The urge to take things apart starts in childhood. If you're lucky, it continues through adulthood.
The other night, for instance, my almost-7-year-old presented me with an "engine" and a light bulb he had pulled from a disabled toy car. I connected the terminals of a 9-volt battery both to the engine's contact points and to the wires leading to the light bulb.
The engine whirred. The bulb glowed, and the kid beamed. All at the same time. The kid skipped off in search of more items to disembowel.
I understood the kid's delight. The call to explore a machine's innards is a strong one. To peek under the hood. To pry off the cover. To go where no screwdriver has gone before.
As a kid you can tear an old radio apart for the sheer joy of discovery.
But as an adult, you have to claim that you are pulling things apart so you can fix them.
That was the excuse I used not long ago to dismember the bathroom scale. The scale wasn't working, and so my youngest son and I carted it off to his room. There, instead of telling each other bedtime stories, we took the back off the scale and explored.
Once the cover was off, what we found was a series of levers and a disconnected spring. I explained to the kid how the scale worked. I told him that the levers, reacting to the weight of the person on the scale, pushed the spring down and rotated the numbers on the scale's dial.
I had read these details in David Macaulay's "The Way Things Work," a marvelous illustrated guide to the workings of machines. It is a reference work that has bailed me out many times.
The kid was mildly interested in scale theory, and mainly interested in playing with scale parts. So, after failing to fix the sprung spring, I left the assorted pieces on top of his clothes dresser for him to admire.
And admire them he did, for a day or two. His mother, however, did not regard the splayed-open scale as a brilliant example of the workings of third-class levers. She saw it as "a mess." And after a week, she tossed it in the trash.
The kid wasn't upset. Nonetheless, I felt sorry for him.
A guy needs to have a place to store his parts. He needs a sanctuary for those coil springs that came off the car when he bought new shocks. He needs a place to hang that old leaded-glass light fixture, the one he loves and his wife hates. He needs a safe home for those light switches, the ones so old they might have been used by Edison himself.
To an outsider, these old parts may seem like junk. But to him they are souvenirs of his journeys into the inner workings of household devices.
The kid needed a place to keep mementos of machines gone-by. In short, the kid needed a basement.