told him we did not want the paper delivered anymore.

It must have been easy for the paperboy to miss the porch, I thought, for it was much smaller than our stoop in Brooklyn. But there was little need for it to be larger, for it would be used only by the rare solicitor and the even rarer guest. It certainly would not be used by roomers my parents had inherited with the rooming house we had just left behind in Brooklyn. They had paid the second mortgage, my father told us. Whatever they did, we children had always had to compete with the roomers for the attention of our parents, and we had been looking forward to now having them all to ourselves. Or at least my brother and sister may have been, for I was already looking ahead to exploring the neighborhood on my own, even if it had to be on foot. But first I did want to see our new house.

The heavy, thick front door opened into a phone booth of a vestibule. Its far wall, not five feet away, was set at an angle and contained by a modest-arched opening. Through it we entered the living room, which was almost as long as the house was wide. The front wall, which faced east, was interrupted by a window of three casements, and high on the north wall were two glass-brick windows flanking a large mirror. The glass bricks provided some degree of privacy from the neighboring house, which was not ten feet away. The mirror, I would later deduce, was located exactly where one would have hung an expansive landscape over a mantel. We had no picture so grand, so perhaps it was better that we had no mantel.

Among my most vivid memories of my father remains the one of him standing before that mirror combing his hair in the morning sun that streamed through the casement windows. Old pictures show that he had had a handsome head of hair as a young man, but by his mid-forties his hairline had begun to recede and he was thinning badly. This gave my father a lot of forehead, making his round face seem longer than it was. He wore rimless octagonal glasses, with the small nick in one corner long forgotten and no longer seen by him or by us. He had worn glasses for so long that they had impressed grooves into his temples and craters into his nose. The symmetry of his face was usually broken by a pipe, which drew down the right corner of his mouth-his left in the mirror-and his pipe's smoke usually wafted about him. He himself did not waft, for he was heavy on his feet and his hands fell clumsily on everything but a comb.

Instead of drawing his hair across his balding pate, he combed it straight back, as if not wanting to make himself appear to be other than he was. On many an occasion, I would watch him combing his hair long after it had been optimally arranged. He was not really looking in the mirror, I am sure. I suspect that this morning, for an instant, he saw neither himself nor his older son standing on the stairway behind him. Was he thinking about the house, or perhaps about the fireplace that he would have opted for had he been the original owner? Might he have had some shelves built on either side, in lieu of the glass bricks? But buying the house now had left no budget for improvements. Without roomers, he would have to take a second job just to pay the mortgage. Perhaps he was trying to see into the future, to imagine what he would look like when he burned the mortgage.

Today, not a minute into our tour of the house, my father was already in another world, lost in the mirror that in years to come would reflect the flash in countless family photographs. We all had the most difficult time remembering that the best vantage point for family photos was not necessarily the most advantageous, or flattering. I continued to watch my father in the mirror from across the room, from the stairway that led up to the second floor. Bill and Mary were already upstairs, choosing their rooms; my mother had gone to the kitchen. I was waiting for my father, to give him the pleasure of showing us what we could see for ourselves.

The stairway on which I was standing was on the south side of the living room, rising from a small landing and hugging the outside wall. In the wall was a recess, an alcove like those that hold statues in a church, but shallower. It was an inexplicably extravagant detail in a house without frills. The sound of children running up the stairs had called my father out of his trance, and he turned to join me. A dozen or so stairs led up to a second small landing, lit by a single-casement window. Through it we could see that the house of our neighbors to the south was about fifteen feet away, the wider space allowing for a driveway. At the very top of the stairs was a squarish hallway, with five doors set jamb-to-jamb around it. One led to the bathroom that served the three bedrooms. The fifth door would normally have opened into a linen closet, but in this house it opened onto a stairway that led up to an attic.

Bill and I would share a bedroom, something that we were used to doing. Mary's room, which she would have to herself, was minuscule. The master bedroom was the largest, of course, but even it was not extravagant and it had neither a walk-in closet nor a private bath. Behind its shrubs and arboreal fortifications, our new house had looked huge from the gate. In fact, most of its rooms were smaller than those we had left behind, as we would see when our furniture was moved in. Instead of the twin beds my brother and I had expected to use, our new bedroom would accommodate only a single double bed, which we had to share. Nevertheless, this was now our house and our home in the suburbs, and we had not yet even seen the rest of the downstairs.

Retracing his steps down to the living room, our father led us through it and past the mirror into the dining room, a feature our house in Brooklyn did not have. There we had always eaten in the middle of the kitchen, which was large and square and the center of all activity. In this house, the kitchen was separated from the dining room by a swinging door, which when left open was either in the way of the kitchen cabinets or jutting out into the dining room, ready to intercept a running boy.


From the Hardcover edition.
Henry Petroski

About Henry Petroski

Henry Petroski - Paperboy
Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. The author of a dozen previous books, he lives in Durham, North Carolina.
Praise

Praise

"Petroski writes . . . with the observant eye of an engineer and the imaginative heart of a novelist." –Los Angeles Times

"A fond but clear-eyed glance back at what it was like growing up middle-class and upwardly striving in 1950s New York." –The New York Times Book Review

"[Petroski] once again discovers mystery and magnificence in the mundane. . . . By the end, we’re convinced that no metaphor for life is more apt than a paper route." –Kirkus Reviews

"[A] pleasant trip though an America that has faded into history, with a tour guide who shares with us both the eyes of a young boy and the wisdom of a grown man." –Civil Engineering

"Petroski . . . can see the poetry in a bicycle." –The New York Sun

"Petroski not only can put science in laymen's terms, but also can do so without killing its magic." –The Christian Science Monitor

"Petroski . . . asks us to see the extraordinary in the ordinary." –Chicago Tribune

"Petroski . . . offers a charming account of adolescence in a much different era." –Booklist

"[Petroski is] the poet laureate of engineering." –Rocky Mount Telegram

"The book is a joy to read for anyone who enjoys a good story, not just working on a challenging project." –CE News

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