Chasing Fire Engines
Though my father never graduated formally from high school, earning his G.E.D. as an adult, he was fiercely adamant that his kids would not only do so, they would also graduate from college. I never remember him ever saying it in words, but it was only too obvious that he was working beneath his station, and was doing so because there was nothing else to be done.
He used to tell us stories about his own school experience, which mesmerized us because it was so different from what he expected from us. He regaled us with tales of being sent to the principal’s office, and having to face the music-not with his mother, but with his older sister, Anne-Marie, who would come down and bail him out.
He told us that Anne-Marie was infinitely patient with him, explaining how important school was, but my father simply could not deal with it. We’re not talking a chatty Chester here, we’re talking about jumping out of a window in a classroom, to chase after a fire engine that had just passed the school, siren wailing.
And I got reamed by him for getting a B- in conduct, one quarter as a sixth grader, from Sister Invencion, who told Mama that even though I was a good student, I talked too much. Papa gave me a tongue-lashing at the dinner table that night, informing me that he was not sending me to St. Martha’s to flap my jaws.
We’re talking a clear case of Do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do, if ever there were one. Nonetheless, that didn’t change the fact that I put a cork in it, and ended up with an A in conduct the following quarter, and an A- overall for the semester, such was Papa’s power of persuasion.
He was subtler when it came to the big picture. He never said to me, “Hey, go to school and get a higher education, so you don’t come home from work everyday, covered in dirt and grime from working in a steel factory.” He didn’t have to say it.
Considering there are nine of us kids, with nine four-year degrees, not to mention two doctorates and four masters degrees, he got his message across. He was the thunder while Mama was the wind, circling around us with admonitions to get an application submitted, because then we could apply for scholarships.
Just because someone is uneducated, does not make him stupid. My father was highly intelligent, but found himself working early on in life, because times were tough in Depression-Era Detroit. He used to deliver newspapers on his bike in all weather, and painted anything but a glamorous look at what it was like to be poor.
He read voraciously, favoring authors like James Michener, and James Clavell, often reading long hours in the dead of night, because like me, he suffered from sleep issues. Additionally, because he served as a corpsman in WWII, overseas in a combat zone, he was also the person in the household, who would examine me when I got injured, to render a decision as to whether or not I needed to go to ER and get x-rayed.
He could do anything from laying brick and block and building fireplaces, to crafting utility trailers out of scrap steel from the shop, together with a used chassis and axle from some discarded vehicle he would acquire for a song.
He once designed and built a sailboat in our garage, in which he said he intended to sail around the world. He named it the Honalee after the land where Puff the Dragon lived. Whether it was only a pipe dream from the beginning, I’m not certain, but once the boat was finished, including the fiber-glassing of the hull, he sold it.
Rather, he swapped it for a Dough-Boy swimming pool, about 48 inches deep, but eighteen feet across. By excavating a moderate amount of dirt out from the center of the pool, prior to installing it, he was able to achieve another foot or so deep in the middle.
Dumbfounded at our good luck, we took advantage of this novelty in the first few years, and spent long hours everyday, basking in the sauna that the SoCal sun rapidly produced out of our pool. We played every conceivable water game we could think of, including Marco Polo . We used to throw pennies or marbles into the pool and have competitions to see who could gather the most with one breath of air.
All because Papa knew how to build a boat.
He used scrap steel to forge metal frames for coffee tables, insert a piece of plywood into the frame, and then do tile-work to form pictures on the surface of the table. One such effort was the creation of a dragon, primarily red and black in color, with breath-taking beauty. Some he sold and some he gave away as gifts, but they were truly exquisite.
In his workshop un on Bell Springs Road itself, he used to do woodworking projects such as chests of drawers, and hope chests. He would do three or so at a time,and spend whatever length of time it took to complete them. I jumped in on one of those bursts of creativity, and purchased a desk that currently resides in my living room.
The one thing Papa did little of was to write. He was a man of action, not words, which makes sense when you think of his academic background. Them’s what can, do; them’s what can’t, teach. Teach your children well.
Papa did just that.