SAFETY PIN! A true story

by Meyer Moldeven

How might
adolescents and teenagers of this 21st century relate to and communicate with
grandparents and the elderly? Based on a real encounter, this story tells what
happened during my chance meeting with a young adult. He was about 17; I was in
my high 70s; long retired but also still a kid. Somewhat allegorical, the story demonstrates intergenerational outreach when a youth and a 75+er are willing to listen to each other. Many of us have
had comparable experiences; they deserve to be entered into our lore. If
nothing else, please read the ‘excerpt’ at the end.


The rain sheets
swirled in from the south, bent, and lurched aimless as drunken ghosts across
the college campus. Winds lashed the high crowns of the eucalyptus, and dipped
to whine along the corridors and passageways that cut through the patchwork of academic structures.

Back and legs
lashed by fierce gusts, disoriented to the direction of my destination, I took
refuge under the dome of a kiosk. Backing around to the side opposite the
driving rain, I doffed my cap to let the water drip; waiting was no problem. I
scanned the dozens of leaflets clinging to the kiosk’s curved wall, overlapping
each other like fish scales: notices of student events long past and yet to be,
and places and things from urgently needed to available for the taking.

‘Hey, ol’ man.’

‘Yo.’ I glanced
back. He was in the borderland between the rain and the shelter, leaning
against a patch of soggy leaflets. Six in height, he was as skinny as a drenched cat. Tangled blond hair, defeated by the rain,
plastered his scalp.

His black
T-shirt was wet, as were his frayed and torn jeans and once-white running
shoes. At his feet lay a deflated haversack caked with whatever it had been
dragged through, probably since elementary school.

‘Whatcha doin’
out on a day like this.’

His flat voice
matched the bored, couldn’t care less put-on that went with his years.
Squatting, he drew a soil-brown cloth from the haversack and toweled his head
and neck.

‘Library,’ I
said. ‘Where’s it at?’

He motioned
with the cloth. ‘Behind that one with the big windows. I’m headin’ that way,
too.’ He looked up at the sky. ‘Gonna let up in a coupla minutes. What’re you
gonna do in the library?’

‘Check the
latest Writer’s Market and LMP.’ I looked closer at him and repeated, ‘LMP.
Literary Market Place.’

‘What’ll that do for you?’

‘Point me in
the right direction.’

‘What for?’

‘Peddle an
article I wrote.’

‘Oh. Writer?’

‘Off’n on. Job.
Retired now, but keep my hand in.’

‘Hey, man, I
like writin’.’ He looked at me with interest. What’s it take?’

‘Writin’? Takes
writin’, and rewritin’.’

‘C,mon, man.
You’re tryin’ to sell one. Right?’


’So you’ve been
there. Writin’ for the real world; doin’ somthin’ you want to. What’s it all
about; like what are ya tryin’ t’sell?’

stuff,’ I said, dismissing it all with a shrug and a wave-off. ‘How to organize
industrial tools to do a job, and then how to bring ‘em all together with
materials, parts, and nuts and bolts to come up with the finished product.’

technical writin’, huh?’

‘Yep. Well,
sort of.’

‘Is technical
writin’ hard to learn?’

‘People like
you and me been doin’ it since cave-people first scratched pictures of
rock-throwers on their walls. Finest kind training aid for their kids.’

I pointed to
the printed and hand-scribed notes and graffiti in the patches of still exposed

‘Content may
have changed, but the idea is still to get a message across. What about you?
Ever tried that kind of writing?’

stuff?’ His shoulders rose and fell. ‘Not much. Student, y’know. I’m still gettin’
assignments to write about my last trip to Disneyland. I do use trade manuals
to tune the motor on my bike, and the book has lists and drawings of tools and
step-by-step instructions on how to do the job. Use ‘em all the time, but never
thought about where they came from. You put that stuff together?’

‘Made my livin’
at it for a while before I retired. But, like I said, I’m a firehouse horse who
keeps chasin’ fires even after being put out to pasture. In my blood.’

He snickered.

‘Tools in a
repair manual,’ he said, ‘and all the different parts and instructions. How
d’ya do it? Like, how’d you describe, for example, a tool?’

He scanned the
sky as he spoke. The heavy overcast was lighter, and the wandering rain-ghosts
had retreated to make way for drizzle. Rivulets snaked across the concrete quad
from one puddle to the next, eventually over-brimming into a furrow that
widened and deepened into a trench entering a conduit to a ditch or storm sewer
somewhere off the campus.

‘Name a few
tools,’ I said.

He grinned.
‘Pliers. Wrench. Screwdriver. OK?’

‘OK,’ I
answered. ‘More.’

His eyes
contemplated the drizzle, came back to stare at the wet walls of the kiosk,
settled on his haversack, and stayed. I followed his glance. A 4-inch long,
candy-striped, enamel coated safety pin fastened down the flap of its side

‘Safety pin.
Tool, right?’ he chuckled.’

‘Could be. How
would you get ready to describe it?’

He stared at
me, his face gone blank. ’How ‘to get ready’ to describe a safety pin? What’s
this ‘get ready’ bit? It’s just a safety pin. You’re kiddin’.’

‘The heck I
am,’ I said.’ You just called it a ‘tool’. If you’re going to describe it, know
enough about it to find the words for the job. Words are also tools, whether
they describe other tools, or tornadoes, toys, teeth, trees, or tractors.

‘Start with
thinking about the readers of what you’re writin; will they be in an outfit that makes specialized
equipment to fabricate safety pins; will it be a safety pin huckster contacting
customers by phone, personal contact, or letter, or how about some kid’s mom in an underdeveloped country who never even heard about Velcro flaps
on diapers, if she ever heard of diapers at all. Just assume the woman lives in
a village where no one ever heard of safety pins until a K-Mart opened up
alongside the town rice paddy. What I’m gettin’ at is: who’s the information
for? How much do they really need to know in order to do what they want with
the thing?’

The idea
grabbed him and I let him lead. Backs against the kiosk wall, staring out at
the drizzle but not seeing it, we analyzed a safety pin and how to lay the
groundwork to describe it. He unfastened the pin from his haversack, and using
it as an exhibit, we did a parts breakdown, recalled what we could about the range
of popular sizes; we estimated raw materials requirements per hundred thousand
units; debated how to cut the pin retainer clip from flat stock and form it
around the wire firmly so that a child couldn’t’ separate one from the other;
touched on features for machine tools to fabricate safety pins; then jumped to
the economics of designing robotic machine tools to mass produce and corner the
safety pin market.

We delved into
designing a pin with enough stiffness in the wire so that the pointed end would
not bend out of the clip head and keep the tip from accidentally disengaging;
we laughed over deburring the parts so that Mom’s fingers and the baby’s fanny
wouldn’t get scratched, and quickly agreed on the need to coat the pin with a
rust inhibitor to protect it from the corrosive effects of dank cloths in warm
places. We explored packaging, marketing and replacement factors.

By now his hair
was almost dry and he finger-combed it spikey.

‘Hey, ol’ man,’
he said, ‘this is a good rap, but it’s only a safety pin.’

‘Don’t knock
it,’ I replied. ‘Safety pins, in one form or another, have been industrial and
household tools for centuries and will be for many more. Anyhow, we’re using it
as an example, the same principles apply whether it’s a safety pin, a computer,
TV, or space ship. Getting back to your part of the job, when you’ve got it all
together, and understand it and the customer’s needs, then you’re close to
starting the writin’ job.

‘Based on who
wants to know, you might need to spell out what the parts are made from, their
dimensions, the diameter of the spring loop, and the wire’s bending limits. You
might need to describe the integrated clip head and the pin shaft and how they
were attached.’

He stared at
me, and his eyes widened in wonder at the boundless vistas I had just opened.
He was far beyond safety pins.

‘If you’re
interested in technical writing,’ I continued, ‘keep in mind that collecting
data and understanding it precedes the mechanics of writing.’ I paused. ‘And
when you do write, whatever you’re writing about – a safety pin or a space
rocket – do it with such care an precision that what you come up with can form
the image you want in the mind of someone who has been both blind since birth
and incapable of feeling anything with his or her hands. That’s the test.’

The look of
discovery was replaced by skepticism. ‘Aw, c’mon, man, that can’t be the real
world for technical writers,’ he said. ‘People who use tools learn by doing, or
they follow a book. They see what they’re working’ on and feel things with
their hands’

‘Let’s think
about that,’ I said. ‘Millions of people who see poorly, or not at all, or who
have other sensory problems, use precision tools all the time. Many of them use
tech data recorded on audio systems or in Braille. The entire field of
communications to bypass sensory limitations is just beginning to open up;
it’ll be part of your world. Data in dozens of arrangements, for design,
training aids, or operating instructions are needed by folks who, very often,
haven’t used the equipment before or who, for some other reason, need drawings and other tech data right there, alongside, all the time. In this world of thousands
of languages and dialects, and physical and mental limitations beyond counting,
even basic tools, like a safety pin, need to be understood all along the line
from designer to user. Understanding means communications; think about it.’

We shared
silence for a while.

‘Hey, man, I
like that,’ he said softly.

We glanced at
the sky. The clouds were breaking up. As we abandoned our shelter under the
dome, he shook his head. ‘All this for a safety pin,’ he said. The look of
wonder was back, and became a grin.

‘A diaper pin!’

Raising my arm,
I pumped my fist at the sky.’ Today, the diaper pin, tomorrow the world!’

We laughed. At
the entrance to the library we shook hands and went our ways. I never saw him
again, but I sometimes wonder what he chose for his life’s work.


The following
excerpt is from the Introduction to a list of free guides cited in a
multi-address e-mail that I received July 13, 2006, Subject: ‘Free Guidelines
from WGBH – Create Accessible Digital Media.’ It speaks for itself. Quote ‘Properly
designed e-books, software, Web sites and learning management systems can and
must be accessible to all users with disabilities. Technology is prevalent
everywhere, and learners of all ages and in all fields require equal access to
content to keep pace with their colleagues and classmates. Whether they are
high school students, IT professionals or research chemists, inaccessible
materials prevent people with disabilities from using the same materials at the
same time as their peers, and can limit their educational and career
opportunities. These guidelines, providing step-by-step solutions for making a
variety of electronic media accessible to users with sensory disabilities, are
now available free of charge at




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