My family was government cheese and peanut butter poor when I was growing up1. But our family of seven had a roof over our heads and a car for getting to work. And if something went wrong, we never called anyone to fix it. My dad would roll up his sleeves, grab what few tools he had, and tell me to go help him.2
Our financial situation would fluctuate over time, but it was a constant that if he had to fix or do something, I would have to help him. If he was changing the drum brakes of our car, I’m there holding the pads together while he pushes the spring in. If he had to mutilate wood, I’m holding something dangerously close to power tools. If he offered to help a friend, I’m on the roof pulling shingles off with him. And when we were all done, it would be my job to clean up and put the tools away.
Our jobs did not always go smoothly. If internet photography existed back in these dark days, it would be memes all the way down. I remember once when I helped him remove the metal bumper from the car for some reason. I was probably in fifth or sixth grade at the time. While my dad was talking to a neighbor, I was fascinated by one of the giant nuts that held the bumper to the car. I took it, threw it up in the air, and caught it. As I threw it high in the air the second time, a thought came to my mind: This is a bad idea. I could drop it, and it could roll into the street and down the storm drain grating that’s 20 feet away. I should really put the nut back where I found it.
This was the scariest premonition I’ve ever known until I read Stephen King. And sure enough, this exact thing happened. As gravity started pulling this giant nut back to earth, the terrifying vision unfolded right before my eyes. I watched the heavy nut fall through my hands. As it started rolling down the sidewalk towards the storm drain, I tried grabbing it, and when that failed, tried stomping it with my foot to stop it. Everything was happening in slow motion like in the movies. And like the horror movie killer trope, the nut just kept going. It rolled down the driveway and onto the top of the grating. I prayed for a miracle that it would stop on top, which it did, right before falling down into the depths of the storm drain. An eternity or two passed before I could move. I was mortified.
I don’t know if my dad ever found a replacement nut for that bumper. He might have put it back together using duct tape. All I knew was some how I lived through it.
But the one thing that really terrified me on a regular basis was whenever he wanted to put the car up on these heavy, metal ramps. It was my job to guide him so that the car wouldn’t drive over the ramps. I never really knew how to communicate to him how far to go. I was always afraid that he would drive too far, which actually happened. Once.
The lesson I learned from all of these experiences is that while some mistakes can be fixed, it’s better not to do them in the first place. It wasn’t quite, “measure twice, cut once.” That lesson came later. It was more like, “don’t be a dumb ass.”
Don’t be a dumb ass.
—Every father to his son
My dad couldn’t do everything. He didn’t have the knowledge to pull an entire engine apart, fix it, and put it back together, for example. After taking the fuel pump apart in our old Suburban, he couldn’t fix it, but he could add an electric fuel pump that took care of the problem so that the engine wouldn’t suddenly stop running while climbing up the Continental Divide during a snow storm with all of us inside.
Over the years I realized that although fixing cars saved money, there was a point of diminishing returns. Like the time when my sister’s old 1979 Grand Prix needed a new muffler. My dad and I went to our favorite auto parts store (Murray’s) and bought the muffler and pipes that we needed. After the trauma of getting the car up on the ramps, we proceeded to spend an entire Saturday almost swearing a lot (church upbringing) while taking multiple trips to Murray’s for additional pipes, adapters, u-bolts (not the runner), and who knows what else. In the end we probably saved $10 (not counting gas) over a Meineke 1-hour, $99 dollar muffler.
I learned that day that Time is Money.
My dad also taught me that a job worth doing is a job worth doing well. We would often do something the more annoying way just so the grains of the wood would match afterwards. When I helped him remodel basements or put up decks, he made sure we didn’t take any shortcuts. Sometimes we made less money because of that, but we were proud of the work we did. To this day I’m never sure if someone I pay to do something will care as much as my dad and I did.
Like why are most of the corners in my house not square? Where they from (WTF), these careless construction crews?
With all the time we spent working together, I could eventually read his mind. So when he literally said, “hand me the thing,” I knew what the “thing” was. I could often give him the tool he needed before he asked for it, whether we were working on cars or working on houses. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was accidentally learning stuff from him. I wasn’t reading his mind, he was teaching me how to do the things we were doing.
So now because of my dad, when something goes wrong with my house or cars or computers, my first instinct is to try and fix it myself. I’ve picked up enough knowledge over the years and watched enough YouTube videos to give most things a try. Luckily, as I become old and decrepit, I’m now more willing to pay someone else to do this stuff for me, a choice my dad didn’t always have.
I’ve used the skills my dad gave me for my job in the auto industry in unexpected ways, like the time when my counterparts in Germany had me align a prototype sensor mounted on the back corner of a car. They had used a custom 10,000€ laser setup to do it, which my department wouldn’t buy for me. So I went to Home Depot and bought a tape measure, a giant level, a plumb, and a chalk line3 and aligned the sensor in our parking lot. When we eventually found a big enough CMM (coordinate measuring machine) to verify the work, the sensor was within 0.5°.
When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in 7 years.
Just another reminder that I don’t spend enough time with my kids. Argh.