When I was small enough to have to raise my arm to hold my father’s hand, we would walk around the block on summer evenings while he smoked a cigar. Half way round, he’d stop, take the cigar out of his mouth, slide off the ring and hand it to me. I’d slip it carefully onto my index finger as if it were a diamond and then we’d resume our walk, hand-in-hand. Looking back, I know he was happy then. He was young, he had a beautiful wife and a growing family; his future looked bright and uncomplicated. He loved his job too; his technical skills, experience and “figure-it-out” nature were a perfect fit for his job as a supervising machinist at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Immersing myself in my father’s model railroad hobby has made me realize how much we have in common; just yesterday I actually repaired a locomotive; it wasn’t running, so I took it apart and fixed it. I had no idea what I was doing, but I figured it out; I’m sort of fearless when it comes to this kind of problem-solving. Recently, I decided to refinish and reupholster an armchair that belonged to my parents. That I’ve never refinished or reupholstered anything before is irrelevant; I can’t resist the challenge of figuring out how to do something I’ve never done before, even if I risk ruining a really nice chair. In this way I’m like my father; he too was unable to resist the allure of an unsolved technical problem, a malfunctioning machine, or a task requiring expertise he lacked. If he required a tool that did not exist, he created one; if he couldn’t figure out how to fix something, he jerry-rigged a way to make it work well enough.
Like me, he was also a researcher. “Look it up,” he’d order. In those days this meant pulling an encyclopedia off the shelf or perusing the card catalog at the library. Tasks others left to experienced tradesmen were no obstacle to a father armed with a good book and the proper tools; laying tile, repairing plumbing, refinishing wood floors, fixing cars, refrigerators and washing machines all became part of his handyman repertoire. While today I can Google “chair reupholstery,” for a plethora of how-to articles and videos, the drive is the same; I will figure it out because I believe I can.
My father was also a reader; he ate a book a day; he fostered my hunger for books by denying my access to them. Each year he bought every single book listed in my school-issued Scholastic catalog. After laboring to carry home my enormous pile of literary treasures, he forced me to surrender them, stripping me of a library of wonders to stow high up on his closet shelf. He tantalized me with the possibility of earning a story; if I got an A on a test or completed a chore, he slipped a book into my impatient hands as a reward. I developed a Pavlovian response to the scent of old volumes; to the thrill of opening a new book; to reading titles sideways in the library stacks; to the bitter sweetness of a final page turned.
During one visit with him in the nursing home the year he passed away, I noticed that the pressure wraps on his legs had been applied incorrectly. A physical therapy intern was available to help us out; he agreed that the wraps were a mess and set to work fixing them.
My father said, “How come you knew that?”
“Because you taught me, Dad,” I replied.
“But I didn’t teach you that,” he said.
“Oh yes you did,” I said, “What did you always teach me to do?”
Dad looked down at the intern, looked up at me and then slowly, he smiled.
“I know. Ask!”
“Yes, Dad, that’s right. You taught me to ask.”
Looking up at me, grinning, he said, “But I thought all I gave you was the ring from my cigar.”