If you needed a hammer or a saw or a roll of red caps or a broken broom handle or a nest of telephone wire or a anti-seize paste or anything you could ever imagine you could find it out in Dad’s garage. The core of the garage was a beautiful old work bench, so dark and scarred that it looked medieval. There was an iron vise bolted to it and jar after jar of screws, nails, and nuts arrayed along the back edge. An old radio, tuned forever to the local NPR station, would crackle on and and stay on while you worked out there. If you needed a tire iron or a jack or a bucket for used motor oil or a length of tubing to start work you’d dig around that bench and risk jostling that radio until you pulled it out, a prize that came at just the beginning of the race.
My Dad knew what socket to use on any nut. He knew, back in the 1980s, which hammer to use to knock off a stubborn brake pad. He knew what to do to remove a stubborn bolt. And he taught all that to me in the best way possible, out in the that garage, listening to Le Show and Car Talk while he consulted the Chilton manual for each next step. It was the kind of education – unhurried, unplanned, (and in some cases undesired as I did have an NES at that time and didn’t want to spend time in an unheated garage) – that is sorely missing. It’s the kind of bonding, a nefarious, sneaky kind that is unappreciated until years later, that boys of this latest generation are missing.
I spent long winter evenings out there, stopping only to watch primetime television at eight o’clock. We’d drive down to the parts store and ask for the piece we needed. A clerk would search for it – Ford, Fairmont, 1983 – typing the data into a green screen terminal. Then the subsystem – ignition, transmission – then the specific part. A moment later we’d have a number. A moment after that we’d have a small white box, like a pastry box, full of elegantly-cast metal.
Then back to the garage. I’d sit on a milk crate, he on a metal chair. He’d send me down under the car to undo bolts and pull springs. I’d sit in the car and pump the pedals as needed, lead him up the ramps when we need room, pump the jack as far as I could. Then I’d spend the rest of the time watching and talk and listen. Harry Shearer mumble about Los Angeles in the background and my Dad and I would talk about guns and ninjas and World War III (he told me he knew what to do in the case of a nuclear attack but couldn’t tell me. He actually worked for the government so this was probably true.) We talked in ways that I hope my sons talk to me.
It was a wonderful education, one born the 1960s “Compleat Idiot” style self-sufficiency and predating the information boom of the 1990s. Children like me grew up in a decade between the real and the digital, forced to draw ninjas and warriors on paper rather than summon them, in perfect imaginative fidelity, on iPad screens. It’s an era that we are only now trying so hard to recreate with maker spaces and Arduino and Raspberry Pi and it’s sad that we have to try so hard.
The evenings in the garage ended when I turned 16 or so. I remember working with Dad after that but I was working for myself, not him. He helped, but I was supposed to fix that Fairmont myself. It wasn’t easy. I tried to replace the brake pads on my Fairmont, a few years later, alone at home. It didn’t work. I put them on backwards and had to take it to Sears, without his knowledge, so they could do the job right.
Years passed and the garage accreted the detritus associated with minds aging in the suburbs. Newspapers piled up for a while but I put a stop to that one time when I came home to Columbus to visit. For some reason there were boxes and boxes of BB guns out there one summer, then snowblower after snowblower. My Dad had four lawnmowers for a while. Two bikes. More broken brooms than the mind can number. More and more stuff and, in my mind, my father’s inability to clean the hulk out was an affront to my memories of that place. He, of course, was innocent of wrongdoing. It was only me, the seething prodigal, that felt aggrieved.
Fast forward to last summer and it was time to clear out the garage. All of that gear, all of that stuff, those walls of shelves that seemed like a store of treasures untold, were now a burden. We hired a dumpster and put in the obvious garbage. We emptied it and then hired another.
All that time my father sat in his room. He was clearly troubled. Why wouldn’t he be? That was the work of a half century, the desires of a boy manifested in manhood and offered up to his children as gifts. What were we throwing away? We did not bother to check.
Then came the garage sales. These were the worst. As we opened the garage on August morning the pickers were waiting, the portly corn-fed men, ready to rumble through my past. It was a violation. They went through Dad’s tool boxes, his shelves. They took the vise off the workbench and then bought the bench. They stuffed a dozen beautiful hand tools into a galvanized bucket that my Grandfather Herman had made after the war and grunted.
“Six for all this?”
I nodded. Six. Fine.
One of the men found one of my father’s guns hidden in a coffee can. He took a smattering of junk and then offered to buy the gun – which was loaded, much to my chagrin – for a few hundred. I wasn’t in the arms trade. I pulled the gun out of the garage. We found no more after that.
“Got any cast iron? Any old milk glass?” they’d ask. They were pros. They had been to garage sales up and down the state. One sat looking through boxes of old records priced at $20 a crate, records I had already scoured long before for anything good. After wasting our time thumbing through five crates he wanted just a few select discs. I told him $20 a box. He toted two boxes to a van already full of vinyl.
These strange scarecrow men, these pickers, came and went. On TV they make picking out to be a gosh-howdy exchange between men and women in fine fiddle. In life these pickers are the blue bottle flies that attend to a corpse after the hyenas have come. There is nothing worse than a habitual garage-sale visitor.
And then it was over. The picking, the grabbing, the searching. I suspect many went home thinking they had scored a deal. And they had. In an era where socket sets cost $10 drop-shipped from Guangdong, a box full of chrome-forged Craftsman metrics for less is a true find. You get quality and price whereas the Harbor Freight sockets only offer price.
I wish I had paid more attention in the garage. I wish we still had some time to sit out there to do a little work. I wish my sons and I had a similar place, filled with similar wonders.
But I salvaged some things from that workshop of the elder gods. I have metal containers full of wrenches. I have a complete set of sockets, sockets I once used to pull bolts out of a 1983 Ford Fairmont. I have memories.
And one day my kids and I will find something that will bring us together, something that can be done on a cold evening. It might be far less physical than the things my Dad and I did, perhaps we’ll be programming or building or designing, but the radio will play in the background and the heating will kick on and they’ll watch me do magic and learn from my tricks.
I only pray there’s magic left.