“The Tools We Work With,” Part I
An essay originally published as the introduction to my dissertation, High Range Driving, and published in Cream City Review19.2, 1996
I drove across a picket line with my father one Sunday afternoon when I was seven years old. He was the maintenance foreman for DayBrite, a company that manufactured fluorescent light fixtures. The people on strike carried signs with angry messages and blocked the gate, but they didn’t seem mad, or even particularly interested in their protest. Men spoke to my father through the car window as they cleared a lane for us. I knew some of them from the yearly Christmas party my father threw for his department.
My father had talked about the strike and I vaguely realized that something was wrong at DayBrite, but I didn’t know that crossing picket lines could have been dangerous somewhere else in the world, like Peoria or Detroit, or about how weak unions were in the South. What interested me was that the mechanics who worked for my father used electric golf carts to carry their tools when they repaired machinery, and on Sundays, when my father went in to look over his paperwork and plan the week ahead, I learned to drive in the aisles of the plant. For me, DayBrite and the world of my father’s work was more magical than DisneyLand.
The cement floors were black from years of forklift tires and there was a constant low rumble like a furnace, the hiss of compressed air, and the smell of hydraulic oil. We’d walk past the time cards and time clock, cross a grate full of a yellow liquid that I pretended was acid, and on to the plant floor–a five acre wilderness of tractor-sized hydraulic presses, piles of metal sheet, and rows of conveyor assembly lines. The walls of the maintenance department were lined with radiator hoses and belts, welder’s hoods, racks of steel pipe, calandar girls in bikinis who demonstrated the use of electric drills and pipe wrenches, and tools of all sorts–some that I knew how to use, and others more interesting because I could only imagine.
My father would pick out the golf cart with the best charge, tell me to be careful, and I’d make my rounds. In the paint department bare metal fixtures hung from an overhead conveyor that ran all weekend. The parts looked like the scattered bones of a skeleton, waiting to be sprayed with enamel paint and baked in the furnace. I’d stop by the breakroom and check the vending machines for change. The tables were littered with coffee cups, dirty napkins, dominoes and decks of cards. Feral cats skulked along the aisles of the warehouse.
In 1970, when I was nine years old, my parents bought a newly constructed house in a suburb with unfinished streets. The back fence, shaded by a six deep row of pine trees, marked the city limits. Beyond the fence cattle grazed. My mother worked as a secretary all day, and after cooking supper, she put in a full evening dusting and vacuuming. My father came home from work dirty and tired. The upholstery of his little Peugeot sedan smelled pleasantly of oil and grime. Because of his dirty clothes he napped on the floor rather than the couch before starting in on projects around the house. I helped him cover our sand lot with squares of sod, and then we burned off the honeysuckle under the pines, and built a shop in the back yard.
Not long after we bought the house, DayBrite fired my father. He came home one afternoon, earlier than usual, and told us that he’d been called into the office and given a check with two weeks severance pay, been told to clean out his desk and locker. “I’m not surprised,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of sorry tails on my crew who lay out and drink and I tried to cover up for them. I thought I was doing them a favor.”
My mother was afraid we might lose the house, and I’m sure she thought about her childhood. She was the youngest of seven children who my grandmother raised through the Depression, alone, after my grandfather died in a farming accident; they lived in a house when my grandmother and the older children could find work, and in a canvas tent the rest of the time.
My father once told me that leaving DayBrite was the best thing that ever happened to him. He put together a handful of tools and bought a new Chevrolet pickup, called friends who worked for electrical and plumbing supply houses, and found enough work to get by on. Starting a new business from scratch was tough for my parents, but I was so caught up in the excitement of buying a pickup from the Chevrolet dealership and riding out on service calls with my father, that I didn’t notice. I learned how to run copper tubing and cast iron plumbing, electrical wire, and air conditioning duct. We poured concrete foundations and I learned the proper drainage grade for sewer lines. My father paid me well. I bought my first rifle with a telescopic sight, books and records, and even worked out a short-lived savings plan for a 1973 Chevy Nova that I spotted on the showroom floor when we were supposed to be looking at pickups. It was yellow with a black interior, and I planned to pay cash when I received my driver’s license in 1976.
I’ve always considered myself lucky to have spent so much time with my father as I grew up. I knew more about how he earned a living than most kids my age, and even more, I was a part of his work. My father attacked each job with a tireless energy. He consumed whole cigarettes, blinking away the tears that the smoke brought to his eyes as he ran electric drills and cutting torches. “Work” was not a place he disappeared to for eight hours each day; it was something he shared with my brother and I, and wrapped himself in most of his waking hours.