Long story

In a story by Jüri Parijõgi, an Estonian author, little Andu sees and hears a radio for the first time in his life. The machine has been built by his cousin August who is already a big boy and has learned many things at the faraway town school. So Andu gets it into his head that he simply has to build a radio tool. “How hard could it be? If cousin August could do it, so can he. He’d just have to have a shiny box with a lid, and inside it some rolled up wires and semi-circle shaped thin sheet metal pieces that can be turned. And a screw – he’d have to have a screw with a massive head to wind when you want a German song. The radio should have long wires reaching out of the window. And to get the horn, he could make use of the phonograph that they already have at his house.”

At home, Andu stashes away a bunch of household items that seem suitable, takes them to the cold sauna room and builds his contraption.

But you can already guess where this is going: the radio he built in great secrecy refuses to make a peep in front of the audience, even though everything is just as it should be: a shiny box, a screw with a massive head, and wires hanging outside the window! And Andu’s earnest attempt at inventing ends in bitter tears.

My road as an inventor has been bumpy as well. And, boy, has it! Looking back, every new project seems like Cape Horn to me and I am genuinely surprised that there have been a couple of times when I’ve actually managed to sail through its hazardous waters without crushing my bones against the rocks or just running aground, or without smashing my ship into smithereens along the way or leaving it drifting in the calm sea. Heaven knows that all those things have happened and on more than one occasion. After all, that’s what you get with my paltry navigation skills and levels of persistence. And, to be honest, it is not wise for a novice seafarer to undertake a journey alone. I have realised that by now.

First, as I recall, there were sketches. It may seem like the outcome of logic and reason but no: those are personal traits I lacked back then. Most likely the sketches and diagrams preceded the machines and contraptions just because I was too small to actually use a hammer and a saw. The schemes contained Echer-like perpetual motion machines, Tinguely-like monstrosities and Goldberg-like machines that showed no regard for Euclidean geometry or most of the laws of physics. How do you land an aircraft whose base is made of a tarring shed’s floor panel and that is supposed to fly in the air by means of a sail customised from an old greenhouse door? It’s easy – just drop a bucket full of rusty nails, bolts and washers on the floor from the top of the sailplane! How can you go over to your friends’ house to play if the road is blocked by your neighbour’s big scary dog that has a habit of digging his way under the fence? Just do what the dog does, but dig deeper: build a tunnel that goes all the way under the neighbour’s garden and comes up in front of the next neighbour’s sauna. They surely wouldn’t mind – after all, they can just close the hole with a pot lid while no one is using the tunnel so that people wouldn’t fall in.

Sketches were followed by actions. There was no need to waste time and paper on sketching anymore. By the way, I still think that I am better at hands-on activities than at planning or implementing a project. This holds true in everything: in cooking and constructing, but also in writing and communicating – life in general. It often seems that the worlds that are created and flourish in our minds cannot really be put on paper or be conveyed from us to other people or from us to ourselves through recipes, sketches or electronic data transfer. Everything should happen here and now or never happen at all! There is no need to feel regret that we will ever be able to give solid form to only a fraction of our fantasies. Real life will never be as rich as our fantasies, music, art or books. Actually, it is not more or less – but always more and less. The imaginary world just has a different kind of substance from the real world. The whole attempt at creating a sense of immediate presence – an attempt that is being ever perfected in today’s augmented reality virtual environments – seemed to me over and done with, trivial and cheap even then, over twenty years ago.

When I was a child, there was an amusement arcade in Gildi street in Tartu. It was a dimly lit and mysterious room, where, for just a few kopeks it was possible to take a crack at a claw crane plunging into toys, try your might on a giant dynamometer and see if you had the strength of a mouse, a cat or a dog, or play miniature basketball covered with a plexiglass dome. Its walls were lined with fridge-sized arcade games where you could shoot wild boar, smack your opponents around in hand fights or race on a highway that rolled underneath your car on a tiny screen with grainy graphics. That last one was my favourite. Its hungry slot swallowed rubles and rubles of my hard-earned money that I had made by hoeing the beetroot fields at the collective farm.

I understood that machine! I figured out how it had been made. I had the necessary tools and I just had to build my own. I took a micro motor and attached a flywheel to it. The flywheel was carved out of a big eraser and it was supposed to haul a highway made of a strip of wallpaper about 150 cm long with the ends glued together. The car itself was attached to a wire rod and, of course, it was a real car: my very own chicken-poop-yellow Moskvich model. I just couldn’t settle for the pretend world of the game arcade, a mere imitation of life – my arcade machine had to be life itself. On the wallpaper landscape, I fixed dry sticks that served as trees and bushes, installed some cardboard houses, built a bridge above the river and added a winding road across the hill. I also wanted to build a tunnel, but realised at the last moment that the car on the rod could not go through it. I wasn’t stupid, you know. I designed my machine with absolute joy and raw reason. I cannot even recall the disappointment that inevitably followed – that always followed, so often that I had probably become immune to it – as the machine completely crashed at first activation, the wallpaper sliding off the flywheel and getting all crinkled, and the chicken-poop-yellow Moskvitch being left dangling on its rod above the abyss.

I also tried to build some other game arcade machines at home. Following the example of the amusement park, I built an autodrome in the dog’s pen consisting of hay string tied to the fence criss-crossing over the pen and an available vehicle fleet in the form of my kid brother’s tricycle, a crank car and a rocking horse. With my friends, we replicated a circus attraction called ‘Illusion’ that we’d seen in Riga by hoisting a hencoop on a haystack in the barn, curling up inside it and having others push it down the stack at full strength. I don’t mean to belittle Dark Souls and similar games (these games require incredible engineering and artistic skills to be made), but if any of you wish to learn how to avoid bumps and fractures, I’d rather suggest that you have a go at the aforementioned ‘Illusion’.

At some point in our lives, a considerable amount of my peers started to busy themselves with transformers and transistors. I built a casing for an old baby carriage using available materials and barged down the hill. The smooth asphalt that had been built around the Finns’ brand new dairy farm got marked with long black comma-shaped traces: in order to steer and brake, you had to pull levers with rubber ends on each side of the carriage.

I should mention that this ‘soap box craze’ was one of the few where I had followers. At some point, there would even be as many as five or six machines rolling down the hill. Some crashed into the wall of the neighbour’s henhouse, and others crashed into the road ditch after being towed by a car – but we all made it out alive.

I never did get into transformers and transistors, or the computer stuff that started to emerge around that time. As I look back, I presume that it might have seemed unnatural for me to submit coded commands to anything besides my own ten fingers – but it was necessary with computers, especially the early ones. And regarding electricity, I never really hit it off. I once had a close encounter with it when I invented a blueberry cleaning line out of a fan and a washboard, but this was a really hostile and unpleasant incident. For me, physical contact was essential – I was a child and I needed physical closeness. It was easily achieved with sheet metal, plywood and clay. I developed a special relationship with plywood. I still have it. I like the flexibility and resistance of that material, I like its density and light appearance, I like the rattling sound it makes under the saw and its velvety smoothness against my palm. I like what I can make with it.

One rainy summer when I was eleven years old, I began building miniature houses. I used 4mm plywood and poster paints, made windows of cellophane and rainwater pipes of drinking straws, used corrugated paper for roofing and fashioned a TV antenna out of aluminum wire. I marked the scale 1 : 50 000 on the edge of the model. I built my house and its ancillary buildings, the houses of both of my grandmothers and some other buildings as well. I was going to scale down and model all nearby homes, sheds and saunas, the entire collective farm, and why not the whole world while I was at it. But summer came to an end and one autumn day, our young and playful cat wreaked terrible havoc with the models. I don’t remember having punished the cat for the destruction. At least not as much as I chastised the pieces of material that failed to stick together during assembly or allow themselves to be sawn in the correct measures.

Of course, when you are a preteen, building a city for dolls is not something to boast about, so all my woodworking activities came to a halt when school started. It was easy to skip woodshop classes and play ping pong in front of the school canteen instead of carving standardized ax handles on command.

But in life there are some objects of affection that come back to you. Just like the records you listened to, books you read, places you visited and relationships you experienced at an impressionable age, anything that has once really mattered to you – it all comes back.

In spring 2013, around the time when my first children’s book “How things are going with us” was about to be published, I chanced upon a Soviet era pinball machine at an antique store. It was just like the one I had had when I was a child, only the background was different: my playfield had pictures of Russian fairy tale characters, while this one depicted a football game. As I was walking home with the machine, I ran into several friends my age and saw their eyes light up at seeing the treasure I had got hold of. Each of them had had a similar machine at home, or they had at least had the chance to play on it at a friend’s house. I was sure that our common childhood favourite would also become a winner in the toy box of my 6 and 8-year-old sons.

As a matter of fact, it did. There is surely something captivating, something magical, maybe even something archaic in scoring points with the help of luck and skill and watching the ball roll along the playfield and look for a suitable place to land. For a while, the boys forgot their pirate stuff, their toy trains and even computer games. Summer was coming, the maple tree was blossoming – and evening after evening passersby could hear various noises from the open window of the boys’ room: the creak of the spring cannon being pulled, the rattle of the steel ball jumping along the pins, and either of the boys shouting from joy because he had just scored a hundred or even five hundred points.

Soon, the boys had had enough of playing by the rules. They started to knock the rolling ball with a pen, invented new obstacles or added the whole playfield into the construction of another game or gadget.

But this couple of weeks was inspiring enough for me. I had already developed an idea of how to build a similar game using plywood and even improve it – I added classic pinball flippers so that the game would be more than just shooting the ball and replaced the wire buckets with scoring holes from where the ball would roll back through the double bottom.

The aim was to make the game considerably more active. And I succeeded.

On the playfield of my very first pinball game, or actually machine, I copied the illustrations that Alvar Jaakson had created for my very own freshly published book. The machine was incredibly eye-catching, even when it was not currently in use, and looked like a real behemoth with all its twisty wire rails, sheet metal ramps and funnels, and plywood flaps and propellers. This first game also had a weakness – its non-existent reliability. I kept having to repair and fix, adjust and fine-tune it. The second game, inspired by the book “How the Hedgehog and the Bear Cub Saved the Wolf” by Sergey Kozlov, got a considerably more plain form. And when the third game (inspired by “Otto is a Rhino” by Ole Lund Kirkegaard) was finished, I felt confident enough to lend it out to friends whose children had been thrilled with the machines when visiting us.

Need I add that by this time, my engineering had become slightly obsessive? After finishing each machine, I soon found errors that needed to be fixed in making the next machine, and even before completing one machine, I had my head full of improvements for the next one. The fourth game was a miniature one, based on the book “Life a User’s Manual” (by Georges Perec) that I had translated; the fifth, on the other hand, was so huge it took up a third of the available floor space in our living room. We lived side by side with these games for the entire winter. Since it was a mild and snowless winter, I could do all the dusty sawing and sanding work outside while the hammering, gluing and painting was done in the living room in the evenings. The kids didn’t really get a chance to become fed up with the games.

In March 2014, my book received the Annual Children’s Literature Award for 2013 from the Cultural Endowment of Estonia.

The prize money became the seed capital for Kolm Elu. I consider my current activities similar to writing a children’s book. The book “How are things going with us” is a collection of bedtime stories I had written for my own amusement and for my children. Since they liked the stories, why not share them with other children? And the same goes for the pinball machines: since they give me, my children and my friends’ children so much joy, why not share them with others?