WVTF, local NPR station, featured this essay for Father's Day. Listen.
My father was a busy person during the week, busy at some office he commuted to before I woke up. On the weekends, he was also busy, still up before dawn but working at home. If you wanted to be around him, you joined him outside, working on projects, doing chores. If we had to mow, I clipped around the light pole and mailbox. If we to had to plant a tree or shrub, I scraped out the rocks between shovels full of dirt. The weekend often held at least one big job: the shed a new roof, the dock a new paintjob, the riverbank a new wall.
We lived on the Delaware, and to keep the bank from washing away, one summer my dad decided to build a retaining wall. We would use discarded railroad ties, washed up on shore. In a little boat with an outboard engine, I scouted nearby islands for square, black logs. If they weren’t too drenched or decayed, we towed our catch home. Trip after trip, we found so many ties we had enough for our bank and those of a few friends.
We often had help from the neighbors, from the Millers or his friend Bill, or any passersby. We pounded in metal posts to keep the ties back, then spiked them together and put in the perpendiculars, the deadmen, to hold in the earth. There was much talk during the process, much discussion of strategy and design (or lack thereof), and much ribbing and needling, “here, hold this while I whack it with the sledge.”
Sometimes I was allowed a thump on the nail head, though it didn’t disappear into the wood much, nor go in very straight. I performed other valuable tasks like remove debris or run errands. These led to me staring at the pegboard behind the workbench in confusion and comments like this back at the site: “Those are vise grips. I said channel locks.”
We’re known as a nation of do-it-yourselfers, but we were do-it-togetherers. Of course, the job of the right-hand-man is never glamorous: holding things in position, handing over (the wrong) tools, answering “yes” to the eternal question: “does this look straight?” He did the fun stuff, boring holes with the drill, hacking limbs with the chain saw. I once vowed to let my son have full artistic expression with my power tools, but he’s not allowed to have any fun either.
But I learned much on those projects, learned how things fit together and how to work as one, built relationships with people rather than with the screen. There were physical benefits too, always moving and carrying things, running for tools and then back again for the right ones. And sometimes I simply lost interest in the project and wandered along river’s edge, found treasures in the drift pile, or built my own walls out of stones. I caught minnows or crayfish to be contained in my rock pier and discovered the joy found in the natural world.
These days, with my wife at work full-time, I’m often more valuable inside, more cook and cleaner than handyman. But if I gained any flare at fixin’ things, at building walls or even catching crayfish, I owe it to those weekends following around dad.
Which is where I’ll be this father’s day. Outside. On that river. And I hope my kids will be there with me, getting me something I (and they) really need. Getting out. Building something together and with the right tools.