Part 1 of some number of parts.
When I was in my late teens my father drove the family to my grandmother’s house because there was some maintenance work that needed doing and this was how my father’s side of the family operated. Some significant subset of the brothers and sisters (there were five brothers and two sisters in all) would heed the call, gather their favourite tools, and rush to the location that needed work. Then they would proceed to get moderately drunk and get the job done. Roofing, plumbing, drywall, hell even erecting a whole new addition to a home. If there was a reason for tools, they would congregate and use them. This and crab theft were the biggest reasons to gather that I can recall now. Oh and holidays. But mostly tools and crab theft.
At least this is the way I remember it now. In reality perhaps things were more pedestrian than that, more usual, but that’s not what stands out and it’s not how I choose to remember my father. So it’s not how I’m going to remember him to you. So for now we’ll stick to family handyman gatherings and work-related crab theft. And his oh-so-gentle drunkenness.
I didn’t know my father was a drunk until after he died. It was only then that my mother would talk really freely about it, about how the time he spent tinkering in the shed or the car port was not really tinkering. It was just getting slowly shitfaced in front of a tiny black and white television. There were lots of tools in those spaces and many projects, most of which got done. But they didn’t need all that time. Getting properly tanked up on beer took the time. As I say, though, I never knew. Never even suspected. He was such a quiet, gentle drunk. He never hit me, never abused anyone that I know of, never so much as raised a slurred voice. In fact I can’t even recall a slurred voice or a stagger. His drunkenness was, I suppose, a private one.
And his projects were real. He usually had a car brand he loved for a while and he’d buy several of them. Cheap, shitty cars that amused him in some way. Cars he could afford to have several of so he could take at least one apart to clean every single piece. Polish it, replace or repair what was broken, paint it, and put it all back together. I bet you never drove around in an Austin Mini with the engine painted bright yellow, but I did. Well, I never drove it. This is perhaps the way I disappointed my father, never learning to drive, but maybe not. He seemed to respect the choices I made that made me distinct from him. I’m sure I’m inventing it, but I will choose to believe this was a thing he loved about me.
And I imagine that at first the projects were indeed what the time in the shed was all about. That the objective was to go and finish that model airplane or re-assemble the neighbour’s lawnmower engine, or restore that blowtorch he found in his mother’s tool shed, and the fridge full of beer was just there in the work shed as well as the project. It strikes me as an easy priority shift to have happen to you, to eventually head out to the shed for a dozen beers while telling yourself that you need to finish that model boat your son gave you. In your thirties it was about the boat but somewhere before fifty it was about the beer.
Certainly he never did finish that boat, but let’s use that particular project (since it was later in his life) to understand what kind of a drunk my father was. This was an all wood sailboat model, about three feet long (and we’ll use imperial measures here only because this is part of setting this mood about my father — when you eulogize my drunkenness you should use metric). It was so detailed the to make the hull you had individual wooden planks that you had to steam and bend and then nail into place with tiny brass nails. This is a lot of detailed work and anyone would be excused for leaving it incomplete.
But the last time I saw that model boat, after years of “work” in the shed, all that had been complete was the hull. No work on the deck, the superstructure, the mast, the sail, the rigging. Just the hull. But he had bent all of these individual tiny planks and nailed in every single tiny brass nail. Imagine the look of all that magnificent detail, none of it cheated, all of it real.
But you have to imagine it (as I have to imagine it) because he then sealed and sanded and painted the hull. It was perfectly smooth, a shining black surface without a single blemish. It represented hundreds of hours of sanding and painting and sanding and repainting and buffing. Hundreds of hours of laborious, tedious, perfectionist work that would all undo the evidence of the other hundreds of hours of labour. My father, as you might guess, did not care what you thought of him much. He didn’t need to leave evidence of that labour. He only left incomplete perfections and never complete imperfections. I suppose he was more interested in the journey than the destination.
When my father bought a pick-up truck in the 70s, an old powder blue monstrosity, the first thing he did with it was drive to my elementary school and take me and my sister out of class. He piled us in the bed of the truck where there were blankets and not much else. My mother waved through the glass from the passenger seat. And we drove for hours (with several breaks) up towards Whistler mountain. At that time Whistler was not a big deal and the route was twisty and only a single shared lane in places. We would pass many “watch for falling rocks” signs and a couple of fallen rocks. We stopped short of Whistler, at Alice Falls, and had a picnic. We played in the stream (clear, green, pebbled bottom, when I remember it I want to drink it). We gathered our trash and drove home.
The journey, you see. An hour at the destination and maybe four on the road. Because he had a new toy. In this way he and I are very similar. The toys took (take) us places and so the need for the toys wasn’t (isn’t) just acquisitiveness. They are launching points. They don’t all launch. That’s fine. They don’t always start journeys that you would recognize as valuable. But we do. Trust us. We know what we’re doing here.
I haven’t entirely lost the thread here. We’re coming back to that trip to my grandmother’s place. The handyman journey. But first there’s another facet of both my father and I that we need to establish.
We both love(d) and hate(d) guns.
[end of part 1]