The further I go in life, the less certainty I seem to have. There was a moment between high school and early adulthood when I was sure. Of everything. I freely admit now that I probably didn’t know a lot but, at the time, I was certain about what I knew. Or thought I knew. The certitude seemed genuine. In an automobile showroom one afternoon, without fear of contradiction, I spent the better part of half-hour detailing the benefits of the Volvo 144 to a very patient woman, whose purpose in being there, in retrospect, may not have been to shop for a car. It didn’t matter; I was certain of my knowledge and expertise.
I have the feeling that, as years have passed, that certainty has eroded, rather than consolidated. Knowledge, opinions, attitudes, perceptions… all have drifted, to one extent or another, from absolute to merely relative.
Memories seem to be like that as well.
I have a faint childhood memory of my father on a bowling league. I remember a bowling bag with a ball inside, but I think that is only because it stayed in the basement, where we kept the croquet set, the Frisbee and the camping gear, long after his participation with the league. The actual memory, if accurate, is of watching Dad at the bowling alley on Ballard Avenue. During the fifties, that old main street was giving way to industrial businesses. Most of the retail stores and shops had moved to the newer, more modern buildings on Market Street. I remember the building that housed the bowling alley as small and cramped, a half-dozen lanes with low ceilings. And I remember pin-setters; not equipment but men in pits behind the pins who replaced them by hand after each frame and sent the bowling balls back down the returns. What I seem to remember best is the view from the bleachers where Mom and I sat, behind the bowlers. The bleachers could not have had more than a few levels, those spectators in the top row with their heads nearly in the ceiling. Behind the last row were a few narrow clerestory windows that admitted light from the street. I don’t know if I was ever there more than once.
Bowling was the only sport that I ever knew my Dad to have taken part. I never heard him talk about having playing baseball or anything else. If pushed, he would remind me that he’d grown up during the Depression and had no time for such things, he had to make money for the family. He did tell me a few times about saltwater sport fishing, mostly with his father in law and he showed me his old bamboo salmon rod and reel when I asked about it, but I never knew him to have used it; that all ended before I was born, given up to raise a family. He seldom watched sports on TV. Sports were just not part of his experience, nor part of our father and son dialogue.
He had something else to share with me.
Dad knew mechanics. His expertise was machinery, how to work on it and how to repair it. Dad was a man of tools and knowledge of their practical uses. He was not a prideful man, but the one story I heard him relate with a pronounced sense of accomplishment was how, as a teenager during the Depression, he had built his own Model T Ford from found parts and a total expenditure of fifteen dollars. During World War II, he worked in one of the local shipyards, repairing marine engines. He had mechanics tools of all sorts and did all the work on the family cars. And, eventually, mine.
My entry into Dad’s world came with a driver’s license and a little British Ford sedan with a crumpled front fender. Three blocks away from our house on 70th Street is where I saw it, parked beside a garage, close to the fence; I watched it for days but it never moved. Finally, I worked up all my courage and went to the door to ask about the car and if it might be for sale. The owner had had an accident that resulted in the damaged fender, parked it and put it out of his mind, no longer worth his time, money or attention. To me, with a freshly minted license to drive, it was the holy grail. I never gave much thought to what kind of first-car I might have wanted but I knew to get the idea past my frugal parents, it would have to be inexpensive.
The car could be had with a payment of fifty bucks to the owner but there was a catch to it with Dad; before I could drive it, I would have to learn with him how to tear down and rebuild the engine. No son of his was going to drive a car without knowing, in great detail, how it worked. And so the deal was done. The car came home and went immediately into the garage.
Dad and I put on coveralls; toolboxes were opened, their uses were explained. Oil was drained, the engine hoisted out, the coffee can that contained the nuts and bolts filled up as the little engine came apart. As it was reduced to its component pieces, each one analyzed, inspected and compared to the ever-present shop manual by the sage himself, each procedure containing a valuable lesson in mechanics, he did what fathers have always done; he shared with his son what he knew best.
Looking back, those seemingly endless weeks now feel short and all too brief. It was the only time we ever spent that much time together. Never before or since, did we work together on a project of that sort. Never did we have so much conversation. But we were speaking his language. And for the first time in my experience of my Dad, he had plenty to say.
His authority in the garage was absolute. Everything took place under his direction, on his terms. He decided the priority of the work and how it was to be done. Often, as I poured over the shop manual, I thought I knew what should happen next, only to have it vetoed. There was an air of command in him that I never saw in any other situation, with any other person. He was at the peak of his powers and had a captive audience.
New gaskets were ordered; new bearing material was poured into the connecting rod ends, the coffee can of nuts and bolts emptied as the engine was reassembled. Dad would explain a procedure, demonstrate, and then observe as the son tried his hand. The son’s attempts would be corrected and the procedure attempted again, until it was deemed to be acceptable. The little pieces started disappearing back into the big pieces. At some length, fully and properly reassembled to Dad’s satisfaction, sporting fresh green engine paint, it was gently lowered back into the engine bay, connected to the motor mounts and transmission. The hoses for fuel and coolant were reconnected. Primary and secondary wiring reattached. Oil returned to the crankcase. Then the moment of truth arrived; the key was turned, a bit of accelerant was sprayed into the throat of the carburetor and, with coaxing and fine adjustments, it came to life anew.
And with the little engine running and the car rolled back out of the garage under its own power, the most intimate moments I would ever experience with my father ended. At the time, all I had on my mind was driving. All I wanted was to put the tools and coveralls away and experience the freedom and the rite of passage that only comes to a guy with his first car, whatever the car, whatever the circumstances.
My own use of this lesson in mechanics was relatively short-lived. I rebuilt that same little engine twice more before I moved on to a newer, more durable, more powerful, and more graceful British sedan. I wrenched other cars, including a girlfriends Volkswagen beetle, a would-be girlfriends Triumph TR3 and my own VW bus. But my interest in grease and oil diminished in only a few years. It wasn’t long before I preferred to pay someone else to work on cars. I told Dad it was because, living away from home in apartments, I didn’t have a place to work, and that the complexity of newer cars demanded different skills that we’d used on that engine, which was simple in the extreme. The truth is it just didn’t have the same meaning to me that it did to him.
Dad’s knowledge of mechanics and his ability to logic out problems and repair them defined him. He would answer almost any call for help with almost any kind of machine; a washing machine, a kitchen appliance, a friend’s tractor. These were useful skills, learned during a time when making something last was a priority of the highest order. He detested disposable manufactured goods which defied his ability. After he died, Mom showed me a list he had made, things he was thankful for. Near the top of the list was his ability to fix things. All he wanted was a mechanical problem to solve, a knot to unravel.
While I didn’t become his equal at mechanics, the lesson took anyway. I too define myself by my ability to solve problems, although not mechanical ones. The knots I unravel are less tangible but conceptually he and I are the same. His ability and example survives him. I am my father’s son.
I bought and sold other cars but the little car stayed. Dad took charge of it and drove it to work daily for the last several years before retiring. It seems he had a special place for the tangible object that had brought him and his son so close together for a time.
For me, any significance of what precisely had taken place in that garage would have to wait. It had all happened in a short span of weeks during my sixteenth year but it took years to see it for what it was, see it as he may have. Although he never spoke to me of its importance, he did tell my mother. Years later, when Dad was out of earshot, she would quietly and gently mention to me how much it had meant to him.
Such was the way of my father, and his son.