When he retired years ago, my dad was known as an operations engineer and turbine specialist for a public utility company.
In other words, he was a mechanic.
He started out as a shade-tree mechanic as a kid. From there, he got a job in a local garage in his hometown. He learned how to be airplane mechanic while in the military and later parlayed that into a career in the aviation industry. In the end, despite the title, he was a power plant mechanic.
He could rebuild a carburetor with his pocket-knife. Blindfolded. The guy could fix anything.
When I was a senior in high school, my folks moved to another state. I was allowed to stay behind so I wouldn’t have to change schools during my senior year. My grandmother lived in the same town and kept a close watch on me.
One day, she was having problems with her car and asked if I would come over and take a look at it. I went through the basic trouble-shooting checklist my dad had taught me and came to a certain conclusion about what needed to be done to get my grandmother’s car repaired.
When I told her what I was going to do, she told me I was wrong, that my dad had done that very job on her car before he left town. “When your dad fixes something, that’s it, it’s fixed,” she said.
So, I gave my dad a call, told him about the problem, how I had trouble-shooted the car and the conclusion my grandmother insisted would be a waste of my time and her money.
“Try this instead,” my dad said and then gave me a quick tutorial on what to do.
An hour later, I had her car back on the road.
His ability to fix things became something of a joke in our home. My dad cringed at the thought of ever buying anything new. He’d fix the old one. I don’t care if it was a 20-year old toaster that had gone on the blink, my dad would say, “Don’t throw it away. I can fix it.”
But he did concede the issue one day when the bottom rusted out of our old swamp cooler.
I was about 10 at the time. When the deliveryman dropped off the new swamp cooler at our house one afternoon, I was obsessed with how my dad was going to get it up on the roof.
We lived in an A-framed house with an adjoining squared-roof garage on which the swamp cooler sat. When he got home from work, my dad cut two 2-by-4 pieces of wood to the exact height of the 5-foot high fence that ran adjacent to the garage. Then, he took a thick piece of rope and tied several knots that would later aid his grip. He looped the rope through the frame of the cooler and tossed the other end up on the roof. He then pulled off the first of what seemed to be two Herculean tasks through the eyes of a 10-year-old.
First, he lifted the cooler up and propped it on top of the fence while I placed the two 2-by-4s under each remaining side. Then, he climbed to the roof of the garage, took the rope and in short order pulled the cooler the rest of the way up.
My eyes about popped out of my head.
Years later when he was wasting away ravaged by cancer, I reminded my dad of that day. He winked at me and said, “You didn’t think I could do it, did you?”
Later the same day, his doctor at the Sierra Medical Center in El Paso, Texas, came into his room to check on him. My mom introduced me to the doctor, who then asked my dad how many children he had. It was an awkward moment. Both my mom and dad and I were thinking the same thing: Was the question a precursor to a follow-up comment from the doctor that perhaps his children should closely examine their own health habits.
Depending on the context of the question, my dad told the doctor he had between one and four children. Biologically speaking, I’m an only child, but there are three others who he also called his own.
There were situations in life, choices people made, that created a need for someone to step up to the plate. There were three children out there who needed a father. It was never his responsibility or obligation, but my dad was always the guy who volunteered first. He never once looked back. He never had any regrets. Being a good father was his main mission in life. Fixing cars and anything else broken was just a skill he had.
It was during that moment I came to understand that there was a strength of character in my father that far exceeded his ability to hoist a swamp cooler to the roof of our house with his bare hands.
So it’s only natural that around this time of the year I wish he was still around just so I could say “Happy Father’s Day, dad.”
I’d probably also mention that the “check engine” light in my car came on today.