My dad’s workbench is at the bottom of the basement stairs next to the furnace room.
It’s made of cast-off and reclaimed lumber, waist high with pegboard above and shelves below. On the opposite wall, below a foundation window is a 3’ x 5’ worktable topped with a rock hard quarter-inch sheet of asbestos. Dad liked that you could work with molten lead or set down a soldering iron without worry.
The pegboard is hung with screwdrivers, nail punches, nail sets and hammers - framing, ballpeen, and mason’s. There’s a cardboard Velveeta cheese box filled with rasps and rat-tail files and a miniature plastic file cabinet of assorted nuts, bolts and washers.
As a kid, the adjoining furnace room filled me with fear. That massive, rumbling, blowing beast of a furnace, flames roiling within, seemed not of this world. The space around it melted from dim light to empty black. Heading up the basement steps at age 8 or 9, something put a tingle at the back of my neck and goosed me to jump steps two at a time to get out of there.
My dad was a mechanical engineer–a tinkerer at heart. Purdue grad. He rarely hired contractors - put down his briefcase and took off his suit at the end of the day and did his own plumbing and wiring, roofing, landscaping–you name it.
He hoarded repair necessities. There’s a horribly over-painted Victorian-era dresser in his workroom with a vice bolted on top and drawers filled with wood screws, washers, machine screws and bolts sorted within the cut off lower halves of bleach bottles and cardboard boxes. The overhead pipe running to the driveway hose bib is hung with electrical cables; ancient braided cords from an earlier generation’s irons and toasters, extension cords with frayed ends and speaker wire. Never know when you’ll need one to fix a lamp. Beneath the workbench are boxes of plumbing fittings–elbows and Ts, and others filled with wiring needs; sockets, wire nuts, black electrical tape, switches, wire testers and tracers. There are sanders and skill saws and drills, and an assortment of antique clamps that belonged to my grandfather. There’s a green bean can somewhere in there filled with drill chucks.
Atop the workbench is a beautiful oak machinist’s toolbox. It has small felt-lined drawers with brass finger latches. It once belonged to my dad’s uncle Guy who took it with him to Vancouver Island in the early 1920s. Guy was offered the job of machinist for a logging crew. He and a foreman walked the railroad tracks from town to the work site to see if it was acceptable to Guy. Crossing a trestle over a river, Guy, an avid fisherman, saw steelhead trout boiling in the stream below. He asked, “Are there always so many fish?”
“Pretty much,” the foreman replied.
“I don’t need to see the work site,” Guy said. He turned around right there and went back to town for the tool chest.
It breaks my heart a little that dad stored oil cans on top of that priceless work of machinist’s art. The top is now saturated with decades of gear oil.
But that was my dad. He was not a fussy tool guy, the kind who polished ‘em or hung them in pretty rows. Tools are for work and specific purpose, not fetish items for indulgent collecting and doting over.
It was down in that workroom, upon the asbestos-topped table that we built my Cub Scout Pinewood derby cars. He had scales and a crucible and a coffee can with scraps of lead. With the butane torch he otherwise used to sweat copper pipes we melted the lead in the crucible and poured it into a hole drilled in the back of my racecar. He said the weight was best in the back. We measured carefully on the scales and painted carefully with royal sparkle blue.
My dad was so smart and crafty, it really wasn’t fair to the other kids. He helped this kid, a fuckup who’d never won anything win trophy after trophy in the Pinewood Derby. I have a devastatingly clear memory of searching for him in the crowd first time my car won. He didn’t cheer or shout. It wasn’t his style to brag or gloat. He just smiled at me and knodded, eager for my approval.
In my blue uniform and yellow neckerchief, car in hand, I was startled to recognize my dad wanted my approval as much as I wanted his. To this very day it haunts me that we both learned to build things with such care, but so regularly and miserably failed to express the love each of us wanted from the other.
Much against my will I helped him break down a lawnmower engine and put it back together. I really would have preferred watching TV, but he made me pay attention. From the machinist toolbox he pulled tiny wire calipers so we could set the gap on the spark plug. Why spend 75 cents on a spark plug when you can reset the gap yourself?
And it wasn’t about money anyway. It was about showing an aimless kid how the world works.
When I was 18 and skipped college, he bought a table saw knowing I imagined being a cabinetmaker, and it was set up in the furnace room next to his workroom.
When I went to college a year later he told me dismissively, “It’s a waste of money. You’ll fail and quit.” My lackluster grades in high school gave him reason to doubt, but that one stinging insult urged me to Alpha Lambda Delta the first semester, just to prove him wrong. I used that table saw weekends and summers to build furniture to help pay for tuition and books. He paid all the rest.
My father has been dead for a couple years now and for some reason I’ve shed not a single tear. Visiting my mom I sometimes walk down the basement stairs and into that dark furnace room. The scary giant furnace is gone, replaced with a tiny purring high-efficiency unit. My fear of the space evaporated long, long ago. I know the contours of the furnace room, and looking into the little workroom on the left, past the workbench and my dad’s collection of mechanical necessities, I fear only the dismantling of it all. Perhaps that's where the tears are waiting.