Strange Things Are Afoot

I was on duty in the tool crib tonight, and nothing was happening.  I didn’t have any customers in the shop, and after some activity elsewhere in the building earlier in the evening, all was quiet.

Until about 7:30, when someone sloped into the shop and walked right past the tool checkout window without comment.  This is not actually all that unusual; you have to go past the window and actually come into the crib to collect one of the student toolboxes, and people often do that first, then claim a machine and get set up before they come to the window for the more specialized tools that are not in the toolboxes.  (The toolboxes contain the most commonly used tools, like digital calipers, Allen wrenches, a Crescent wrench, a deadblow hammer, and suchlike.)

Except the new arrival didn’t come in for a toolbox either.  For a second I thought it must have been the campus police officer who, on making his rounds, often cuts through the MTL and leaves via the outside door at the far end – but the next sound I heard wasn’t the door.  It was the whir of one of the pedestal grinders over on that wall starting up.

There’s another machine shop in the MTL, down in the other wing, where the seniors work on their capstone projects.  I thought maybe my unannounced visitor had come from there, needing one of our grinders to sharpen up the tool he was using or something (it failed to occur to me at the time that surely there’s a grinder in the capstone shop), so I didn’t pay it much mind as the sound of repeated passes on the grinding wheel filled the shop.  This went on for four or five minutes, and then I heard the grinder switch off and start spinning slowly down (they have a lot of inertia, grinder wheels, and keep spinning for quite a while after the power’s off).

A moment later, the person who had been using it walked back past the tool window.  It was a young guy, unremarkable-looking; I didn’t recognize him, but that’s not that unusual, I don’t know everybody in the program by any stretch.  That wasn’t the strange and arresting thing about him.

No, that would have been the fact that he was carrying a fireman’s axe, gleaming and evidently just sharpened.

He noticed me sitting behind the tool counter (having failed to do so on his way in, apparently), looked slightly surprised, then smiled and said, “Have a nice night, man,” and went casually out into the hall and away.

I sat there for a minute trying to absorb what I had just seen, then called the campus police department’s non-emergency dispatch number and told the dispatcher, “Hey, listen, I don’t know if this is anything, but some guy just breezed into the machine tool lab and sharpened an axe on one of our grinders.”

“… What?” came the puzzled reply.

“Yeah, that’s what I said.”

“Uh… do you know who it was?”


“Did he appear intoxicated?”

“Nope.  Seemed perfectly normal.  Except that he was carrying around a fire axe for no evident reason.”

“Uh, OK, I’ll send someone to check it out.”

A few minutes later there was a banging at the lab’s outside door, and I went out to let in the most skeptical police officer by whom it’s ever been my privilege to  be considered daft.  He asked me to repeat what I’d told the dispatcher, then spent a couple of minutes trying to get a handle on why I had reported this evidently trivial incident to the campus police.

“So is the problem here that he was using university property for personal use?” he asked.

“No, I’m not concerned about that, not on one of the grinders.  It’s just… mysterious guy roaming around campus with an axe?  I thought you guys should know.  That’s all.  Civic duty and all that.”

“So you think he’s out there choppin’ heads off right now?”

“Well, it seems a bit stupid when you put that fine a point on it.”

“What kind of axe was it?”

“Like the kind firemen use.”

“So not a hatchet, then.”


“Would you know him if you saw him again?”

“Dunno.  He was only in my field of view for a couple seconds.”

“Well, OK,” said the officer in that I’m-humoring-you-son tone of voice.  “Let’s go look for him.”

We went down to the other end of the building, where there were a few people hanging out in the CAD lab.  I didn’t see the axe guy there.  They looked slightly startled at having the fuzz suddenly show up and eye them for no good reason; one of them asked if they could help us with anything and the officer replied, “Nah, we’re just lookin’ for a guy.”

So we went back to the machine tool lab and the officer said, “OK, well, just one of those things, I guess.”  Then he tapped his radio and added with a laugh, “I mean, if he’d of axed somebody I’d have heard about it by now!”

“Well, if you do hear about any unauthorized axe usage, you can probably find bits of it right here on the floor,” I said.  “He didn’t sweep up, they never do.”

“Right,” said the clearly unconvinced officer.  “Well, night now.”

So, OK, yeah, kind of an anticlimactic story.  The cop certainly thought so.  I suspect he thought there was no mysterious axe guy at all, and I was just bored or stupid.  Either that or it was just somebody stealing a little time on one of the University’s tools to sharpen his own personal axe for, I dunno, wood splitting or something.  Which I suppose is conceivable, it’s the right time of year, but a fireman’s axe?  At 7:30 on a Monday night?  On a college campus?  It was just… weird.

So now I’m in some Potential Cranks file over at Public Safety, probably…

  1. Darker
    October 25, 2011 at 10:48

    I, too, am frustrated by those situations which are *just* off enough to warrant calling the police, but just normal enough that you feel like an idjit for doing so.

    But the surreality is pleasing, assuming no violence comes of it. :)

  2. Hyuri
    October 26, 2011 at 15:48

    I’m somewhat confused by the idea of a toolkit intended for use with high-precision equipment containing a Crescent wrench, of all things. I mean, my first official lesson in tool use was very emphatic on the point that adjustable wrenches are very nearly the polar opposite of “precision tools” even for automotive repair, where precision is often merely a nice thing to have, if you feel like it.

    • Ben
      October 26, 2011 at 15:55

      There are a number of non-precision tasks to be done in the course of operating the machine tool lab’s equipment for which a Crescent wrench is pretty much ideal. Loosening and tightening the nut that holds a lathe tool rest in place, for instance, or the bolts that secure the pivoting part of a vertical mill’s vise. You don’t need a really precise tool to do that – in fact, since those nuts often get pretty heavily banged up in the course of a mill vise’s lifetime, if you had a precision wrench it would probably not work.

      Right tool for right job, etc.

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