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The Case Of The Missing Caning Chisel

After logging my fifteenth hour spent over the last two months dealing with a dispute with the IRS over $38 (it became the principle of the matter) I attempted to make my wasted workday worthwhile by re-caning a dining room chair.

I was removing the spline of a cane-back chair in the process of refinishing and re-caning the chair back when I had an illuminative learning experience.  The chair was backside down on a large sheet of cardboard on my back deck in front of the door to the breezeway leading into the house.  I was leaning over the chair back with the bright yellow handled tool in my right hand and holding the top of the chair back with my left hand, preventing it from moving left as I gouged out the spline channel with the caning chisel.  I was working from right to left along the narrow channel.  The chisel slipped out of the channel and the end of the chisel drove into my left wrist.  Blood spurted in a pencil diameter stream about four inches.  Astonished at what I just observed and frightened at the potential consequences, I immediately wrapped my right hand around my left wrist and put pressure on the hole with my right thumb.

Two thoughts went through my mind: go to a neighbor’s house for help and call my wife at her office.  I was already lightheaded, probably more from fright than from loss of blood.  I called my wife, left a voice message at her office and went to a neighbor’s house.

After I was patched up at a neighbor’s house and calmed down, I returned home to find my basement about to fill up with water because my sump pump just failed after a two-inch rainfall.  I was having a really bad day.  After repairing the sump pump and all that transpired, it was clear that I was done caning for the day.  I set about to collect my tools and put things away.  I found all my tools, except the caning chisel.  I spent the next two hours that day trying to find it and the next morning spent another forty minutes.  Where did I ultimately find the caning chisel?

The purpose of this exercise is not to find the tool, but to analyze the thought process of how evidence is pieced together from fragments of mental images, much the same way a witness that views an accident attempts to put together what they saw.  Sometimes the mind tends to fill in the blanks and it becomes difficult to discern between facts, assumptions and created memories.

I began to assemble the facts that I had.  The main fact was I had no memory of seeing the caning chisel after the incident.

I had to have opened the breezeway door with the free fingers of my right hand that was firmly wrapped around my left wrist, so I figured it was not likely that I still had the chisel going into the house

I figured I must have just dropped the tool from my right hand when I wrapped my right hand around my left wrist, so I assumed that it would be on the sheet of cardboard or near the chair.  The chair was found on the ground off the deck, apparently kicked out of my way in my haste to get into the house.  The cardboard was still on the deck with several other tools I was using.  I had put the chair away and the cardboard.  The cane chisel was not near the chair nor on or near the cardboard.

I assumed the chisel could have rolled off the cardboard when I picked it up, or when I kicked the chair out of the way, so I searched around the area I was working.

I then figured that it must have slipped out of my hand at the end of the stroke, so I broadened the search to the area to the left of where I was working.  I searched everywhere towards left and could not find it.

I then assumed that I must have chucked the nasty little beast somewhere out of the way, so I searched the area behind me and to the right.  It could not have been in front of where I was working because there was the outside wall of the breezeway preventing it from going in that direction.  Still not found in a thirty-foot diameter search.

I even checked the basement toolbox chisel drawer and around the basement sump pump thinking that maybe I picked it up and already put it away.

This was beginning to get maddening.  I attempted to ignore assumptions of what I must have done and set about to develop hard facts.  Since I had leaked profusely, I followed my blood trail from the work site to the telephone in our home.  I determined that I must have called my wife first, before intending to search out a neighbor.  I remembered I had difficulty dialing the numbers, my left hand ineffectual and my right hand only a finger or two free since I was still holding pressure on the wound with my right thumb.  So the chisel had to be somewhere between the back deck and the telephone.  I then searched every nook and cranny in the path and around the telephone.  Not found.

After leaving the voice message for my wife using the home telephone, I must have left the house by opening the front breezeway door, again with free fingers of my right hand to see if the neighbor to the west was home.  I remembered that I saw that there was no car in the drive, so I did not go over there.  But I searched along the path to the front of the house for the tool.

Then presumably, I went to the neighbor’s house to the south.  But I now I had my portable office telephone with me when I arrived at her house, so I must have gone back into the house beforehand to retrieve the portable.  Again by opening the front breezeway door with my right hand coming and going.  So I searched the area around the portable telephone baseunit and even went through the garbage can nearby.  After all, according to the character Sherlock Holmes made famous by author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

The next morning, I started the search all over again from step one.  A memory was beginning to surface of noting that I had dropped the chisel and thinking that it was an odd place, but I could collect it later.  Another memory surfaced of the sound of the chisel hitting the surface, a higher frequency “ping,” like hitting concrete or tile.  So I checked every inch of the tiled breezeway.  My forensic investigative mind suggested that these might be fabricated memories, because by now it was painfully obvious that I must have dropped it in an inconspicuous spot.  I already searched obvious locations and many out of the way places.  But still no mental image of where I was upon losing the chisel was developing.

While I was again going though the garbage can, now at the end of the street, I saw my neighbor outside gardening, the one that patched me up.  She confirmed that all I had with me when I arrived on her doorstep was my portable telephone, no chisel.  Retracing my steps back to the house, I was startled to find the chisel in the rose bushes alongside the driveway.  The “ping” must have been from the hard plastic handle striking the asphalt drive and then bouncing into the rose bushes.

I had to have had the chisel in my right hand the entire time that I called my wife and went out front to see if the neighbor to the west was home and dropped it outside when I went back into the house to get my portable telephone.

We have a family saying that stemmed from my brother-in-law changing the motor oil on his car.  The car fell on him when he knocked the jack out that was holding up the car, luckily causing only a nasty cut on his forehead.  His young son asked him afterwards, “What did we learn from this experience?”

I did not see the chisel after the incident because it was in my right hand behind my left wrist throughout much of the post-incident events.

The error in my investigation was to begin by pursuing assumptions rather than beginning with hard facts.  Beginning with the hard facts would have allowed me to find the chisel much sooner.  Assumptions, no matter how logical, are still only assumptions that may be completely divorced from reality.

Do not assume people reason properly in adverse situations.  I dialed the telephone while holding the handset and chisel with my right hand.  How and why I did this I cannot explain.  The telephone was equipped with a speakerphone and speed dial.  All I had to do was press the bright orange button that said “speakerphone” and press one button for my wife’s office.  Furthermore, it would have been much easier if I let go of the chisel.  I also opened both breezeway doors not less than two times, each time with the chisel still in my right hand.

Even after I intended to let go of assumptions, several assumptions persisted, such as not having it when I opened the breezeway doors or dialed the telephone.  I just could not have imagined I could have had it in my right hand while performing these tasks.

All my assumptions were misleading and unavoidable, even to someone that has been investigating for twenty-seven years.  Assumptions allowed known facts to fit together, even ones that did not belong together, for instance, opening the door and dialing the telephone.  It was a fact that I did both, but not a fact that it could not have been done either while still holding the chisel in my right hand.

The post-incident location of the tool allowed me to piece together the most improbable set of facts.  There are certain pieces of a puzzle that can prevent the true picture from developing.  Otherwise, we would have a very different picture of the post-incident events.

A string of significant events can cause earlier memories in the sequence not to fix.  Although the immediately following basement sump pump incident was not traumatic, it focused my attention in a very different direction.  It may also have been that my mind was already in a dither from my frustrating experience with the IRS.  The mindset of the witness going into and out of the experience may require the interviewer to carefully reconstruct the memory.

Switching from an analysis of the investigation of the case of the lost chisel, of direct relevancy, when using a chisel or a knife, cut away from you.  Otherwise, dramatic spikes may occur in flat learning curves.

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