A Teacher’s Summer

Do you know what this tool is? Well, for one thing, it’s a sign that I had a good summer.

tool-whole1.jpgIt’s a leather punch, and an old one. It has the trademark of an English company, Maun Industries, which opened in 1944. My father had this tool as long as I can remember—I know he acquired it when we lived in England, so that’s before 1971. I doubt he bought it. It’s more likely that he brought it home as part of his work running a little company called Vansom in the Soho district of London.


It’s odd that my dad, a newspaperman, was briefly the boss of this little workshop that mostly made cheap costume jewelry. My parents were always broke, but somehow always seemed to have rich friends. At a time when he was particularly down-and-out, one of these friends asked my dad to run a little side business he owned. Vansom did pretty well for a short time. They briefly cornered the market on mink earrings. Fur coat companies routinely threw away the tails, so dad was able to get them for free. These were curled up, glued onto a cardboard circle, and affixed to an earring. I think they were as shoddy as they sound. But at a time when mink coats were the ultimate status symbol, they were a way that working class English ladies could afford a touch of luxury.

Most of the work for Vansom was done on a piece-work system. My dad paid housewives to make the earrings at home—usually without their husbands knowing they were picking up a little extra work.

alf doll furniture.jpgI remember so well the chief craftsman at the factory (he might have been the only employee). He was a true Cockney named Alf Garney and I adored him. He helped me make this wooden doll’s chair and table for my little sister Martha for her birthday. (I’m not sure why I have it. I guess it means a lot more to me than to her. I probably stole it from her many years ago.)


He came over to our flat with his accordion and taught us Cockney songs. I seem to remember he was a lonely old bachelor, and once he came over for Christmas dinner. This must have been 1970, because he gave me a book, a sort of annual English soccer album called Football Star Parade 1969-1970, and he inscribed it: “For Chris, future Arsenal star.” He knew the way to my heart! I was a soccer-mad English boy, unaware that my parents would soon rip me away from all that I held dear (meaning, the Arsenal Football Club) and force me to become an American. That night he played his accordion and we sang carols.

When deadlines were tight for Vansom, my dad brought work home. I remember my parents and older sisters hand-painting flower earrings and leaving them to dry in the kitchen. That’s how this leather punch must have arrived. I don’t know why this tool always struck me as so interesting. I guess it’s that wheel of different-sized punches. Mostly out of nostalgia, I took it from my parents’ apartment when they downsized for the assisted living center about ten years ago.

I don’t use the leather punch very often. But I did today! That’s because I got sick of my shorts falling off my butt, making me look like one of my “sagging” students, so I put a new hole in my belt. I never weigh myself, but I must have lost a bit of weight this summer. I’ve taken up a few new hobbies. One is collecting bricks. Another is riding my bike. Put them together and you burn a lot of calories!

I attached an old milk crate onto my bike for the heavier loads. I think my biggest has been three pavers (about 10+ pounds each) and five regular bricks. The bike gets a little wobble on the back end, so you need to steer carefully, and you have to slow down for every bump. After lugging that up the hill to the “Heights” on a summer afternoon, I need a shower!

loaded bike.jpg
The bike with a nice load of old bricks.


I’ve lost the book that Alf gave me. But these are from similar books from the next year. Top: Charlie George, Arsenal’s young star living my dream life (Like many lads in my part of North London, I was also “born with red-and-white eyes”). And below, Arsenal after winning the European Fairs Cup (now called the UEFA Cup). And a note to other English teachers and grammar sticklers: that’s not a typo in the lower title. That’s the way they do it in the UK. For example: England is a great country, but England are a great football team!

Christopher Cotton

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