[Editor's Note: Scott Meyer is the creator of the web-comic Basic Instructions, the first collection of which is Help Is on the Way: A Collection of Basic Instructions, published by Dark Horse Comics.
Recently, someone asked me, "What inspired you to do this?" That got me to thinking — partly about the vague insult hidden in the tone of the question, and partly about what led me to draw a comic strip. After some reflection, I have to say that part of the answer is "my dad."
Stop rolling your eyes. This is not going to be one of those touchy-feely "my old man was the greatest" stories like you read in Parade magazine. My father is quite insane, but in his way, inspirational.
It's tempting to call my father an inventor, but I can't. He has never created a product. He creates things simply to fill needs he personally finds in his own life. He's a carpenter by profession and a welder as a hobby, and as such my childhood home was much like Dick Van Dyke's home in Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang, only transplanted into the desert of eastern Washington State and built out of nubby plywood and rusting scrap metal.
I could go on and on about Dad's attempts to build various things: the compost-powered heating system that worked too well and melted, the tent trailer that took four full-grown men to set up, the homemade jeep he abandoned because he realized it had no steering mechanism. It's all good stuff, but instead I'm going to focus on his greatest innovation, the mechanical burglar.
Our home was burglarized around the time I was eight. I wasn't particularly traumatized. The thieves didn't get away with much — some eight-track tapes, a hunting rifle, and my Dad's Sherlock Holmes pipe (I think they took it for the irony).
Dad set out to make sure that we'd never be burglarized again. He went to the finest electronics store our town had to offer, Radio Shack, and returned with their top-of-the-line burglar alarm. It consisted of a high-powered siren and a single motion detector. He set up the motion detector in the living room, aimed at the front door. He tested the range of the motion detector and found that it reached almost halfway to the front door. He was disappointed that his new alarm system wouldn't go off if someone kicked in the front door. This was a major flaw. A flaw he would fix.
He retreated to his workshop. Several hours later he walked purposefully into the living room with a six-foot length of two-by-four with a hook on the end, which he attached to the doorknob and left. My brothers and I looked at each other. Mom just looked at the floor. Dad returned with a rough effigy of a human form made from splintery scrap wood and rusted door hinges. The head, torso, and legs were formed from a single two-inch thick, water-stained wooden plank. It had a crossbar nailed to it about a foot down from the top to form the shoulders. At each end of the cross piece, a rusty door hinge held a dangling "arm" of scrap wood. The arms were different colors, and slightly different lengths. At the base of the plank, two more "ankle" hinges attached the plank to a heavy wooden base. He stood his creation up in the middle of the living room and attached the two-by-four that was connected to the door knob to the back of his plywood man. He turned on the motion detector and left the room.
In the distance we heard the back door open and close. We heard him walk up the front porch, and we saw the door knob turn. When he opened the door, the two by four pushed the plywood figure forward, causing it to fall in a squeaky wooden heap right in front of the motion detector, which started screeching like a banshee. Dad looked in the picture window next to the front door and smiled broadly.
For the next two years we couldn't leave the house for more than a few hours without "setting up the alarm." After my parents divorced, Mom never set up the alarm anymore. My brothers and I told her we felt security was even more important without Dad around, but she didn't seem to agree.
What does any of this have to do with my comic strip? Well, watching my dad growing up taught me many lessons, the most important of which was that if there's something you think should exist, you don't have to wait for someone else to build it. You can make it yourself. Whether it's a comic strip about "how to" instructions or a mechanical burglar, the principle holds.
Also, read the comic strip below and try to tell me the apple fell far from the tree.