Sunday, June 15, 2014

Tools and Such

Not a day goes by that I don't think about my dad. On this Father's Day, my third such occasion without him, he is very much on my mind--but not in the usual way.

I am not thinking about the time he cut a "switch" from the cherry tree for a much-deserved spanking or the way he finished off every meal with a dollop of butter, a stream of white Karo syrup, and a slice of bread. I am not dwelling on the heartbreak of his terminal illness or the night I watched him pass peacefully on. Instead, I am thinking about his hands.

Dad was an old-fashioned farmer and garage mechanic whose hands were his livelihood. He used them to wield wrenches, vaccinate calves, and put together furniture. During his years in the garage, I never saw his hands without grease stains under his fingernails. After he retired, the hardest thing for me to get used to was the fact that his hands stayed clean.

Over the years Dad's hands suffered about every injury imaginable. He burned them, cut them, smashed them--just name it and Dad could show you the scars. His left hand bore the brunt of the abuse, as you can see in this shot of him holding Sooby in April 2010:

His ring finger was shriveled and stiff, and the nail end of his pinkie had been lopped off long ago. Still he was more adept with slightly over eight and a half fingers than most men are with a full ten. Dad's large hands fully matched his 6'4" frame, but he could manipulate a tiny eyeglass screwdriver with the best optician. There was virtually no tool those hands hadn't mastered.

My dad was one of those self-made, self-taught, self-sufficient miracle men of the Greatest Generation. Although never what you would call "rich," he worked in a relentless (albeit penny-pinching) fashion to make a comfortable life for our family of four. He left my mom with adequate resources for the rest of her life. I know that was no easy task, and I admire him greatly.

Although he was never one for fancy material possessions, Dad did love his vehicles, his guns, and his tools. One of the hardest things toward the end was watching him disperse some of these things among us. He sold us his pick-up with the thought that he could use it again if he was able. I watched with a lump in my throat as he presented son Teebo with a prized rifle.

But he was never able to bring himself to part with his massive collection of tools. It had taken him his whole life to get them, he said, and he just couldn't let them go. Somehow, they were integral to his identity, an extension of his very self.

"Man is a tool-using animal," said Thomas Carlyle, a Scottish essayist from the 1800s. "Without tools he is nothing; with tools he is all."  I'm sure Dad never read Carlyle, but at some level it is clear that the two of them were on the same page.

Over the past almost-three years, it has been hard to watch those tools walk away box by box or one by one from our garage sales. Neither Mom nor I had any clue about what many of them were.

But I can never look at the tools without picturing those hands that encircled or gripped or maneuvered them--those hands that were somehow able to work wonders.

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