Sunday, June 19, 2022

Flashback 1996: Like father, like son? No.


My brother-in-law called this week and said, in essence, "You're a writer. Why don't you read something pithy about fatherhood at the Father's Day party his year?" Since he was going to the trouble to fry the chicken and prepare most of the food, it seemed the least I could do.
     I was too burnt out from my rondo of work to compose something fresh, so looked back into the archive and found this, slumbering for more than a quarter century. Readers of "Drunkard" might notice that this column was spot-on augury regarding the Pinewood Derby: I didn't leave him to build his car unaided, but DID screw up his entry, big time. And I also gave my second son — born a year to the day after this was published — a first name beginning with "K," despite the difficulty of transforming that letter into a pancake
     Sun-Times subscribers are enjoying my Neenah Foundry magnus opus today. But I believe I will post that here tomorrow, in honor of Manhole Cover Monday.

     My dad owned a circular saw. And a jigsaw. And a timing light. And a blowtorch. He kept jeweler's tools — tiny files, screwdrivers, tweezers — in a wooden case. He had a pick-ax and a sledgehammer and a belt sander and a beautiful set of German drafting instruments nestled in purple velvet.
     He was a man of tools who had the skills to use them. He built new rooms on the house and a two-story building in the backyard. He could send Morse code and speak French and fix the brakes himself.
     To me, these tools, and these abilities, define the essence of fatherhood, a subject on my mind lately, as today is my first Father's Day not just as his son but as a dad now myself.
     Don't worry, I'm not going to go all weepy on you. To tell the truth, I wish my father had been a klutz. I would savor the memory of some project of his falling apart — a poorly mixed concrete wall dissolving as if it were made of Cream of Wheat; a botched paint job; even a wobbly bookcase, anything to soften the disasters that I know I will soon be displaying to my own son.
     The boy's going to want to be a Cub Scout, for instance. Kids still do that, right? They can't all be crack addicts. And the scouts still have the Pinewood Derby, right? Where they give the tykes a block of wood and tell them to come back with a finished racing car.
     I can see my own Pinewood Derby car as clearly as if it was sitting on the desk in front of me. Electric blue. As smooth and streamlined as a jelly bean, plexiglass cockpit window flush with the wood. The car must have taken my father 20 hours to build, and even though I hardly touched it during construction, I was still proud of it. It was my car, in a sense.
     My own kid won't benefit from such fatherly skills. He'll come to me with his pathetic block of wood, and I fear I'll have to give him a canned speech about being his own man. "I'd like to help you, son, but that would be wrong," I'll say, glancing out of the corner of my eye to see if he's falling for it.
     All the other fathers in his troop will run wind-tunnel tests on the cars they build for their sons. My son will enter a block of unfinished wood with the word "CAR" scrawled on the side in pencil and four wheels tacked on.
     Maybe it will make him a better person.
     No need to worry about that just yet. He's just a baby, thank God. He's still content just to be cooed at (though I have caught him giving me hard, appraising looks. As if he knows).
     What I need now is practice. I have done more painting and sanding and staining in the months since the baby was born than I had done in my entire life, previously. My fingers feel like they've been soaking in Drano.
     In the meantime, my hope is that I can substitute other, easier skills, which I somehow managed to pick up and retain, and so squeak by as a sort of Dad Lite.
     My father poured pancakes into the shape of our initials, to the delight of us kids. That I can do, provided the kid's name doesn't start with a tough letter like a G or a K.
     I almost named our boy Lou just because it would be easy to render in pancakes.
     I do have a few funny noises down — mouth pops and strange whoops — that seem to entertain the infant, for now. Of course, my father could imitate Donald Duck. I tried Donald Duck, once, and almost strangled.
     The beautiful part is that, unless our son spends a lot of time pouring over my old columns, he'll never know that I'm just recycling my father's simplest skills.
     He'll think I'm some sort of genius, having come up with all this stuff myself.
     For instance, once, when I was sick, my dad bought one of those "Visible Head" models and sat at the side of my bed all day, assembling it for my benefit.
     I feel like running to the model shop now and picking up one of those heads, so I'll have it ready should the boy fall sick. I'm sure my "Visible Head" won't be half as finely wrought as my dad's was — but the original isn't around for comparison, and the kid won't know any better.
     Children have no point of reference — one of their best qualities — so they're easily fooled.
     He may even grow up thinking that I, too, am good at things. A craftsman using his tools to effortlessly make the world conform to his wishes. That is, he might, provided that I keep practicing, and his grandfather doesn't spill the beans.
             —Originally published in the Sun-Times June 16, 1996.


  1. I used to walk past the Denoyer-Geppert plant on Ravenswood Ave., where they made The Visible Woman.
    They always had one in the window.

  2. Manhole Cover Monday? Can't wait!

  3. My big brother earned a reputation as "good with his hands" and "able to fix anything." I noticed early on, sparing myself a lifetime of frustrating failures.

  4. The main front page story two of the last three days. Not too shabby, NS!

  5. My father’s father was a cop, but had been in construction before the Great Depression. So I wonder why he didn’t impart any meaningful mechanical skills to his youngest son. Uncle Jimmy made locomotives and repaired unrepairable cars. Uncle Tom was a detective and a man who knew how to get things done. My Dad could paint. He learned in the Navy. He also could type, which earned him a living. He didn’t pass down even those skills to me. My daughter early on learned to be independent, probably about the time she watched me install the wheels on her tricycle backwards. Shamelessly, I take credit for her successes. Deprivation training I think I’ll call it.


  6. My grandfather was a shoemaker and a tailor and could do a lot of other things with his hands. He passed some of those skills on to several of his seven sons. My uncle was a movie set builder in Hollywood. My father had a big workbench and a lot of his father's tools. He had carpentry skills and built things for his house and his kids.

    Alas,I inherited their tools, but not their talents. It feels like I have the opposite of the magic touch...more like the magic hex. I break everything I touch. .A few weeks ago, I turned on the water in the yard...and the spigot broke. The plumber is coming to replace it tomorrow.


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