How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself: An Excerpt

Robert Paul Smith




If things were as they should be, another kid would be telling you how to do these things, or you’d be telling another kid. But since I’m the only kid left around who knows how to do these things—I’m forty-two years old, but about these things I’m still a kid—I guess it’s up to me.

These are things you can do by yourself. There are no kits to build these things. There are no classes to learn these things, no teachers to teach them, you don’t need any help from your mother or your father or anybody. The rule about this book is there’s no hollering for help. If you follow the instructions, these things will work, if you don’t, they won’t. Once you have built them my way, you may find a better way to build them, but first time, do them the way it says.

First thing is a spool tank. For this you need an empty spool. Here’s one place your mother can be ootzed into the deal. You can ask her for a spool. If she hasn’t got an empty one, you’ll have to wait until she does. In the meantime, build something else.


Okay, now you’ve got the spool. You will also need a candle or a piece of hard soap, a rubber band, and three or four large wooden kitchen matches. If you want to be real fancy and you’ve got a thumbtack, that’s okay, but you don’t really need it, and it’s really not the right way to build a spool tank. The first thing to do is make the washer. Take a kitchen knife or your jackknife. We used, sometimes, to hold the blade under the hot water until it got fairly warm, thinking it would make it easier to slice the candle, but I’ve just tried it, and I honestly don’t think it makes any difference. You can try it both ways and see. Either way, what you do is cut a slice of candle, from the bottom of the candle. Cut it fairly thick, at least a quarter of an inch. The finished washer doesn’t have to be that thick, but it’s easier to cut a thick slice of the candle than a thin slice without its breaking. If the candle, when you cut it, looks as if it’s made in thin layers, like an onion, forget it. You’ll never get a decent washer out of it. Either find the kind of candle that’s made solid, or use soap. If you find the right kind of candle, keep cutting slices until you get a good solid one. You may find it easier to pull the slice off the candle without cutting through the wick, leaving a hole. If you cut right through the wick, with one of your matches push out the little piece of wick in the center if it’s still there. Now go outside and find a very smooth stone, like a sidewalk, and rub, gently, until the washer is nice and flat on both sides. You don’t really need a stone, you can do it on a wooden floor, if your mother is somewhere else.*

If you use soap, cut a slice with your knife—you don’t have to heat the blade for soap—and then trim it round, and then poke a hole in the center, with the punch on your knife, or you can even do this with the matchstick too. With the matchstick, rub a little groove in the washer, or cut the groove carefully with your knife.


Then thread a rubber band through the hole, and put the matchstick through the loop it makes. Now work the rubber band through the spool. It’s too short? Get a longer one. It’s too long? Double it. Now break off a piece of another matchstick and put it through the rubber-band loop at the other end of the spool.

Wind it up, and then put it down. It will run across the floor, it will climb a considerable slope, and if it runs ahead of itself so the stick is in front instead of in back, just wait. The stick will come slowly up and over and when it touches the ground, you’re in business again.

If you’ve wound it and it doesn’t go because the washer won’t turn, without taking the tank apart rub the washer against the spool just where it is. If the little matchstick at the other end skitters around, jam pieces of matchstick in the hole like this or use a thumbtack.


If you’re interested in making a real climber out of it, cut little notches all the way around the rims of the spool and that will give it a good grip.

Of course, once you know how to do it, now that I’ve told you, you can teach another kid, and then you can have races or hill-climbing contests, or just plain fights between your tank and his.

Another thing we used to do was make what we called a button buzz saw. This is something you can make in about five minutes any time you’ve got nothing special to do. First you have to find a button, the bigger the better. It’s got to be the kind that doesn’t have a shank, but two or four holes like this.


Get some dental floss or fishline or any kind of thin strong string, and put a loop through like this.

The dotted lines are because there isn’t room on the page, but the loop should be about a foot long.

Now put your two index fingers—those are the ones you use for pointing—through the loop like in the picture and twirl the button until you’ve got the string twisted on both sides of the button. Then pull. The string will unwind and seem to get longer. Just before there’s no more slack in the string, loosen it by bringing your hands together. The button will wind up the other way, and you just keep on doing this. It will feel as if the string is a rubber band. This is because it’s twisting and getting shorter, untwisting and getting longer, and of course when it twists one way the button goes around in one direction, and when it twists the other way, the button reverses. If you hold the button, while it’s going around, up against a piece of stiff paper, say the cover of a magazine that’s sticking out over the end of a table, it’ll make a kind of siren noise. I can’t tell you exactly how to do this, it’s kind of a matter of feel, but after a while you’ll find you can make the button not only go around, but it will travel, while going around, first towards one hand and then the other. You probably know how to use a yo-yo, and this is the same general idea, but we didn’t know about yo-yos, because there weren’t any yo-yos to know about then.

By the way, as long as we’re talking about spools and buttons: it’s entirely possible that you won’t find either a spool or a button of the right size around your house; when I was a kid, all mothers sewed and eventually there was an empty spool, and when clothes wore out, mothers used to cut the buttons off before they threw the clothes away, and save them in a big box. But as I say, that doesn’t always happen any more, and if you can’t find a button or a spool at home, take a walk and go to the tailor shop, or cleaning store, or whatever they call it in your town or neighborhood. As I said this book is things you do yourself; so don’t ask your mother to do this. That’s against the rules. Go yourself and ask the man in the store. And if you’re really lucky—I never was—there’s a kind of spool that’s used on great big factory sewing machines, about the size of a can of peaches. If you get one of these, get a really big rubber band (you’ll probably have to buy it—when we were kids and wanted big rubber bands, we used to cut them out of an old automobile tire inner tube, but lots of tires don’t have tubes any more). Instead of matchsticks, use pencils, and if your mother makes jelly herself, you know about the big disk of wax that’s on top. If she doesn’t make jelly, and if she makes jelly and doesn’t use wax, cut a great big washer out of soap.

The other night a friend of mine, who lived only six blocks away when we were kids, told me that he used to make the washers out of the paraffin that used to be on the top of jars of homemade jam. Now he tells me!

Robert Paul Smith is the author of the best-selling Where Did You Go? Out. What Did You Do? Nothing. and of the novels So It Doesn’t Whistle, The Journey, Because of My Love, and The Time and the Place. Smith was born in Brooklyn, grew up in Mount Vernon, New York, and graduated from Columbia College in 1936. He worked as a writer with CBS Radio.

Paul Collins is a writer specializing in history, memoir, and unusual antiquarian literature. His nine books have been translated into eleven languages, and include Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books (2003) and The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City & Sparked the Tabloid Wars (2011). Collins lives in Oregon, where he is chair and professor of English at Portland State University.