Down in Dad's Shop

Posted by jdg | Friday, January 11, 2013

One thing that might help explain some things about me and the decisions I've made is that I grew up with a father who was always at home. Having now abandoned my professional career, it's not strange for me to see my kids growing up with a mother who leaves for a traditional job and a dad who is there during the day and whenever they need someone to be there, like all these furloughs from school they get every few weeks for parent teacher conferences or Caesar Chavez's nephew's birthday or the anniversary of the final battle of the Crimean War or two weeks for Christmas and then another week-long "winter break." My mother, a special education teacher, was also usually home during those times, and she also stayed home with my sister and me for a few years before returning to her career. She eventually became a busy school administrator and a part-time college professor. My dad always fixed cars and still, he is always at home.

He runs his own business, a one-man body shop in the "barn" he'd built in our backyard back when we lived out in the country, well before the city caught up with us and subdivided our woods with winding roads named after the trees they replaced with hastily-built homes that filled with bankers and doctors and businessmen who rose early to drive their BMWs past our house on their way to sit at desks all day and do the sort of important things that people with real jobs do. Each morning my dad would walk out to his backyard shop where he restored antique cars for successful men who could pay a master craftsman to tinker away at the ninety-year-old hunks of rusted steel they'd found in some old barn and shipped to him in boxes and months or even years later they'd drive away in gleaming, puttering realizations of history. Often they would win awards for those cars like prize race horses they never trained or rode themselves.

Before I turned ten my dad had me working down there. He showed me how to properly fold and rip sheets of sandpaper. How not to waste it. He said for sanding the intertwining spokes of the wire wheels you'd find on cars built during the 1930s, my tiny fingers were better than any of the hundreds of tools he used in his trade. He showed me how to use the heavier grit to remove the rust and pits and then once he'd primed them for painting I'd go over them again with a finer paper. There were always piles and piles of wheels waiting to be sanded. He paid fifteen dollars per wheel and I learned that when you're not getting paid by the hour the slower and lazier you are the less you earn. He eventually recruited my younger sister as well, but it wasn't long before we both threw down our sand paper and went on a general strike that lasted for years. We could only take so much dust and classic rock radio.

Over the years my dad often needed me to come down to his shop and help him move one of his cars in or out of a painting bay or steady some heavy fender he needed to transfer from one rack to another. More often than not this ended with him muttering under his breath that he would have been better off doing it by himself. He was probably right. His perfectionism always made it hard to delegate his delicate work much beyond sanding wire wheels. He never really let me mess around with any of his tools, as important as they were to his livelihood. So I didn't want to learn. I grew up with an understanding of manual labor that the children of those who work with their hands often receive: as rewarding as it might be, it is awfully hard on your back. My dad would come in from his barn at night, primer dust in his hair and streaks of paint on his shirt and we knew better than to complain about our days.

Succeeding at school promised careers that wouldn't involve breathing in toxic fumes or callouses on anything but our asses. We were promised scholarships to colleges and lifetimes of ease and money that came without breaking our bodies (they said nothing about our souls). I retreated into books.  I specifically remember being fourteen and spending nearly all of one summer night and the entire next day reading the $3.99 pistachio-covered Bantam Classics translation of The Odyssey and my dad opening my bedroom door to gripe at me for my sloth, telling me to get me outside and do something. Just like that I went from young Keats to the shame of knowing he was right, imagining him at my age elbow deep in the greasy viscera of some old jalopy, learning about engine cylinders and transmissions while I grappled only with words that disappeared off the end of my tongue. Years later, while I was off at college or working at the law firm my dad would tell me about some teenage kid he'd hired to help him around his shop, some kid who was so grateful and hardworking and everything I never was, and all I could feel was shame. Growing away from his shop, his tools, that world, I learned to marvel at what he was able to do down there, as though it involved some kind of sorcery for one man to make a neglected hull of pitted steel look exactly like did when it drove off the Auburn showroom floor in 1937. When, of course, it really involved talent, and years of practice, and a whole lot of hard work.

I bought into the promise of my generation. I found a way at age 23 to make more money than my dad ever would. Of course I quickly learned the truth of that simple cliche; it didn't bring happiness, not when indentured to miserable sadists who thought nothing of taking away your weekend or forcing you to work until after the buses stopped running. I often spent my limited free time in the leisure of shopping for shit I didn't need because that was the only thing that made me feel better about losing all the time spent earning it. Hours and hours and hours where it never felt like I ever accomplished anything.

Right now, at this strange time in my life, nothing makes me happier than learning to make things for my kids. And that's how I found myself back down in my dad's shop.

* * * * *

About a year ago my dad brought me down to show off a project he and my mom had been working on. In semi-retirement they had started making large wooden sculptures of fish---the sort of thing you might see at a nice beach town art gallery. My mom has always been extremely artistic, painting and sculpting as a hobby. Every time we visited after that there would be more fish around, and they were clearly having a blast making them together. They've exhibited these fish at art shows and even sold several for thousands of dollars. Seeing my dad start working in this new medium really inspired me, and I asked if he would show me how to use some of his tools. For the first time in my life he let me use one of his bandsaws and showed me how to use various belt sanders and rasps. I went home and bought myself a saw and started making wooden swords. That led to making a bunch of other stuff, some of which I've shared here (including the toy yachts and the toy Colosseum) and of course this year I really wanted to make my kids' Christmas presents. I gave myself more than a month and told them I'd make them whatever they wanted. My daughter knew right away that she wanted a large horse that she could sit on that looked more like a real horse than her other wooden horse and my son wavered between (1) a police car he could really drive that had a computer in it for him to look up bad guys and could also transform into a helicopter and a submarine; and (2) a castle for his toy knights. I might have leaned on him a bit in support of choice number two.

This post is already long so I created a separate post with more details about how I made the presents with lots of pictures of how they turned out. On Christmas morning, I enjoyed every second of watching my kids come down the stairs and see, for the first time, the presents I had spent so many hours in the basement building for them.

They totally knew what I was up to down there, but were forbidden from even setting foot on the basement steps. They started calling it my workshop. The castle is made completely from ribbon mahogany and ash. I had so much fun designing and building this castle. The front gatehouse has a drawbridge he can pull up and down using chains that flow smoothly through little pulleys I found at the hardware store. There's a portcullis inside the gatehouse he can bring up and down as well as a third set of doors inside the castle. Archers can prowl the ramparts and stand at the tops of the five towers, and inside the castle there's a dungeon with a door he can really lock and chains on the walls. Over the past few weeks it has withstood several frontal attacks, catapult bombardments, and even a fire-breathing dragon. Best of all, when he's done playing it serves as default storage for all the swordsmen who've so often threatened to impale my bare feet while walking around the house at night.

My daughter's pony is made from several pieces of basswood cut to shape, glued together, hand-carved, painted, and finished. I also made him a hand-tooled saddle and a leather bridle she can remove.

He's a little short and scrawny, but then again so is my daughter. They have become fast friends and he has already gone on several adventures. His most important adventure was the one she doesn't know about, back and forth from my dad's shop.

After I finished the fun part of shaping and carving the pony's head, I really struggled with building the rest of the body. With nothing more than my scroll saw, a few rasps, and no experience carving something this big, I just didn't have the tools or the know-how to get it done. I was in well over my head. So on a Friday with my daughter in school, my son and I drove to my parents' house two hours away and my dad spent his entire day working with me on his granddaughter's Christmas present while my mom entertained her grandson. He helped me fix the misshapen parts of the body with a fiberglass mixture and taught me how to use dozens of powerful woodworking tools that allowed me to accomplish in a few hours what would have taken a frustrating week in my basement. We worked alongside each other for hours. We were making a Christmas gift for a child, but this was the best Christmas gift he could have ever given me. There were a few moments where the old dynamic took over---where he knew he could do something better than me so I found myself watching him work---and that was okay. That was to be expected. And then he said in a moment of my own frustration with the equine torso emerging from the wood:

"You can't just expect to pick up a tool and use it perfectly the first time. These things take lots of practice. You don't think I could just pick up a law book or a camera or a computer and do what you do, do you? I have been doing this kind of work for a long time, and you act like you should be able to do it without working at it."

He was right, of course. When I look at my finished work through his eyes all I see are the flaws that he would never allow to remain. He has spent his life turning back time. Removing dents, and scrapes, and rust, returning ancient things to the state they were in when they were new. He was able to make a living at this by not forgiving himself an imperfection here and there, holding himself to perfection as the standard of his craft, a hard standard to find in any father. In comparison I am but a dabbler. I enjoy making the things I make but I fear I will never rise above the dilettante. I still have my words, though I struggle with those too. You can look at a piece of wood and see where it needs to be sanded to perfection, you can hold it in a certain light to see all its flaws and with the right amount of elbow grease you can make those flaws disappear into dust, but how do you do that with words? As I write and I write and I write, behind the scenes, and even here, how can I live up to the example my dad set for me? Scrape away a bit too much here, not enough over there, and even the finest sculptor with words must retain doubts. Still, I know that this is my primary craft. I will keep working at it.

* * * * *

Back in December my son was pretty sick and missed a lot of school before Christmas break, so a few days ago was his first time heading back to preschool after nearly a month and his desire not to return was resolute. I desperately needed him to, despite how much I love being home with him. After that month I needed a day to try to write some things that required more the three minutes of attention I can give anything when he's home. After some early morning foot stomping and stubborn refusals, I pleaded with him desperately: "I need you to go to school so I can get some work done." That somehow worked. "Alright," he growled, and after some talking I realized he thought I meant I needed to get some work done on his presents for his upcoming birthday. My 4-year-old son thinks my job is to make him toys and costumes. I think I can live with that for now.