I’ve been thinking about my dad a lot lately.
A great guy. We throw that phrase around all the time. “He’s a great guy.” But sometimes it’s really true. Dad was. Cared for his wife, my mom, with all his heart. Fed, clothed and sheltered his eight children, and sent us on our way when it was time to be on our own, whether to college or to work.
After serving on a destroyer in the Pacific in World War II, Dad worked for almost 41 years at the Central Foundry plant in Tilton. For those who don’t remember, that was a General Motors plant that made auto parts – intake manifolds, master cylinders, wheel rotors – by pouring molten metal into molds, finishing them and shipping them to other GM plants. Central Foundry was to Vermilion County, without exaggeration, what the University of Illinois is to Champaign County.
I worked there one summer. It was god-awful hot and dirty and deafening and more than a little dangerous. One second of carelessness almost cost me a badly broken arm. It was the summer after my freshman year in college. I didn’t need any incentive to finish school, but if I had, that summer would have done it. My final week was spent on second shift with a long hook, pulling Buick intake manifolds, still glowing red, out of a passing tub to inspect them for defects. The tub went on from my station out onto the roof, into the night, to cool down in the summer heat, if you can imagine. The tub was the size of a Volkswagen.
Some years later, I was telling my dad how much I liked my job at The News-Gazette. (In college, I studied to be an English teacher and had become one; my entrance into journalism was the result of a series of coincidences.) Dad told me something then that I didn’t fully understand till many years later, after he died: If you find a job that puts food on the table and a roof over your head, and you enjoy it, you’re lucky. It dawned on me those many years later, thick-skulled mope that I sometimes am, that not once did he ever bound out of bed in the morning with the joy of what the day of work held for him.
When he wasn’t at work, he was fixing things or building things. If the car needed work, he usually did it himself. He built a small house when he married my mom and then, as there got to be more of us, he built a bigger house. He had no formal training in house-building. There was a book he relied on, but that was it.
Dad’s gadgets were mostly tools. Not one of his was frivolous; each had a purpose. Different hammers for different jobs. Screwdrivers. Wrenches and pliers of every imaginable kind. A handsaw, a power saw, a miter saw, a table saw.
And a level.
Dad had nothing against power tools. As tool technology advanced, so did he.
But that level bespeaks something about him. A year or so before he died, my brothers and I helped him put up fence sections at the corners of his property. We rented a power auger but it didn’t quite get through the roots of the oak tree nearby, so Dad got his post-hole digger and axe and we used those. Once we got the holes deep enough – within a couple of inches of deep enough was not deep enough – he had us put the corner posts in, and we mixed and poured concrete and then, for each post, we would adjust by fractions of an inch – until both north-south and east-west were level. Or, as he put it, “right on the money.” I can hear him say that to this day. Quiet, more to himself than to anyone else, it was more than a saying; it was an expression of satisfaction: “There. We got it right. Now we can proceed.”
He showed us that work ethic, without ever once being explicit about it. He never called it a work ethic; he never sat us down and told us we had to have one. He showed us what mattered by his own actions.
“Right on the money” mattered.
At GM, when an employee would pass certain milestones of continuous service, the plant or the union – the United Auto Workers – would present a gift. Somewhere along the line, the UAW gave Dad a wristwatch. He got a Central Foundry tie pin for his 40th year that he had transformed into a ring by a jeweler. He told me years ago he wanted me to have those things because I had worked there – somehow I was the only one of my siblings who did. I was always flattered, but I never wanted to think much about that and when the time came, I didn’t want them. Taking the watch, the ring, signified a finality I hadn’t yet come to grips with.
But I did take them and now, I wear the watch whenever I am going to see my mom. I wear the ring often. A little part of him that I can keep with me.
And don’t tell my brothers and sisters, but I have a pair of his pliers. I’m not giving them back.
My dad was right. I am lucky. Mostly to have had him as my dad.
Happy Father’s Day.