My late father taught me a lot.
He taught me how to study, how to write, how to joke. He didn’t teach me how to use a circular saw.
Nor a jigsaw. Nor a chainsaw.
I think he was afraid that if he taught me how to use a saw, I’d end up losing a finger.
But it wasn’t only a saw he didn’t teach me how to use. He also didn’t teach me how to use a cordless drill, a demolition hammer, or a nail gun.
In short, my dad didn’t teach me how to be handy.
Which was kind of odd, because my father knew his way around a toolbox and a lumberyard. I remember the pride my dad took in building a wall unit from scratch in the basement. Granted, it was just for the basement, where only the family ever tread – it was far from being ready for prime time in the upstairs living room – but still, he would always say this was one of his proudest achievements.
He designed the unit. He bought the wood and cut it to size. He sanded it and polished it and painted it and put it all together. I envy the sense of achievement he had at the end, that feeling of accomplishment that comes from building something from scratch with just wood, nails and screws.
The closest I’ve ever come to that feeling was putting together a bar stool from IKEA. But the feeling of accomplishment I got from that – and it was a great feeling of accomplishment – came less from putting the stool together, and more from just being able to figure out the instructions. Deciphering IKEA instruction booklets is like trying to master a foreign language. More than anything else, the sense of accomplishment here was one of successfully decrypting code.
I was in elementary school when my dad built our basement wall unit during one summer vacation. Looking back now from my vantage point as an experienced parent, I realize that this could have been a tremendous learning experience.
My dad could have used the opportunity to teach me how to hammer and drill and saw and sandpaper. He could have made me feel comfortable with the wood plane and the chisel. He could have taught me the essentials of carpentry, and even a little about the work an electrician does. We could have even done some rudimentary basement plumbing. In short, my dad could have taught me valuable and practical lessons in home care and maintenance.
But all I remember doing during those three months was holding things.
I held the screwdriver for my dad, and I’d held the screws. I held the boards, and I held the nails. I held the hammer and I held the ladder. While I never actually got to use any of the tools I was holding, or climb up the ladder, I did get to hold them. I was an outstanding holder.
And why did my dad not school me in wielding that hammer and screwing in those boards? Two reasons. First, the parental concern that I would hurt myself – fall off the ladder or bang my thumb. Second, a parental concern that I’d just mess it all up.
Who wants a little kid hammering nails in the wrong places? What if I didn’t correctly align the shelves, or if I cut one of the boards too short?
So while my dad cut and banged and sanded, I held. To this day I can hold things like nobody’s business. You want something held, talk to me. Never have I held a ladder where someone has fallen off. Never. I drop nothing. Just ask my boys.
BUT SOMETHING ODD happened on the way from boyhood to grandfatherhood: my inability to do anything handy around the house skipped a generation.
My dad didn’t teach me to be handy, and as a result, I’m not handy. I couldn’t teach my sons what I don’t know. But they learned anyway, and are handy despite me.
I attribute it to the army. You learn all kinds of things in the army, including not to shy away from physical labor and how to work with your hands.
My oldest son, The Lad, built a deck on his front porch. My middle son, Skippy, just completed a course in welding for fun and has a power tool collection that rivals Tim Allen’s on Home Improvement. And my youngest, The Youngest, has spent the last few months installing electronic anti-pigeon devices on rooftops all across the land.
Go figure. It’s kind of metaphysical, as if the universe is engaging in some sort of self-correction. Me? I could do nothing with my hands. My sons? They can do everything with theirs.
I felt my son’s handyman prowess during our recent home renovations. Why waste money on a contractor to take out the counters and cupboards in the kitchen, and to tear down a couple of walls in the living room, when they could do it by themselves? my three sons reasoned.
And do it themselves they did. One Friday morning they arrived, and with a couple of workers they knew and whom I hired, they spent six hours dismantling my apartment: banging down walls, ripping up floor tiles, tearing apart counters. And then they patched up the floors and walls by themselves.
All the while, as I stood there amazed and proud that they actually knew what they were doing, I held things. I held the sledgehammer and the epoxy. I held the cupboards that were coming down and the ladder they were climbing up. And, once again, I dropped nothing.
Why did my sons not ask for any of my help in banging down the walls or in unscrewing those cupboards?
Two reasons. First, the filial concern that I would hurt myself. Second, a filial concern that I’d just mess it all up.
Who wants an old man removing screws from all the wrong places?