1999 Undergraduate Nonfiction Winner
My Heroes Have Always Been Carpenters
Sunday mornings had no need for alarms in my father’s house.
You’re listening to Waxworks on KSAL
The scratchy sounds of trumpets, clarinets, violins, and cymbals would echo back and forth between my bedroom walls, shaking me out of my slumber hours before I’d have liked them to. The muffled sounds matched my tired, muffled thoughts as I’d spin around in bed trying to go back to sleep. I didn’t crawl out of bed onto the cold basement cement floor; no matter how much I wanted to run upstairs and yell “Turn it down!” I couldn’t. Sunday mornings were sacred to my father in his own way. These times were spent in worship of the simple pleasures of a beat-up orange recliner, piles of fried pork side meat, Louis L’Amour books, and big band classics from Glenn Miller and Count Basie.
I’d lie in bed, huddled in masses of patchwork quilts that Dad had picked up at auctions. A small gas furnace flame would flicker orange and blue, doing its best to fight off the chills from the cold, damp walls that had been ruined by flooding I remember lying in bed, thinking about what my friends and their families were doing. They’d be getting dressed in their stiff white shirts and paisley ties and flowered dresses. Conversation about grandparents and pastors would float around like the aroma of the pancakes that were cooking in the kitchen. After breakfast, everyone would load into their new Buicks and Pontiacs and drive to church, where other stiff white shirts and flowered dresses would shake their hands and say things like “How are you?” and “It’s nice to see you this morning” My dad’s twelve-year-old Chrysler sat in the driveway, while Dad sat in his broken-down orange pew, singing “Ramblin’ Rose” along with Nat King Cole.
Once in a while, I’d go to church with a friend and his family. My friends would get dressed in their sixty-dollar dress shoes and slacks with matching socks while I’d slip on a pair of white socks and Wal-Mart “leather” shoes. As I’d walk through the house, my ugly shoes sinking into the plush carpet, I’d marvel at the matching furniture, the entertainment centers, the perfect family portraits, the central air conditioning controls.
At church, I’d sit with the rest of the children in the back, drawing or making paper airplanes out of the pamphlets and schedules. From where I sat, I could see the town doctors and lawyers, their slicked-back hair as shiny as gold. They scared me, with their fancy clothes and formal speech. I wondered if someday I’d be able to talk like them, to say “rambling” instead of “ramblin’,” to be as comfortable around these “intellectuals” as I was around my father’s fishing buddies.
For me, comfort was sitting in a fifteen foot metal fishing boat on the Solomon River at midnight, listening to symphonies of crickets and swaying branches. The summer breeze carried Dad’s stories around to each of us, wrapping around us, pulling us together. He’d tell stories about old drinking buddies and the pranks they’d pull and the fights they’d get into.. .stories about guys with names like Pete and Kenny and Muff. One of Dad’s best friends, a guy named “Clutchie,” was the center of many of the stories.
“I remember one time we hooked up an air horn to the brakes in ol’ Clutchie’s van so when he hit the pedal that sucker’d go off. You shoulda heard him cuss us after he drove it.” Then he broke into a harelip accent to imitate Clutchie driving down the road when the horn went off.
“Said he just about bit a semi it scared him so bad.”
We didn’t catch many fish those nights. We didn’t care, though. The experience mattered to us, not the results. The stars in the summer sky seemed close enough to touch. The occasional lapping of the muddy water against the side of the boat, the strong smell of fish on our hands, the clean taste of the breeze blowing in from the giant oaks and cottonwoods on the banks--these things were real. I didn’t want to leave these things, though I had a feeling someday I would need to. I was to be one that used his head, and not his hands, to make a living. “You’re going to have to take care of your poor ol’ mammie some day,” my mother would say, half-jokingly.
On the Solomon River, I didn’t need stiff white shirts, family portraits.. .formalities. I could look up at the moon and the stars in my ten dollar Rustler jeans and hand-me-down coat and say “ain’t” or “sure ‘nuff” and they wouldn’t change. The moon and the stars, the trees, the muddy banks, the fallen branches that textured the river’s surface--they didn’t care. There in that boat with my father, I didn’t need a tie to feel important. I didn’t need a preacher to tell me how to act, or the difference between right and wrong, or the keys to leading a good life.
I guess I’m still bull-headed in this aspect. Even though I’ve spent four years as a cog in the hard, cold machine that “educates” us, I’m afraid of this world where you're judged by how intelligently you speak, or by what material gains you’re able to make. I’m afraid I’ll never be able to find a balance between the world where I’m supposed to recognize good from bad with my head and not my heart, and the blue-collar world that I come from, where the heart drives the hands. Where what is accomplished comes from the need and not want.
Sometimes I’m tempted to tuck my tail between my legs and limp home. “I can’t be one of them,” I’d say. I can’t do this though--I know I’d go crazy. Even though this is the world I come from, it’s not all that I am anymore.
I used to think my father lived only in this blue-collar world. Monday through Friday, from six in the morning to three in the afternoon, he can be found at the local hospital, fixing generators, oiling wheelchairs, or stopping by an old-timer’s room to talk about tractors or football. A recliner invites him to an hour-long nap after work, and then he’s off to what he refers to as his “treasures.” These treasures can range from broken-down lawn-mowers to three-legged tables to old car carcasses. You can never have too much of anything--this is his golden rule. “You never know when something’s gonna break and you’re gonna need another,” he says. His wife, who used to drop hints about the backyard mess, now blatantly professes that it is in great need of a clean-up.
The garage, two sheds, and the backyard are full of these treasures, each its own ghost of a former life. He walks around “the junkyard,” as my nephews call it, his strong, callused hands picking things up to admire. His soft eyes, surrounded by dark, leathery skin from forty years of manual labor, scan the treasure, his mind wondering when he’ll have time to give it new life. For now, though, he must work. House payments, new heads for the truck, seats for the boat, a child in college--these things cost more than his paycheck covers. There’s money to be made patching Mrs. Chaput’s roof or building a new fence for Mrs. Peterson across the street.
Sometimes when I visit on the weekends, we’ll walk around the backyard, and he’ll show off his latest auction purchases or tell me about a boat he’s spotted for sale.
“What about the other boats?” I ask him, referring to the three that have been sitting unusable for three years.
“I might have somebody lined up to buy ‘em,” he says, and then he asks me, “What do you think?”
He always asks for my opinion.
‘Well, if you think you can swing it, go for it,” I answer, knowing that money is usually the deciding factor.
I remember the first time I began to worry about money. I was in fifth grade. My mother and father had just divorced, and Dad was living in a small apartment about five blocks from our house. I remember them talking one Friday afternoon in that small apartment when Mom had taken me there for my weekend visit. “Squire’s shuttin’ down,” he said as I watched G.I. Joe on TV Dad had been a finish carpenter and foreman at Squire Construction for too many years for me to remember.
“What will you do?” Mom asked.
‘Well, for now, I’m gonna try some jobs on my own. I think I know enough people I can keep busy.”
Later that year, Dad sat me down. It’s the first “man-to-man” talk I can remember. He said he had to start something called a budget, and we had to decide how we were going to spend our weekends. We could go to a movie each weekend, or we could get a VCR on a rent-to-own program through a store downtown. I picked the VCR. It was something we could keep, something that would have value later.
For Christmas that year, I received one present from my father--a seven-dollar Transformer figurine, one that you could combine with others to form one giant robot. He apologized to me as I sat by the tree, surrounded by numerous other robots and motorized Bigfoot trucks. I had a new favorite Transformer, though . . .one that would win all the baffles in the future. While my friends had their giant, shiny robots that changed into semi-trucks or even cities, I had one that had meaning behind it--something real.
My father still attends his reclining church every Sunday morning, reading from the good books of Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey. Old records from countless auctions have replaced the “Waxworks” program. I talk to him sometimes about the books I’m reading in college, about stories by intellectuals such as Melville and Hemingway, and poems by Whitman and Frost. I’m no longer surprised when he says he’s read them. Sometimes, he’ll pull out a dusty copy of Poe’s Short Stories and recommend something while Hank Williams plays on the record player. And each time, it gets easier and easier to find that balance, to keep going, to need more.
Marty Nash is a senior in English at KSU, and is this year’s recipient of the Touchstone undergraduate award for fiction, “Columbus Day,” and nonfiction, “My Heroes Have Always Been Carpenters.”
All rights reserved. Copyright KSU Touchstone 2003
Last updated April 30, 2003