Updated: Feb 8, 2020
The other day my dad came over to help me wire a hall light. Every YouTube video I could find only had two or three wires coming out of the box. This one had eight. The light was on a four way switch and was connected to three other rooms. Nope. Time to call Dad.
I think it should be noted before I go on, that in March my dad will be 86 years old.
Anyway he came over and we struggled for a couple hours trying to figure out the ‘cobble job’ as he called it. It was getting late and so I suggested that we ask my next door neighbor who is an electrician by trade. The neighbor came over and after an hour of scratching his head, he finally figured it out and left.
As my dad and I walked to the car, I said, “Thanks Dad!”
He said, “Well, I didn’t really do much.”
I instantly felt the need to say, “Well we would’ve got it.”
I’ve never felt the need to say something like that. The skill my dad has demonstrated goes without saying. But when he said, “I didn’t really do much” it inspired this story about my dad’s garage.
Of course, my dad made the garage. But it could also be said that the garage has made my dad. My dad had an unusual combination of factors early on that made him what he is. Not everyone is the son of an immigrant engineer who happens to have nearly every tool imaginable laying around. As a kid he had the right combination of unsupervised access to all these tools, and enough junk laying around that no one cared about to experiment with those tools. He also had time, a lack of distractions from things like smart phones and Snapchats, and perhaps the most important ingredient—curiosity.
After his dad died when he was fourteen, he essentially inherited large power tools ranging from a lathe (the king of tools as my dad says), to a drill press, to small intricate manual threading tools and frankly stuff I don’t even know what it’s called. All of it was eventually brought to the place they still live at today. To make room for all these tools, my dad immediately set in to building a garage in 1962. He pulled the tiny old garage that was there to the south side of the driveway and started building two thirds of the garage that stands there today.
This is a story about that garage.
To enter my dad’s garage is like entering an old growth forest. Nothing in there is labeled or seemingly organized. Like a forest, my dad’s garage has mystery. There are things in there only the long time inhabitant would know. There are trails where my dad walks between stands of tools and scraps. And there is one space, not far from the heater, where he actually works. The rest is like an organic growth of tools and building materials. Like a forest, it is a system that recycles itself. Old steal scraps and car parts eventually get reshaped or reused.
To the inhabitant there is an order, rhythm, and a logic to the forest, but to my mom, it is chaos. But out of this chaos is a system that works, to the one who knows the forest. The garage is really a birthplace. It’s messy. At first you can’t even tell what it is. A random piece of rusty metal. Then it goes through the magic process and comes out and you step back and say, “Wow.”
The garage itself was built nearly sixty years ago. Some of the things inside the garage are over a hundred years old. But age in my dad’s garage doesn’t mean it gets preserved like a relic at a museum. My dad regularly uses his hundred year old tools, like his lathe and drill press, which happen to be in the house, but nevertheless, are still tied to the garage culture. Really everything in workshop in the house is just an extension of the garage. The workshop downstairs is just the garage making inroads into the house.
This particular garage is the home of a lifetime artist. In this place, someone has spent a lifetime honing the skills, learning the tricks, shortcuts, seeing the subtleties, where guesses become more accurate, and things need to be measured less. For instance, when my dad paints, he doesn’t measure the amount of paint thinner that goes in the old paint gun. He is an alchemist throwing in a dash of this and that and then spraying on the paint in a rhythmic sway of the hand. Like all artists, it looks simple the way he does it. It is not. If the spray gun swipes too fast, the paint will be too thin. If the spray gun swipes too slow, the paint will run and drip. If he overlaps too much it’ll run. The eye and the hand must be trained to know the pace and placement of the swipe.
As a body man, my dad has learned how to work with metal. I’ve often seen my dad brushing his hand over a fender and detecting the slightest irregularity. I’ve seen him take out dents by pounding on places you would least suspect would need to be pounded--with one of his favorite tools called the Bullseye Peck. I’ve seen him pull a dent out of a car door by using a grease gun. I’ve seen him make a blind back handed weld on the underside of a timing belt pulley. I’ve seen my dad fabricate his own shock absorber brackets for a Model A. To my knowledge, such a thing has never existed outside my dad’s garage. The bracket is a thick heavy duty steal widget that is bent and shaped at angles that fit the underside of the Model A. To take nothing that has existed, imagine it, and make it, and to see it fulfill its purpose—is well—the act of a creator. An artist.
The word ‘artist’ is not a word I throw around lightly. An artist is someone who develops an eye for possibility, which is really a way of saying, an artist is someone who has imagination. But a lot of people can imagine stuff, like playing the guitar like Eddy Van Halen, but an artists must master the skill. An artist is the highest word I know of for someone who is able to productively mix imagination with skill to a point that the difficult things become automatic like breathing.
The barn—the garage’s little brother
Not many people can say that every single part of their property has been shaped by their own hand. My parents moved to their current home in 1962. The only things on that property that are the same as it was in 1962 are the two sycamore trees and a peony bush in the front yard. Everything from the sidewalks, driveways, basketball hoop, house, garage, and barn, were all made in some way out of that garage.
The barn, across the driveway from the garage is another extension of the garage. It’s like a satellite of the larger world of the garage. As we tore down our old house, which was an old one room school house, my dad took the cottonwood beams (that possibly came from of the river banks of the Missouri) and made a barn out of them. The red barn in the back is a completely recycled building. As far as I know the only thing purchased to make it was some paint. The barn is chock full of Ford Falcon, Model A, and Model T, car parts, sand blasting equipment, shovels, electronic equipment, lawnmower, gas, and an old croquet set. I
I’ve always thought that if a tornado ever hit the place, the barn wouldn’t budge. There’s a genius to how anyone could pack that much stuff in such a limited space. You could melt down every piece of metal in there and the liquid metal would still fill nearly every square inch of the building. There’s hardly any room for air let alone mice. However there’s probably some room for a brown recluse or two. Not sure what they eat. Dust? Steel? Anyway, the brown recluse is something that comes to mind whenever you’re digging around in the recesses of the garage or the barn.
One year when my dad was concerned that the old cottonwood beams under the barn were starting to rot, he jacked up one end of the barn like a car and put new beams under it and then repeated the process on the other side. When my dad built an addition to the garage in 1976, he took a chainsaw and cut off the north end of the garage. He slide the north wall over on pipes and filled in the gap. That made the garage officially bigger than the house.
And that triggered a discussion by my mom that it wasn’t right to live in a house that was smaller than the garage. So in 1977 my family started the house project. It was only going to take two years to build an addition, move into the addition, tear the old house down while simultaneously building the new house heading south. It took a little longer than two years--eleven to be exact. So I grew up in a construction zone. But the house, is a story for another day.
Back to the garage. The first thing you encounter when you walk in the garage is the two air compressors on both sides. The large air compressor he got from AT&T. It is mostly used for sand blasting. They both have a very distinct sound. I will never forget the sound of those air compressors, in fact, probably no sound reminds me of my dad more than the sound of those air compressors.
Atop the larger air compressor to the right, is a long line of lubricants. Liquid wrench cans, WD-40, Anti-Seize cans, 1930s oil cans like the one they used on the tin man in the Wizard of Oz. Next to the big compressor is a homemade cabinet. I should add that the bench, the cabinets and even a few tools were actually made by my dad. The gray cabinet holds files, screw drivers, the prized green handled crescent wrench, air pressure gauges, awls, punches, and most importantly for me while I was growing up—a air needle to fill my basketball when needed. The door of the cabinet must have some very sturdy hinges. And that’s good, because the door is loaded with tools and has never been shut as long as I’ve been alive. Next to the cabinet is a window that has a horseshoe tipped downward to release good luck.
By this window is the workspace. This is the epicenter of it where all the magic happens. This is the only place that isn’t fully cluttered in the whole garage. The wood on the homemade bench has been splattered more than a Jackson Pollack painting. In fact, there are so many layers of paint drippings here that there is hardly a word for the color of that workspace. It is like a mud color. It’s like the color of the Missouri River which can range from blue to green to brown to grey to black depending on your mood.
The edge of the wood work bench has been rounded and smoothed by the shear movement of hands moving around that part of the work bench. It’s like the door threshold to the garage. Feet have passed over the wood threshold so many times, the ironwood is rounded like a nob. Shoes and boots have actually sanded the threshold. The edge of that work space and that piece of wood at the doorway are the smoothest pieces of wood that have never been sanded that you’ll ever see.
Under that workspace is can after can of paint and thinner. Just to the right of that little workspace, that is no wider than a pair of human shoulders, is perhaps one of my dad’s most precious tools. It’s a 1937 Binks #7 paint gun. He says that he’s painted four to five hundred cars with that paint gun. He bought it from the Barry Collins Ford Dealership when he left the shop in 1957. He paid $20 dollars for it. Today it hangs by a hefty nail—like a gun in its holster. My dad actually has two paint guns, but there is really only one. The new one sucks. Not a word my dad would use, but newer tools don’t necessarily mean better to my dad.
The old paint gun is really a work of art itself. If you could imagine Picasso having one paint brush his whole life, imagine what it would look like. Of course, the outside tank part of the paint gun is so coated with different colors that it doesn’t have one particular color, except I guess you could say it is dark gray. But other parts of the paint gun have absolutely no paint on them whatsoever. The metal handle where his hand meets the paint gun is as he would say, is as ‘smooth as a baby’s butt.’
The Language of the Garage
Inside that garage there is a whole nother world of parlance—a flavorful way of saying things that are not always very Lutheran. My dad has never been a cusser, but his collection of sayings are as colorful as all the cans of paint under the work space. There’s “Looser than a button on a shit house door.” There’s “Up a shit crick without a paddle.” There’s “Mickey Mouse.” Mickey Mouse is a bad one. You don’t want to be associated with something that is ‘Mickey Mouse.’ That means something was done, “Whizz bang.” Whizz bang is something done in a hurry and of poor ‘Mickey Mouse’ type quality. Funny I can’t think of a phrase my dad uses for something of high quality. It mostly gets a ‘Hmm.’ “Hmm” means everything checks. The lines are straight the corners square, the thing has skill, time, and passion involved. That gets a ‘Hmm.’ But ‘Crookeder than a dog’s hind leg,’ ‘cockeyed,’ ‘Jerry-rigged,’ ‘Whizz Bang,’ ‘Mickey Mouse,’ ‘cobble job’ and ‘half-ass,’ are some of the ways he expresses disapproval with the quality of the craftsmanship.
Then there are the things you don’t have names for or the energy to find names for and you resort to the ‘Whatchamacallit” and “Hoodikigh.” The word ‘hoodikigh,’ refers to an intricate object that is highly irregular and peculiar. ‘Hoodikigh’ is a slippery word that can be used differently in different contexts. It is neither positive nor negative. It can be used as a noun or possibly as an adjective. In electronics a hoodikigh is a rat’s nest of wires. In automotive mechanics a hoodikigh is a tangle of tubes and wires. If the thing is a random mechanical device, like a typewriter, from the 19th century with lots of highly engineered parts, it may get the title of a ‘hoodikigh.’
Some of the sayings have turned into acronyms to save time. Like WAG. WAG stands for ‘Wild Ass Guess.’ WAG used in a sentence sounds like, “I’m just going to WAG it.” You know it’s kind of funny, but I think my dad WAGs it quite a bit. But after eighty years of WAGging it, I’m not sure it’s WAGging anymore.
There’s also FM. This is used as the final conclusion after a series of questions about how something works. And then when the thing gets down to something like, “How do tiny fragments of silicone hold bits of information?” My dad will simply say, “FM.” FM stands for ‘F_ _ _ ing Magic.’ FM is a kind of interesting phrase to me. First, I can’t recall my dad ever actually saying the F-word, so there’s that. The only time the F-word has ever been uttered in that garage has probably been when my brothers once launched a rocket that flew wildly off course and stuck right into the side of the garage. That hole, I believe, was filled with tooth paste. The hole was never noticed until years later when we were repainting the garage. By then it was a story told in laughs. It wouldn’t have been so funny if my dad had seen that rocket fire right into the side of the garage. I’m guessing that my brothers uttered an F-word that day.
The F-word may have also been used in that garage the day I tried to show a friend my dad’s ooga horn on the Model A while he wasn’t around. The horn stuck. It was one of the longest oooooooooogas in history. I had to run to find my brother. My brother ran over and pulled the battery cable and the funny thing is the way that long ooooooooooga finished. It was like the horn had gotten tired of ooga-ing.
But back to FM. I think the second part of that acronym, the M of the FM, is so interesting. Magic. My dad has stacks of Popular Mechanics and Scientific Americans, books on astronomy, biological field guides of all sorts, and yet after all that reading and trying to understand the science behind what’s going on in the universe, when it gets down to the final explanation of the world—my dad resorts to the word ‘Magic.’
The kid and his fort
It reminds me of how my dad has kept the garage as a sort of childhood fort. Ask my friends, we spent a good chunk of our childhood building forts. There was always a desire to make something our own, call it our own and then to crawl inside it and just be in our own little space. My dad did that and inhabited his fort for a life-time. It may be why at root my dad is a little kid and he’s lived so healthily for so many years. Like a child he has never lost the awe of life. One of the most subtle looks on my dad’s face, but nevertheless it’s there, is when something comes together and works. It’s like he sees the magic come together. He has a look of quiet delight. Many-a-car has come into that back driveway sick in some way. And many-a-car has left feeling better. And in that process my dad has been like a little kid. I fight and struggle with cars, and so they fight against me. My dad is a car whisperer. When my dad gets going under the hood of a car, the wild nature of all that steel and explosive gas settles down and gives way to the master.
My dad would call himself a guy who tinkers. Tinkering has a different connotation than fixing, replacing, or being a mechanic. Tinkering has a hint of exploration and discovery in it. It’s a bit of an experiment. It’s got the connotation of play in it. It is also a word that means there isn’t necessarily an end to it. Tinkering has a feeling of process. One enjoys the process of the thing. And if something gets done, well then it was like fishing. You caught the fish, that’s neat, but really you were out there just to be on the lake. That’s how my dad tinkers. Yes, he can say he ‘hauled in some fish’ and refurbished an alternator, but really he was just out on the lake fishing according to the requirements of his imagination.
Another thing that has always caught my attention in the garage is all the old coffee cans and peanut butter jars full of nuts and bolts. Here you can see everything from Prince Albert in the can, old cigar boxes, what Skippy Peanut Butter jars looked like in the 1960s, or how Skelly oil cans looked in the days you had to puncture the lid with the sharp metal spout. You can find old newspapers from the 1980s. T-shirts, now rags, that we boys wore when we were kids, Schwann’s boxes with hand written words like, “Washers.” STP cans that remind you of Richard Petty. Sears Craftsman tools. My dad likes Mac tools and might say Snap On is better, but he is essentially a Craftsman tool guy.
Also there are a lot of mysteries in the garage. Every once in a while my dad will pull something out and in a casual by the way type statement he’ll say, “I made that when I was 15.” I've noticed over the years, that the age 15 pops up a lot. His dad died when he was 14. And my dad inherited a huge amount of tools. Year 15 of my dad's life, I'm guessing, had a lot of tinkering in it.
As far as all those year working with power machinery, it’s amazing to me that my dad has never been seriously injured. He’s roofed houses, arc welded, used cutting torches with acetylene gas, sandblasted, handled saws-all at odd angles, cut wood with circular saws, blow torched solder in plumbing, worked under heavy cars, handled molding hot steel, cut tin, and worked decades around electricity, and had thousands upon thousands of opportunities to get hurt. Aside from a few scrapes and bruises, he doesn’t have many war stories. It may go back to a plaque he got from AT&T with the Bell System Creed on it that hangs in the garage. It says, in bronze letters, “No job is so important and no service is so urgent, that we cannot take the time to perform our work safely.” My dad has certainly lived according to that creed.
While there aren’t many words in the garage. Really aside from the plaque with the Bell System Creed, and another little piece of paper that says, “He who loans out tools is out of tools,” the only other words that stick out to me is the sign above the doorway. It is interesting that my dad worked thirty years for AT&T, yet nowhere, except in the living room, is there anything that says something about all those years at the tower. I think the fact that the little clock thanking him for his years of service at AT&T is in the living room and not the garage says something about that job. AT&T paid the bills. We had a living room because AT&T paid for the house. My dad did AT&T like a job. I don’t think he minded it, but the second he retired he was very happy and ready to spend time in his garage. So the fact that he has a Body Shop sign up in the garage, says I think something about how he did that job at Barry Collins and Barry Motors in Mapleton back in the 1950s. He probably could have happily been a body man the rest of his life, but he didn’t want to breath any more Bondo dust and AT&T promised more money.
In the end, he got what he wanted. He has lived the American dream as the son of a German immigrant. He got the house, the literal picket fence, the kids, the dogs, the job with a pension, the retirement that gives him time to do his hobbies. And you have to celebrate that. If you knew how he ate dog bone soup and tallow sandwiches as a kid, and lived during the Depression and had it even worse in the 40s after his dad died, and to see this kid figure out all those tools and become what he did as a mechanic, bidy man, and electronics technician, and really live according to the requirements of his imagination, well, you'd say he has done well.
The garage and my dad raise a question, “Did my dad make the garage or did the garage make my dad?” It’s probably both. Not everyone gets to have their cake and eat it too. My dad has enjoyed a life around tools and making things of high quality and craftsmanship. Ask anyone who has ever worked alongside him—he can be exhausting in his attention to detail. And you may not even see meticulous attention he did while lathing down a part for the innards of a carburetor or the restoration of an exhaust valve buried deep inside the engine. But for the curb value, it’s obvious to anyone when you see the things he’s made, like the ’29 Model A coupe, the ’36 pickup, the house, the garage itself, the barn, it’s all done well.
My dad reminds me of a story I read once about a guy who built bird cages. He welded every cross member inside and out. The purpose of a bird cages is to house birds. Perhaps no welds would even be necessary to keep the birds in. But this man, who the narrator says, built the best bird cages in the history of the world, had to build bird cages like this because that is just who he was. He could no more not weld the thing inside and out at every juncture than he could live without without breathing. Some people are like that. Some people do not live by the standards of others or by ‘good enoughs.’ They make their own standards. And so when the story of the garage and all its creations is told, I believe it should leave one feeling a sense of awe and wonder. I believe you can say “Wow!” or quietly go “Hmm” like my dad, but there is no way that amid all that chaos of metal, you cannot help but feel that you’re in the presence of an artist. And here is the kicker. He is an artist who gives away his art. He has helped countless people with all sorts of mechanical problems.
And so when my dad said that he didn't do much the other day, all this flashed through my mind and I thought, "Yeah, you have dad...Yeah you have!"