The following is a re-post of a section from a Nonfiction piece titled “The Tools We Work With.” The essay itself was a part of the introduction to my dissertation, which explored the idea of creative writing as work. My father, Clarence Engel, certainly taught me the meaning and value of hard work.
When I was thirteen I took my first job outside my father’s supervision. A man hired me for two weeks to help gut a church sanctuary that he had contracted to remodel. My father’s jobs were slow and he could spare me. When I took the job, the way my parents treated me changed. My father bought a pair of lace up boots for me, where I had always worn tennis shoes to work before. My mother worried that I had enough sandwiches and coke money for lunch. She made my father talk to me about how to conduct myself on a real job. He said something like “Just do what they tell you.”
The best part of the job was being paid to destroy. The man who hired me didn’t say ten complete sentences to me the whole two weeks. He wasn’t much bigger than me, and his silence and his close set eyes made me nervous. I started on a row of tall, frosted glass windows that had to be torn out and replaced with stained glass. I used a hammer and chisel, removing the brick around the sills one at a time. Mortar dust dried my throat and tasted of lime. I admired the straight lines of my work, the way the whole bricks stacked into a neat pile. When the man came to check on me, I stepped to one side to show him the layer of brick I had chipped out, the unbroken window glass. He picked up a sledge hammer from the floor, handed it to me and said, “That’s real pretty, but let’s see how hard you can swing this thing.” He pointed at the row of windows left in the sanctuary and I understood that on some jobs fast was better than pretty.
I began to notice weather while working for my father, something I had always taken for granted. We worked in attics where the summertime temperatures reached one-hundred and forty degrees, and in the cold and rain and mud where I layered my clothing to stay warm and dry. The weather gave each day, each job, a different set of problems to overcome, and intensified my sense of satisfaction as we loaded the tools and drove home in the pickup. Even now, when I drive through my home town and see the houses and businesses where I helped my father install a heating and cooling system, pour a foundation, or snake out a drain, I remember the weather better than the work.
Over the years my father mashed his fingers, crawled on his hands and knees under floors and across attics, burned himself with acetylene torches and acid, and was electrified once as he stood on a ladder and gripped a piece of conduit that wasn’t grounded properly. The electricity held his grip until someone thought to shut off the breaker. Another time, while trimming a section of air conditioning duct with tin snips, he ran a two inch sliver of jagged metal completely through his thumb. He wrapped a handkerchief around the thumb to catch the blood and drove to the doctor’s office. The doctor dabbed at the chunk of metal with alcohol, jerked it out with a pair of pliers, and wrapped his thumb in gauze. My father looked at his thumb as we were driving back to the job. “I should’ve done that myself,” he said. “It would have been free and it wouldn’t hurt any less.”
When I was seventeen years old my father was buried alive for thirty-five minutes. He was on his hands and knees at the bottom of a ten foot ditch, tapping a new drain into the city sewer line, when one side of the ditch sluffed off and buried him under seven feet of earth. The opening in the pipe and the air pocket his body made allowed him to breathe.
My older brother Gary was working for my father that day. Gary said the backhoe operator was afraid to dig with his bucket. “I’ll take his head off if I go too deep,” the man said. Gary called the man a son of a bitch and said, “My daddy will be dead anyway if you don’t crank that thing up.”
The backhoe took off three feet of earth while my brother went for help. Soon, ten men were digging with shovels and hands, getting in each other’s way. My father told me he could hear the digging. He said that he thought about his brothers and sisters, and about my mother and Gary and me. He was sure that his life had come to an end. Gary told me that they first uncovered one of his hands, and he heard my father call out that he was still alive. Afterward, a reporter asked my father what he planned to do next and he said, “I’m going home and spend time with my sons.”
I still have the clipping from the front page of the newspaper. The headline reads: “Tupelo Man Prays For Second Chance While Buried Alive.” The picture shows my father sitting on a pile of dirt with the hole in the foreground, staring down the street with a faraway look, and Gary beside him, looking scared. When I came home from my own job that afternoon, my father met me on the driveway and hugged me, hard. He was crying, and dirty in a way that could only come from being buried. There was grit in his eyebrows and teeth and ears, pressed into his skin so that he still smelled of soil the next day. He was sore for days afterward, but otherwise unhurt.
My father didn’t talk much about the experience, but once he told me how long thirty-five minutes really is. I don’t remember any changes in my father’s relationship with Gary and me. We were close before the accident, and remained close afterward. I didn’t understand how his death would have affected me that day because I didn’t experience the fear firsthand. I remember being embarrassed by his embrace, by the display of emotion. I wouldn’t understand what had happened for years to come.
Just after he bought the pickup, my father had a magnetic sign made for each door reading “Engel Repair Service” in red, with our telephone number and the type of work spelled out beneath in blue letters. Sometimes he talked about my brother and I going into business with him after we graduated from high school, but we both went to college instead.