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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Father Far and Away: Part VI

[Revised Saturday, July 12th.]

I woke up to the sound of Mom unpacking a grocery bag of breakfast things and lunch snacks that Dad had picked up on his way back from the junk yard. Had it been twenty years later, the filling station would no doubt also have been a convenience store, but in 1975, the notion of combining gas and groceries had not yet occurred to men like Clee. Back then they were called “service stations” and there wasn’t a loaf of bread, gallon of milk, or Slurpy in the place.

The inside of most gas stations was only big enough for a few paying customers to stand while they waited for service in the garage. Gas customers rarely got out of the car. They paid the same man who filled up the tank, checked the oil, and cleaned the windshield. It was the concept of “self service” (pumping your own gas) that brought foot traffic into the station, and gradually, aisle by aisle, service stations became "convenience stores." But that was still a few years off. So after Dad found a '64 Ford rear axel at the junk yard, Clee was kind enough to stop by a store on the way back to the station.

We ate a quick bite of powdered donuts, and got dressed to go help Dad, but Mom had surprising news: “Dad told me to tell you boys just to stay here and swim. There’s nothing you can do over there.”

“Are you sure?” Dave asked.

“He said if he needs one of you, he’ll come get you. So put on your suits and enjoy the pool. We don’t have to check out until noon.”

We did just that. Basking in the sun. Jumpin’ in the pool. Drying off to soak in the sun again. It was not a new pool--in fact it was the painted-cement kind, so hard to maintain that many were eventually filled in, leaving a pool-shaped patch of lawn or asphalt. .

Beyond the chain-link fence was the parking lot that ran to edge of the garage property where Dad was working on the car, safely held up on blocks. He was out of earshot, but Dave (who played center field and had a great arm) could have easily thrown him a ball.

We swam for a couple hours, until the three of us paused at the deep end with our crossed arms perched on the side of the pool, chins resting on our wrists. In the distance, we could see dad through the squiggly-mirage lines that rise from hot pavement, and a sense of guilt came from the scent of chlorine on our skin.

“It just doesn‘t seem right,” Dave said, and then his eyes squinted toward the gas station. “Is that Dad pumpin’ gas?”

“Looks like him,” Jim said.

“Why would he be pumpin’ gas?” I asked.

Jim ventured a guess: “Maybe he has to do that to pay for the repair. Sort of like washing dishes at a restaurant when you don‘t have enough to pay.”

“That does it,” Dave said, angry at himself, “I can’t be swimming over here while Dad’s pumpin’ gas over there.”

He pulled himself onto the cement deck in one athletic motion, grabbed a towel, and ran to the room. Jim and I stayed in the pool, still soaking in guilt.

“Dad did say he’d call us if he needed us,” Jim reminded, not wanting to leave the pool, “and if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s to stay away until Dad needs me.”

“I know what you mean, Jim. I think he likes workin' alone from all those days of building houses by himself when we were little. Seems like whenever he worked on cars, he was alone, too, except when he’d call one of us for something. He’d be out in the garage under a car and yell, ‘Tom, go down to my tool board and get my crescent-wrench,’ and all the way down the steps I’d be trying to remember what a crescent-wrench was. I’d grab three or four things that looked kind of "wrenchy" and hope one of them was what he wanted. Pipe wrenches, box wrenches, adjustable pliers, and with any luck at all an actual crescent-wrench." [Dad had an authentic Crescent brand wrench, but the term "crescent-wrench" is spoken as if one word and is generically used for any adjustable wrench other than a pipe wrench. Old adjustable wrenches are sometimes called “monkey wrenches“ because the forerunner was invented by Charles Moncky in 1858.]

Jim interrupted. "But, Tom, you work with tools all the time."

"You can use tools and not know their names. It's only when two people are working together--or trying to teach--that agreeing on the names of things matters. Sure, I know all of his tools and what they do NOW, but back then I called a Phillips head a 'star' screwdriver because it made star prints when I poked it into Play-doh.'”

Jim laughed and turned his face toward me. He was a towhead, and with his cheeks reddened from the morning sun, his hair looked all the whiter. “Now that you're away, he calls me to bring him tools, but if I'm not sure which one he's talking about I just ask him.”

“Just like that?" I was bewildered. "And he explains it?”

"Well, sure. How else would I know what to bring? I’d ask him ‘which one’s the crescent-wrench?’ and he’d say, ‘It’s an adjustable wrench with a thumb knob that opens and closes to fit the nut. Bring the big one--it says Crescent right on the handle--not the little red one. Center of the board to the left of the ball peen hammer.' Like that.”

"It says Crescent on the handle?" I asked, wondering how I'd missed that simple clue all those years.

"Yep. Forged right there in big letters."

"I guess I remember that," I mumbled, trying to hide my amazement that this 7-year-old could explain a crescent-wrench and more so that his question had produced such a teachable moment with Dad. “Wow, Jim! You've got it made. I used to think Dad thought boys were born knowing the names of tools."

“You should have asked him?”

“Maybe we did in the beginning, and maybe he did explain. All I know is eventually I quit asking. But if I came back with the wrong tool, he’d be sore, so I always brought him plenty of choices."

"He was the same with knots. He knows all the knots and can tie them at will--sheepshank, bowline, clove-hitch--but we boys never knew any of them. One time just a few years ago, we were tying down a tarp over a load of lumber and Dad says, ‘just throw a double half-hitch in it.’"

"I started some complicated triple knot with no name and he yelled again, ‘just throw a half-hitch.’ I actually had the nerve to yell back at him, ‘Dad, has it ever occurred to you that I don’t know what a half-hitch is!’”

“You actually said that?” Jim was shocked, because in all his observation and the long oral history of his three older brothers working with Dad, he'd yet to see or hear of one of us "talking back" as if on equal ground.

“Yes. I said it. Dave and I had been working with him all Spring Break, tearing down that building in Mt. Clemens to get the wood to build the house. Now it was Saturday. It was late and dark and drizzling. We still had to drive out to the property and unload it all in the barn before going home. We were all tired, and I just kinda snapped.”

“What did he say back?” Jim’s eyes were wide.

“He said, ‘You mean to tell me you don’t know how to tie a half-hitch?’ He was mad, and I said, ‘No, Dad, I don’t. Why don’t you come over to this side of the trailer and show me how to tie a half-hitch.”

“You said that?” Jim gasped, "I would have kept the trailer between."

“I don’t know where I got the courage but I did. Dad shook his head all the way as if he was about to tie a grown man’s shoe, but he calmly showed me how to tie a half hitch and explained why it was perfect for this situation. He started out sarcastic, like 'how could I have a 16-year-old son so ignorant of knots,' but then doing it step-by-step like that he must've remembered the time somebody had shown him how. After he was done he took a deep breath, looked up at me, and said, ‘I’m sorry I never taught you that before now.’ The teeth were gone from his voice, and I felt bad for talking back to him."

"All you did was ask him to show you. I do that all the time." Jim said.

"There's nothing wrong with a question, but I asked it just to yell back at him. I think I wanted him to feel that way, and then when he did, I felt like a creep."

Jim was about to speak, but then his eyes looked past me. He saw Dave, dressed and jogging over to the station. I wondered again whether I should have stayed or gone. It was like watching a coin toss in slow motion until Dave stepped beyond our view into the station door. “Well, anyway,” I said with my mouth in the crook of my arm, “that’s why I’m taking Dad at his word that he’ll call us if he needs us.”

“Dad’s not so much like that anymore,” Jim said. "The mad part, I mean. He's more like the teach you how part now."

“I’ve noticed,” I smiled and looked down at the water in the shadow of my arms, pondering whether or not I should point out to Jim that Dad was now a year shy of fifty with a seven-year-old son. He had not only mellowed--he was, in fact, a wiser man. A decade before, at forty, working with three boys who would rather be playing, I think he always felt one step ahead of Murphy’s law. Now, with Jim, it was different. With this broken axel, it was different.

I'd heard Dad say he believed God was sovereign and in control of everything that comes at us--good or bad--and it's all part of a purpose beyond what we may understand. He’d said that for years, but I think it must've sunk in that if that’s true...then life is as much about the obstacles as the goals. [I later put it this way in a letter to him: "Life is the meal God serves while we're reading our hand-written menus."]

Deciding not to say anything about Dad's age or Jim's youth, I turned to face the sun. Jim did the same then broke the silence with the original question: “So I wonder why Dad was pumping gas?”
To be continued...
Note about revision: A day or so after writing something, I like to "read" my own writing as if I hadn't written it,,, as if I'm seeing it for the first time. Afterwards, I revise and tweak. This chapter was revised quite a bit after I visited with Jim Thursday night who added some details about that day in 1975. He reminded me that it took place at the Berea, Kentucky, exit. I google mapped it and to my surprise the motel and pool are still at that exit. The service station is gone; a big Speedway convenience mart is there. Friday night, I went back and added "Berea" in all the places I'd said "somewhere in Kentucky.". I have not been by that exit in over 25 years, and though I've been writing about it for three weeks, I'd forgotten the name of that little town.

Then this morning, a journalist and Bush Press Secretary whom I highly admired died of cancer. I was reading this article about Tony Snow, you can imagine how serendipitously strange it felt ot learn that Snow was born in... Berea, Kentucky.

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Anonymous quilly said...

How nice that you got to see these different perspectives of your father while he was still alive for you to appreciate him.

What touched me about this story is how you bring your dad to life through the dialog of his sons as they compare and contrast him to himself while sharing their own experiences.

10/7/08 12:56 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Thanks, Quilly,
My "little" brother, now grown with two sons of his own, reads here, and I think he'll find this "condensation" an accurate compilation of many such talks we had that day and others. Like Jim, our youngest daughter has had a slightly different experience than her older sisters had.
Ah, parenting....
I've never quite hinted at this side of Dad in my writing. He was actually a patient teacher as we grew up, but during those squirrelly "teen" years, we tested his patience.
I appreciate that you caught my intended tone.

10/7/08 3:49 PM  
Blogger the walking man said...

I can sill look in any drawer of my not small tool box and tell what tool is missing. Your dad was the same way eh? Tools aren't any good Tom if you don't have the right one in your hand.

Knots are the same way, no good if you don't tie the right one...learned that from a bo'suns mate. Double half hitch tightens more as the load strains against it but remains easy to untie.

Seems to me your pops was further ahead in having someone who would bring an assortment of tools rather than having to stop what he was doing and get it himself...I am sure he appreciated that more than it would ever occur to him to mention it.

He was pumping gas so Clee wouldn't have to stop doing what he was doing, which was providing income for his family. I bet your pops even worked the cash register without Clee standing near him.

The last service station I worked in was like this one, 3 bays very small room for customers and not much more than a pop cooler and gum rack inside...*sigh* it has been reborn now as a C store.

11/7/08 4:46 AM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

You have no idea how much I appreciate your input on this particulur set of chapters. I thought of you when I was writing about knots (knowing your Navy background). You're, of course, right about why he told me the half hitch was perfect (and why my goofball knot was frustrating to him). And Yes, Dad, was very particular about his tools and in fact, bought us boys "our own set" for Christmas (partly to keep us out of his). I talked to my little brother on the phone last night, and he reminded me that this took place in Berea, Kentucky. So I went back and added that to all the posts. Then I google mapped it and to my surprise the motel and pool are still at that exit, and just as I guessed in the opening and as was true in your experience... Clee's little station and garage have been replaced by a huge Speeday convenience store. I haven't been by that stretch of I-75 in about 30 years. You'll enjoy the ending.

11/7/08 7:21 AM  
Blogger Dr.John said...

I loved the story as it continues but now we have to wait to find out why dad was pumping gas. This is as bad as a soap opera.

11/7/08 3:01 PM  
Blogger JR's Thumbprints said...

My dad, a toolmaker by trade, didn't seem to have the patience to show my brother and I how to fix things. Funny thing is, my bro's an engineer and he has our dad come over to fix things. I, on the other hand, grab one of those "How-To" books.

11/7/08 6:56 PM  
Blogger Nancy said...

Your dad, like mine, taught quietly through example most of the time but... if he spoke, you should listen because it was going to be important.

Your dad is pulling at my heart strings much like your mom did (for different reasons, my mom is nothing like yours was but our dads are two peas in a pod). Your road trip reminds me so much of my dad (I miss him dearly)... the knots, the tools, the mister fix-it, the frugalness (is that a word?) and the gentle but unspoken love- a wink of the eye said it all.

My little sister (the one in Michigan) had a very different childhood... just like Jim. My parents learned a lot as the years progressed... mellowed and shared their love more freely. I was not blessed with a younger child but I am sure your younger daughter has blessed your life in many the same ways that Jim blessed your family.

I like that this has created conversation with Jim and that your "road trip" will now be recorded for your children. This made me wonder if I've ever told my children about serving station attendants (they even washed your windows), gas wars (15 cents a gallon!!!!) bottle drinks you return to the service station for money back,etc... I think I feel a blog topic forming in my tiny brain!

Have a great weekend and continue to enjoy your summer.

11/7/08 8:04 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Dr. John,
You flatter me that such a simple "slice of life" can create suspense. =)

I've had lots of late afternoons at the office, leaving little time to write when everyone has gone to bed. I had to slice what was to be the final chapter into two parts.

Through the months at your blog, I've seen photos and video clips of you and your Dad fishing. That's a great relationship. This particular story doesn't show it, but my Dad was great at mixing recreation with work. It would be like a reward, "Let's quit shingling the roof by 3:00 and go up to the river." So we'd work hard, get very hot, and then go up to the Blue Water Bridge to swim in the chilly waters of the St. Clair. (You've probably been there.)

It is very encouraging to have fellow writers share thoughts during a "work in progress." This is nothing like the Duncan Phyfe project Mom and I did in the fall--in fact, this was supposed to be one post about the first time we stayed in a motel (an idea that hit me when we were staying in that "painted palms" motel in Iowa, first week of June), but you know me... my mind is hopelessly "associative." One thing triggers another as I write and I just hope it all makes sense on the page.

As for our fathers... It is one of the quiet joys of life to deeply miss someone, to have one little detail--like the wink of an eye--bring new meaning to a day.

12/7/08 5:19 AM  
Blogger heiresschild said...

my dad wasn't tool saavy at all; couldn't even change a washer on the faucet. i remember when gas was full service only. as always Tom, you bring your life experiences to "life."

13/7/08 8:42 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Hey, HC,
It's been ages! How's California? Hope all is going well for you and your daugther.

13/7/08 11:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was "struck" in reading you revision about something from my memory which has to do with memories actually. You touch on this a bit.

Put several people into one situation and ask them for their "take" on the events regarding that situation. For example in our family there are 4 of us..me, my husband and our 2 kids. The kids, now grown, will reflect on something from the past and both have a different "take" on it...sometimes even an erronious one. I'll think "I was there, and THAT isn't how it happened!" Or "I was there and I don't remember THAT happening!!"

Then...there is that 6 degrees of separation thing! I've lived long enough to experience a bit of that in my relationships with people! Your interaction with the station/guy might put you in that with Tony Snow!!! What a small world we live in

14/7/08 12:01 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

In this particular case, I have had input from the two other brothers involved. We did experience some of what you're talking about. Dave's recollection is often quite different from my own--not so much in fact but in feeling. For instance, it was Dave who reminded me of how guilty he felt when we saw Dad pumping gas (explained in the upcoming final chapter). His abrupt departure left Jim and I in the pool to talk after not having been together since Christmas Break. Have you ever had one of those meandering conversations while idling in a pool? It was like that.

If you have never seen the film Avalon (1990)
I highly recommend it. Take your time watching it. Watch it twice. You'll know why I love the film. Not only does it peel back the layers of ordinary life shared by three generations over an entire lifetime... it has some very funny portrayals of conflicting "recollection"--like what you're talking about.

[Off to my School Board meeting...]

14/7/08 5:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Avalon....is that about a family (Italian was it?) back in the 50's in Philadelphia or New York? I think we saw it back in the day! I should get it again.

As for meandering conversations...you're asking that of a woman??? LOL!!! I think for us (women) is called "webbing"!!

14/7/08 10:04 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

You've got the right movie, but the family is Jewish (though trying hard to be "American" rather than a sub-group) and I think the setting is Baltimore, but it's been a while since I've seen it... Sounds like a good time to watch it again. It's one of the titles I own on a VHS tape somewhere in the basement--you remember VHS, they were tapes about the size of a one-inch brick. (Just kidding we all still own VHS tapes. We just don't use them much anymore. =)

15/7/08 7:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

VHS...yup we still have a machine even though it's not been put to use with the dvd's that are also out now. Soon it will be something else I'm sure! So why did I stock up with Disney movies for posterity sake???

As an aside...could you please pray for my DIL? She just was told she may have ovarian cancer and we're kind of reeling from that news. If you have a prayer chain with your church that also would be appreciated.

15/7/08 5:20 PM  
Anonymous quilly said...

I just read the end of this series -- my fed reader must have caught a brief posting -- and I absolutely have to know (you are such an accomplished writer) why you are giving this stuff away free instead of compiling a book?

17/7/08 4:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Quilly...I've thought the same thing!!! I would guess he's been busy being a "breadwinner", father, husband and all that. But I'd guess he'll, one of these days, be published and we might say "we 'knew' him when!"

17/7/08 5:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Noone responded to my post and inquiries for prayer for my DIL...but that's o.k.! She saw a specialist today and the chances are quite small that her cysts are cancerous so we're praising our all-powerful God! What a week it's been!!!

18/7/08 2:18 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

You're right. I posted it to "copy fit" the text photos, etc. then took it down. I had no idea there was a way for people to know when that happens. =)
I am honored and challenged by your compliment. I hope to do that someday. I write drafts here to "test the waters" and get helpful feedback.

You are right. These have been surprisingly busy weeks at the school office (considering it's summer time). I do hope to take more pieces beyond my POI space sometime.
I want you to know that I did pray for your DIL and I'm confident others did, too. Most people who read at POI don't actively comment. Glad to hear the good report. We've been through that same "wait" in our house and I know how much "leaning" (As in the old hymn "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms") it prompts.

18/7/08 2:26 PM  
Anonymous quilly said...


Sorry I took so long to respond. Life is crazy -- and it's not even my life. It's OC and all his dang bands -- three gigs in a row!

So, I don't know who to approach for the publishing of Memoir type pieces. I wish I did because I actually have a similar type blog (The Grownups Wanted Us Dead)and people are always telling me to publish ... but where?

22/7/08 2:31 PM  

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