Tommy Torque WrenchDecember 7, 2013
Story by Bill Powell
Photos by Dave Weatherwax
Bring Leonardo da Vinci back in present-day Dubois, give him a welding torch and you’d pretty much have 65-year-old Tom “Tommy Torque Wrench” Flinn.
Collectors stop and try to buy the vintage early 1900s motorcycle bolted to the wall of Tom’s shop across from Northeast Dubois High School until, upon closer examination, they learn it is only springs, pipes and assorted scrap-heap odds and ends welded into a dead ringer for a primitive Indian or Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
“They want it to run,” says Tom’s wife of the last 45 years, the former Mary Kluesner, 63.
Tom is an accomplished machinist and small engine mechanic whose career included stops at Charlie’s Honda, Port of Jasper, Stens Corp. and Ditto Sales. Metal sculpture has always provided a creative outlet for him.
Give the flannel-and-denim-clad artist a few minutes alone with a jug, a pipe and some metal rods and he welds them into a walking, three-dimensional figure resembling a first cousin of Jack Skellington from “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
In fact, one Halloween, Tom’s version of Skellington was shooting a jumper into a basketball goal at his house over a pint-size R2D2-type robot forged from flue pipes and a jug-type canister.
His metal sculptures have been viewed in county yards and outside local businesses for years. But many fans started to fear no new works could be expected after a series of serious health calamities buffeted Tom.
At age 32, the man whose father died of a heart attack at age 34 experienced his first occurrence of coronary thrombosis. He underwent open heart surgery at age 38. Kidney problems, fluid retention and the surgical implantation of a pacemaker were followed, at age 59, by a serious stroke.
Heart and kidney problems had led to an early retirement. Getting a pacemaker meant he could no longer weld. The stroke stilled Tom’s voice and paralyzed the right side of his body.
Tom’s speech therapy lasted for six months but his Muscles therapy is ongoing. The aptly named Muscles is the Flinns’ black Newfoundland hound.
After the fateful stroke, Mary says, Muscles would come to Tom’s right side — always his right side — and put his head under his master’s right hand. The dog made Tom pet him.
“I think he knew to go to the right side,” Mary says. “He was constantly after Tom. The doctors think that was really one of the things that helped him get over this.”
The next step in his nuts-and-bolts recovery involved just that — a nut and a bolt.
“He sat forever twisting that nut off and on,” Mary says.
Tom’s road back has been long and not devoid of setbacks.
“I have my bad days and my good days,” Tom says. “On bad days, I don’t leave the computer room. The good days, I spend down at the shop.”
A golf cart jockeys him from the house to a cluttered shop that would be the pride of Gasoline Alley with its walls lined with toolbox cabinets and workbenches and a floor dominated by lift platforms and an air compressor.
It was in his workshop where Tom decided he would build a miniature bulldozer — Tomka it would eventually be called — to prove how well he was recovering. It would be a continuous-tracked tractor the design of which would come from the spinning gears of Tom’s da Vinci-like mind. It would be a symbol of pushing through against adversity.
“Everybody didn’t think I could do it,” Tom says.
He started with the remnants of an old Wheel Horse garden tractor he’d been given, found a suitable engine in Lafayette by searching on his computer and repurposed old army ammunition containers, turning those into a dozer toolbox and battery compartment.
He enlisted the help of his sons and other family members in getting the welding done. Tom and Mary ran down parts on Friday trips to scrap yards and secondhand shops. Tom designed this miniature version of a mighty Caterpillar D9 so his grandkids could ride on it.
The finished product rumbles to life sounding just like a little bulldozer should. It even has a beeping reverse warning.
“I think he did it to prove he still had it,” Mary says.
Lawn & Garden Tractor magazine devoted a three-page spread to the machine. A picture of one of Tom’s grandsons sitting on Tomka during the 2012 Strassenfest parade is eerily reminiscent of a picture from the early 1950s showing a 3-year-old Tom riding a miniature motorized tractor his father had fashioned to look like a Case tractor.
Tom’s dad, Earl “Ich” Flinn, ran a Case farm implement dealership in Ellettsville, north of Bloomington. He got the nickname Ich because he was long and lean, like Ichabod Crane in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” He died in 1955.
Mary had just turned 16, the age her parents said she had to reach before she could date, when she met Tom, who might have actor Tom Skerritt’s knack for looking better the older he gets. The Dubois girl went to the Calumet for the first time in her life on the one and only night Tom attended one of the dances his friends were known to frequent. After that, she says, it was just understood that they would always be together.
“I married him because he made my heart flutter,” Mary says. “He still does.”
Mary works nights at MasterBrand Cabinets and Tom handles the cooking for her and two of the couple’s grandsons who sometimes stay with them until their parents get off work.
“They love pawpaw’s cooking,” Mary says.
Tom built the shop where he does his tinkering about 10 years ago. It came into being out of necessity because all of Tom’s rolling tool cabinets and five stationary lathes had taken over the Flinns’ basement.
“When we first got married,” Marys says, “here was the deal: If he did not go to a bar, anything that he did not spend on alcohol could be spent on tools.”
“I got a lot of tools,” Tom says with a grin.
In warmer months, Tom likes to take Tomka the bulldozer to tractor shows in the region; it is a hit with children and adults.
Tom and Mary are the parents of three sons and one daughter and they have five grandsons and one granddaughter.
Tom says those grandchildren keep him going. He is building a small replica Bugatti race car for them. It will have wheels from a bicycle and a motor from a powered wheelchair.
“He just works a little bit at a time,” Mary says. “He is looking for a steering wheel next. He has been getting a little help sanding the body.”
Tom is still coming back from the stroke six years ago, Mary says.
Dr. Phillip Dawkins, Tom’s late heart doctor, made him promise to not just retire and sit in a recliner.
“This is his way of keeping busy,” Mary says as Tom works in the shop. “I have to beg him to sit down and watch TV.”
Contact Bill Powell at email@example.com.
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