Back in the late 1960s, my uncle paid a visit to the optician, as his eye test was now overdue and he needed perfect sight to assist him in his work. This was all very routine, as you can imagine and thousands of people do this every day. There was one difference in my uncle’s case. The optician almost always wants to see your present pair of spectacles, to test the strength and other technical things. Quite a while before this, my uncle’s spectacles had undergone a certain modification – a modification that would be unknown to opticians and the world of Optical Science. They had a couple of rivets holding them together, which had been developed originally for the shipping industry!
As a result, the spectacles were practically indestructible. You could drop them on the floor and the legs would stay in place. The legs were also tailor made to fit my uncle’s head exactly and as they had no screws, they never worked loose or showed any signs of deterioration. The rivets were actually quite small and with a quick coat of paint to match the colour of the glasses, they actually blended in really well. In addition, the strength of the rivets (they were designed to hold part of a ship together,) meant that as long as my uncle’s eyes stayed at the same prescription and didn’t deteriorate, he could have easily worn these spectacles for the rest of his life. However, his eyesight had deteriorated a little, hence the need to finally visit the optician.
The “repair” that had been made to my uncle’s spectacles, was the result of an act of a remarkable camaraderie among work colleagues, which was not only a marvellous example of the Christian value to look out for one’s neighbour, but often surpassed this. The company where my uncle worked contained many experts in different trades. There were shipbuilders and joiners who could construct almost anything. There were trimmers who could make comfortable seats and upholstery. There were also engineers and electricians.
My uncle was a foreman craft painter, which in these days meant certain ornate furnishings and panels in the staterooms of the ship were painted or varnished meticulously by hand and had ornate lines drawn along their borders – a tradition similar in detail, to the meticulous decoration of the ornate carriages that you sometimes see the Queen travelling in. Combined, these skills were a force to be reckoned with and back in the late 1960’s, resulted in an unofficial “club” being set up, which brought joy to many children.
At that time, although the 1960s saw many new innovations, there wasn’t anything like the choice of consumer goods that we see available now in the shops, especially when it comes to children’s toys. Boys would more often or not get a train set for their Christmas. Girls would receive a doll, or doll related things, such as doll’s house, or a doll’s pram. Often as well, if money was a bit tight in some households, it wasn’t possible to buy the present that the child really wanted. As a result, in the months leading up to Christmas back then, a remarkable club was set up amongst several work colleagues in my uncle’s firm, all with different skills.
Each man was able to buy the materials that were needed at a much-discounted price from suppliers, as they were in the trade. In addition to this, money was donated throughout the year into a fund, which could be used to buy anything that was required, so the costs were all shared. This club met two or three nights a week, as well as during the weekends, when Christmas got closer and made a collection of some of the best toys I have ever seen.
I have personal experience of just how good they were, as I was lucky to receive a few of these presents. I happened to mention one year that I would really like a toy garage for my Christmas, but the only thing was, that all the garages in the toyshops didn’t light up at night like real garages do. I wanted one that lit up just like the real thing and in addition to this; I also wanted a ramp that lifted toy cars up, so that they could be inspected underneath.
Come Christmas time, I received just that. I was probably the only little boy in Scotland in 1968, who had a garage that lit up at night with the flick of a switch and some cleverly concealed batteries. The ramp also worked by winding a small key then pressing a button. But the skill involved in making it went far beyond this. As a child, you don’t think about this and just react with excitement. But as an adult thinking back, you have a much better understanding of just how well made it was. The garage had a large sign across the front, which also lit up and read, “Drew’s Garage.” It was even backlit so that the letters on the sign stood out prominently. I was the envy of all my friends and what was more, this could not be bought in any shop.
The secret behind all of this, was that the joiner had built the frame of the garage. The electrician had set up the lights and winding mechanism. My uncle had painted it and together with a sign writer, added the artistic details, such as the lettering on the sign and various other touches, such as adverts on the wall for tyres and servicing. This process was repeated for all sorts of toys, including dolls houses, which also lit up and had a bell that rung if you happened to press a small button beside the door.
Even existing toys were modified to make them much better. I know of a boy who had a small tricycle, which had a boot added on to the back, so he could carry some extra toys about with him. A girl had small lights of different colours added to her toy scooter, which flashed on and off every time it moved. I once was presented with a beautiful hand - made desk, complete with a rolling flap to cover it and even more excitingly, it contained a secret drawer that yielded lots of sweets when it was discovered for the first time. I know of cases where some of these wonderful toys have been kept and passed on to excited children and grandchildren.
This willingness to help extended far beyond children’s toys. If one of the electrician’s cars broke down, one of the engineers would come and fix it after work. If an electrical problem occurred in our house, one of the electricians would come and sort it. In return, my uncle would go and paint some rooms in the electrician’s house when required. It was a wonderful system where people helped each other, which even went as far as fixing a pair of spectacles - all be it with rivets! I have no way of knowing if all of these men were religious. Maybe some had faith while others didn’t. However, I can say for certain that God would have been very proud of them.
As I said before, possibly not all of those men were religious, or had any thoughts on the subject. However, this raises an interesting possibility. A theologian called Karl Rahner, who died in 1984, had a theory about the existence of a group of people, who although they have no Christian background; or even any interest in Christianity, had somehow been given access to God’s grace and in the eyes of God, would stand equally with people from a Christian background. He called these people the “Anonymous Christians.”
If anybody deserved God’s grace, it would be certainly be those men, as their outlook on life followed many of Christ’s teachings, whether they had faith or not. Alas, many original members of this fantastic club that was set up so many years ago, have now sadly passed away. However, one thing is certain. There is a group of people now in their forties, who will never forget them and still remember to this day, the absolute joy of receiving a Christmas present that was not only a unique toy, which no one else had, but a gift of love from a group of dedicated men who gave up so much of their precious time off to bring this about.
Going back to my uncle’s “riveting” spectacles, I was dying to find out what the optician’s reaction would be, when confronted with this modified pair. My uncle was keen to find out as well. He had a great ability of being able to look deadly serious and keep a straight face in these sorts of situations. He tells me that the optician apparently looked at the spectacles for quite a long period of time, then surveyed them from various different angles. With a puzzled expression he then finally asked my uncle,
“Did an optician fix these spectacles, Mr. Anderson?”
With a deadly earnest expression, my uncle replied,
“No, it was a shipbuilder.”