Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Father's Thumbprint


Sweaty hands griped the steering wheel. “Son this isn’t hard, just remember you are the brake keep the chain tight, and do not hit the back of my car!” A 10 foot logging chain attached my 1963 Falcon to the back of my father’s car. Minutes later we were screaming down I-5 at sixty miles an hour. When turning on to I-5 he had accelerated, I surmised quickly my ineptness in keeping the chain tight was being compensated with break neck cornering. Quickly I wiped my sweaty hand on my pant leg in an attempt to keep my grip. Worry increased as we began actually passing other cars. My father had been a farmer and sons were expected to do exactly what they were told. Fear was not a factor so you did the job or task that he expected.
The countless looks, instructions, interchanges, moments of discipline, expectations that stretched the son, working alongside the man; left a father’s distinct thumbprint on this son that has not wash away. It may have faded a little in adult life but the watermark can still be seen.
He knew innately his boys were more capable then they felt. Tasks were given out early and to this day both of my older brothers are much more capable men than I am. Many tasks were placed upon them early while I was free to grow into them; even so I was not exempt. You were given the task that fit the need not what one was trained or capable of. I have a very early memory, five or six years old, of being on my knees behind the steering wheel of a pickup going across a field while dad and my two older brothers picked up the rocks out of the field – him yelling at me to steer straight. I could steer but I was too small to pick up the large rocks. The job fit the need.
My father’s attire was usually work clothes. His smell was cologne only on Sundays and Monday through Saturday he had the smell of a man who worked. His wide thick fingered hands were calloused, firm, muscular and strong. He taught be doing and expecting his sons to do the task he set before them. He could fix anything and when he did a son stood at the ready to hand him the tools like a nurse would a surgeon. Learning all the names of tools came early – I am pretty sure I knew the difference between a box end and open end wrench before I could read.
Simple tasks by the dozens became life skills. How to sharpen an ax, run a straight line when mowing grass, keeping that smooth even sound of the hand saw cutting a hemlock board, the stoke of a file or a hack saw cutting deep while not dulling the tool, dripping a little oil on the drill bit as it cut through steel, soldering a joint on a copper water pipe, jacking up a car so it doesn’t fall on you, the list goes on and on along with memories and impressions.
The tractor moves unevenly down the field, the son standing, and hanging on to his father’s shirt. And then there is the fall, the catch, the son upside down being held firmly by his foot. The new angle mesmerizes the boy as he sees dirt being split apart by large sharp silver disks. Years later the son stands next to his father in front of a judge who grills the father on what discipline was given to the son. A side of my father came clear in his evasive answers as no other man had the right to tell him when or how to discipline his wayward son. And, I can attest the less educated man with hairy arms extending out of a denim shirt with rolled up sleeves needed no help from the suit behind the desk.
Two older brothers and a sister were the subjects that trained my father’s parenting skills. Many mistakes and techniques were either added or eliminated from the fathering menu by the time I came along. Memories of discipline, punishment and teaching are embedded into my memory banks. The father my brothers and sister trained become for me a more flexible and tolerant father. As I grew into my teens the fence around my comings and goings kept expanding and at times I wondered if there even was a fence at all.
The father set into this son impressions of what manhood looked like. These deep etchings formed ideas of a certain look and type of work - real man did. Even though my intellect could explain the insignificance of such superficial ideas, I still to this day feel more like a man when I am working with my hands and wearing jeans and a work shirt. Thirty-five plus years later still have not eradicated that a suit and tie, and sitting behind the desk ends the work day as an incomplete picture.
It would take pages and pages to trace each etching of the thumbprint left on this son by his father. Thanks for reading my thumb nail glimpse into my father’s thumbprint on one of his sons.