From the Relief Society Magazine, February 1962 –
By Maryhale Woolsey
The spelling of the name was Mother’s guess, and nobody ever questioned it. It was, she explained, a mental picture of a word somehow derived from the name Houdini, the famous magician grandfather greatly admired. “Sure the handiest man ever I heard of!” he used to say.
And that Houdinattie was the handiest, Mother thought, of all Grandfather’s tools. It was a special kind of hammer, all metal, shiny nickel finished, shaped like a long letter “T,” with its stem split at the bottom. Its crossbar, heavy and squared at the ends, made the double hammer head, and the split stem made the claws. Not curved as all the usual hammers’ claws, but flattened to sharpness at their ends. They could pry up nails and loosen nailed-on box covers the quickest and cleanest any hammer ever could. It had an unusually good balance for nail driving, too.
Whoever had the Houdinattie would be certain to nail together the most boxes of anyone in any given period of work time. In fact, it seemed that anything you did with hammers could be done faster and more easily with the Houdinattie. Boxes were what it did the most of, because Grandfather was a “bee man” and used thousands of boxes every year to ship his honey corp. The boxes arrived by carload lots, pre-cut, but flat, and Grandfather put his youngsters, both girls and boys, to the job of nailing them together and stacking them at one end of the big honey-house to be filled during the harvest season and have the covers nailed on – again, often by the sons and daughters. When a box had to be opened for inspection, that Houdinattie was the only tool anybody ever dreamed of using.
The Houdinattie was Mother’s favorite tool. She had liked carpentering, to an extent unusual for a girl, and often talked of learning to build things a lot more fancy than boxes, when she got bigger. “And when I grow up and get a home of my own, a Houdinattie is going to be the very first tool I buy!” she used to declare.
Well, the time came. That is, the time when Mother married and started to housekeeping – and collecting tools to put up shelves and build bookcases and cupboards and things. But, to her great disappointment, a Houdinattie was far from her first tool. The stores in the small town where her husband’s work took them had no Houdinatties and didn’t even know what a Houdinattie was. Mother had to be content with an ordinary claw hammer, until some time when Father could get one for her when he went to a bigger town. It was when he questioned how to spell it, that Mother realized she had never seen the word in print – and discovered there was no such word in the dictionary.
Father never could find her a Houdinattie. Some years later, Mother had opportunity to seek for it in big hardware stores in Ogden and Salt Lake City. Nowhere could she find a Houdinattie, and among all the nice polite salesmen she talked to, there was not one who had the slightest idea of what she wanted. Even though she sometimes made a little sketch of it, they would simply shake their heads.
Of course, her search never became what you might call determined. The ordinary hammer served well enough for Mother’s simple carpentry. The Houdinattie was something to run onto some day and rejoice over. It wasn’t even on her mind enough to make her remember, at letter-writing times, to ask Grandfather about it.
Almost six years passed before Mother made the long journey back to Oregon for a visit. The first time she wandered out to the honey-house, therein the tool cupboard just inside the door, she saw that bright, shiny Houdinattie.
“Oh, Papa!” she exclaimed. “I’m so glad to be reminded of something I kept forgetting to ask you in my letters. … I’ve wanted a Houdinattie ever since I got married, but I’ve never been able to find one in any store I’ve been to.”
“Where did you look for it?”
“Why, in the hardware stores – the same places I’ve bought the other tools I have. But nobody, anywhere, seemed to know anything about Houdinatties.”
Grandfather sat down suddenly on the nearest nail keg. “Houd – that what you asked for, Houdinattie?” he wanted to know. His cheeks were pinking rapidly and his mouth twitching at its corners.
“Why, of course. That’s what you always …” Mother’s voice failed her as a mortifying thought numbed her mind – and as Grandfather’s mouth opened wide to emit a great roar of laughter. It grew and grew until it seemed quite to overwhelm him. His pink cheeks deepened to purple; he swayed helplessly and slapped his thighs with his big hands.
At last Grandfather calmed down a little, enough to say, between gusts of laughter, “That’s what I – was guessing … oh, in those big stores! Wish I’d been there to see some of those salesmen’s faces!”
Mother felt her own cheeks start to burn hotly. Not until that moment, she told us afterward, had she remembered Grandfather’s habit of nicknaming things. The “whatchacallit” … “That thingamumbob.” But he would call them by their right names sometimes.
“You always called it – that, Papa. Never once anything else!”
“Sure.” Grandfather mopped his forehead with his big, blue bandana handkerchief, and chuckled. “Lots handier than its rightful nomenclature.” He pulled himself up from the nail keg, went over to the tool cupboard, and reached down the shiny tool. “Inspector’s hammer, this thing is, daughter. A man as busy as I, just hasn’t time to bother with a mouthful of a name like that, all the times I’d be saying it. But that’s what it is: inspector’s hammer. I sure would like to have seen those clerks when you asked for a – a Houdinattie. Why, girl – if I had known you wanted one that bad, I would have bought you one from the Bee-Keeper’s Supply House a long time ago!”