Yesterday I was completing a couple home projects in our basement and reminiscing with our teenage son, Trevor, as I worked. In the course of the conversation, a shared memory surfaced: Once when I was working on a different project (the kids’ treehouse, I think), I sent Trevor to the garage to get the orange carpenter’s square.
“Big, flat piece of steel, like two rulers at a right angle to each other. It should be hanging on the peg board over the work bench. Bright orange—can’t miss it.”
He was gone a long time.
* * * * *
When I was old enough to read the fractions etched into the sides of sockets and wrenches, I became my Dad’s “gofer” (as in, “Go fer this; go get that.”)—and I had an uncanny ability to look squarely at the tool my father asked for and not see it. I could not see something for several minutes straight; we never tested the upper limits of this knack of mine, primarily because the sought item would snap into focus the moment Dad disentangled himself from the drivetrain of the pickup, rolled out from beneath it on the creeper, stood, sauntered over to the bench, and pointed at it, right where he said it would be.
“Oh,” I would say sheepishly, handing it to him. “I didn’t see that there.”
* * * * *
I finished whatever I was doing when I sent Trevor to the garage. I stood. I waited. In my mind’s eye, I could see my father—Dziadzi now*—laughing to himself at my plight. Finally I headed to the garage to fetch the square and my son, only to meet them halfway, coming back.
“What took so long?” I asked. “I told you right where it was!”
“I was looking for something bright orange,” Trevor said, brandishing the flat black square. “Is this it?”
I stared at the tool in his hand. Had it always been black? I’d have sworn it was orange before.
“Yes, that’s it,” I grumbled. “Sorry, bud.”
* * * * *
Last I checked, Dziadzi still has his orange carpenter’s square hanging in the garage, as well as countless other tools I remember from my gofer days—and when he can’t find them, he still blames me from two states away. He also has a red-handled gasket scraper, the one I sent Trevor looking for in my tool box a couple projects later: “Looks like a screwdriver with an extra-wide, flat blade for scraping. Bright red handle. Can’t miss it.”
My gasket scraper is also black. What’s the deal with generically colored tools?
But that’s the way my mind is wired now, and it’s special, in its way. I spent hours upon hours with my dad in his shop, fixing or building stuff; in an open-air carport, keeping our vehicles running; on the ten acres north of Remus, driving a well, building a barn and a log house; you name it. I sweated. I froze. I wiped my runny nose on my sleeve and fell asleep on my feet. I wished I could go inside, and I thrilled when whatever we had been working on suddenly came together perfectly. For a kid with little natural aptitude or inclination for such things, the end result was nothing short of amazing.
I learned that you could measure most projects both in terms hours or bloodied knuckles. I learned to “stop moving around and hold the light right here, so I can see what I’m doing!” I learned a few explosive epithets that can be used to take the edge off the pain of a busted knuckle or bumped head. I still use them today.
And I learned just enough about mechanics, carpentry, plumbing, and more to occasionally save us some money and do a little work myself.
So when I picture a carpenter’s square, it’s orange. When I imagine a gasket scraper, it has a red handle. The quintessential hatchet is an Estwing with a stacked leather hand grip and a sheath that Dziadzi riveted together after someone cut the stitching pounding tent pegs with blade cover on. An air compressor is a red Craftsman with a horizontal tank, two wheels, and a handle. If you ask me what a lathe looks like, it’s the length of a grain truck and heavier, because it was built for the shipyards in Bay City, Michigan, around the turn of the century before last. A snowplow is bright orange, homemade, and hell for stout—and it can be mounted to most any pickup, but it belongs on a late-’70s rusty blue Ford with a mismatched tailgate and holes in the floor.
Maybe that’s not what you picture, but that just shows what you know. I know what I grew up with, even if sometimes I forget what I’ve got.
*Dziadzi is Polish for grandpa. Technically, now I’m a dziadzi, so he’s Great-Dziadzi.