This week National Road Magazine’s writers share in their own way what their fathers mean to them. In this installment, Donovan Wheeler explains that, no matter what paths we choose with our own lives, the work of our fathers still follows us.
Warning: This editorial contains some rather necessary, yet rather bad, words.
–In the summer of 1992, while Los Angeles burned in the wake of the Rodney King episode, my dad and I were working on a basement bathroom in a small lakeside house in the remote woods of south-central Indiana. Dad, who labored as a general contractor for some three decades, had originally built the house in the late ‘80’s, and as often happened, he came back to remodel a kitchen or—in this case—add life to that barren basement. We were less than 30 minutes from quitting time, and wearing a mantle of fatigue and growing ambivalence, I stood over the miter saw cutting the last section of finishing trim for the bathroom door. When Dad placed that last the piece—the top trim—in position above the threshold he let out a soft, fading “religious expression.”
“Goddammit…” he sighed. A whispering moan.
I looked up. The trim I had just sawed proudly showed off a pristine 45-degree cut. No fragments splintered along the edge of the finish. The top point was exact, and the bottom boasted a crisp, sharp turn. Other than cutting it nearly a foot too short, it was hands-down the best bit of saw-handling I’d done all week.
On job after job I grew up learning the finer art of referencing the almighty, his son, various illegitimate children, and the carnal deed which created them.
Yet there it rested, a taunting eleven inch gap between it and the right-side vertical trim. If we were both ten years younger, this would have ended much more tragically. By the early ‘80’s Dad dazzled us with full mastery of a vocabulary rivaling the saltiest docks in the dirtiest ports. On job after job I grew up learning the finer art of referencing the almighty, his son, various illegitimate children, and the carnal deed which created them. Keeping those well-versed expectations in mind, I braced for the usual: Two more “Goddamns,” four “Jesus Christs,” and pair of “fucking unbelievables,” and a “sonofabitch.”
But they didn’t come.
Instead my old man took a deep breath and looked at the scraps of trim discarded at our feet. We had no pieces long enough for a new cut, we were too far from town, and it was too late in the day to make a trip to the lumber yard. He was going to have to wing it.
To this day, I still don’t know if Dad hated improvising on the job. There was the torrent of aforementioned profanity (with some occasional tool throwing and fist pounding) which suggested that he wasn’t a fan of it. But there was also that smug look of victory every time he solved a problem. And he solved them all. Every single one. In this case, Dad withdrew a 15-inch of scrap among the pile. He cut it to size, fit it into the gap, and using a dab of nearly matching wood stain he had found in his truck, gently massaged the hairline crack out of existence.
“There,” he said. He wore his pride as laurel wreath…and why shouldn’t he? It was an impressive display of craftsmanship. A certain disaster transformed into textbook chapter in emergency carpentry.
Despite all that Dad had taught me, I never became a carpenter myself. I hated sweltering over the wheelbarrow in the summer, hauling boards heaped with hod to the old man’s trowel. And I despised hanging drywall in the winter, rubbing my hands in the middle of one unheated building after another.
Then, a quarter-century later, my fiancée ordered up a huge remodeling project for her house, and I felt the calling I had long ago shelved. The overall job was a behemoth: a master bathroom reconfiguration, a secondary bathroom update, and new flooring. For most of the work she brought in the professionals, but I couldn’t let them do it all. Rolling her eyes she delegated the living room floor to me. The plan: remove the twenty-year-old carpet and replace it with wood laminate. This was not a new project. Prior to my divorce, I pulled off a nearly identical job in my then home, and even though seven years had passed, I was certain that I remembered how to do it.
Getting started was going to be the hardest bit. Like a lot of living rooms, Wendi’s house was framed around a fireplace hearth which jutted out two feet from the centerpiece wall. Furthermore, a four-point-bit natural gas valve sprung up a couple feet from the hearth’s side. If I could get around all of that, work down the front of the hearth, and wrap everything back to the wall on the other side, I’d be cruising the rest of the way. Working around the valve proved easy. Using the base of a whisky glass and my jigsaw, I cut half-circles on two adjoining boards and snapped them together under the lip of the valve. It looked magnificent.
Two hours and five rows of flooring later, I stood over my work shouting out my dad’s complete catalogue of verbal abuse. A “Greatest Hits” collection of expletives. Stepping away from the claw hammer I had moments ago put through the sub-floor, rage still coursed through me. My fiancée berated me (her index finger tapping my chest and her brows furrowed), and meanwhile I looked at my work thus far. The rows had failed to snap together cleanly, and I had resorted to beating them in place with the hammer and plastic “tapping block.” The far corner, that “other side” of the hearth I had worried about looked less like smooth simulated hardwood and more like the cracked screen of an iPhone.
Like Dad, I had two options. I could keep pounding away, try to force everything together, and live with the results. Or I could back off, calm down, and start over. Peeling away over 85-minutes of work was painful, but the time was therapeutic. When I restarted, strangely, everything snapped in place…and most of the time literally.
I won’t say the experience changed me. I cussed my way through the entire job. I cut boards on the wrong side. And I mis-measured several cuts (this appears to be a lifetime problem for me). But I did put the floor together. In the rough spots, around door jambs where my amateur pedigree stood out the most, I applied wood putty, sandpaper, and stain.
“There,” I said wearing the same pride my old man wore in that basement.
It’s true, I never became a carpenter. But what I have always been is the son of one. Even though I will never lay a cinderblock or a row of roofing with the same second-nature and steady hand my father used in his heyday, when I have to, I can do what needs to be done. That’s probably why each day when I look at every square foot of that floor (and hear every lingering cuss word in the air) I thank my old man for giving me the ability to make it happen.
Happy Father’s Day!