Saturday, May 9, 2009

Iron Man

In his declining years, my father was a sad and disappointed man. He had always been small, and after my mother had passed away, it seemed he was shrinking into himself. He was increasingly unaware of his surroundings. Sometimes, at work, I would get confused calls from him; he didn't know where I was or why I was there. He would disappear for hours at a time, and reappear without any memory of where he had been.

My father lived in Albany, and I lived in Philadelphia. With two young children, and with both my spouse and myself in demanding careers, constantly visiting my dad to keep an eye on him was not an option, so I was trying to convince him to move in with us. As often as I could afford and he was willing, I flew him down to Philly to stay with us.

On one of these visits, I'd flown up to Albany, and was to accompany him down to Philadelphia. As my father was going through security screening, the alarm sounded. The guards asked him to remove his keys, belt, and watch. He did so, but when he walked through the detector, the alarm sounded again. They asked him if he had any other metal items. He removed a screwdriver from one pocket of his heavy overcoat. Again, he walked through, and again, the alarm sounded. He removed an adjustable wrench from another pocket. He beeped again. Next, a metal file. Beep. Next, an assortment of nuts and bolts. Beep. By the time he made it through security, a modest workbench-full of tools and small parts was arrayed on the table. (9-11 was eleven years in the future).

My father died not long afterward. When my brother and I went to his house to sort through his affairs, we came upon his desk. When I tried to pull out one of the drawers, it hardly budged. Slowly, I eased it out, and I found a drawerful of odd bits of metal he had apparently picked up from the street: nuts, bolts, nails, washers, tubes, tools. The drawer must have weighed 30 pounds. And it was not the only one.

I had known my father by the work he did in this country. He was a short-order cook, having worked his way up from busboy. I don't know how he ended up in this kind of work. I suspect it was through my uncle -- my mother's sister's husband -- who had sponsored my mother and father to come to this country from Greece. My father's first job was as a busboy in the DeWitt Clinton Hotel on State Street.

But I was also aware that my father had had a very different vocation in Greece. There, he had been a mechanic. He showed me pictures of himself and his friends working on trucks and jeeps. They apparently had their own small business. When he went to the front lines to fight against Mussolini's army in Albania, he was wounded and captured. After recuperating, he was pressed into labor as a railway mechanic for the Axis. I have seen photos of him standing next to a locomotive with his head completely bandaged, having been blinded when a locomotive had released steam into his face.

I wonder now, what it felt like for a man to leave a country where he was a respected skilled worker, to come to a country where the only work he seemed to be able to get was unskilled labor in a service industry.

Funny thing is, I find myself turning to the same kind of trade and skills my father had in his home country. By vocation, I am a software developer and applied scientist. But increasingly, I get pleasure and relaxation from working with tools, working with metal. First, bicycle mechanics and wheel-building, and now it seems, bicycle frame design and fabrication. I am not good at it; I have no innate talent. Lord knows, I had to struggle to keep up with others in my frame-building class at UBI, just as I had to struggle to keep up with professional mechanics when I took my bike technician's certification course two years ago. But I love the work, I love mastering the skills, and I love the pride in product.


One Lung Joey said...

Touching story. I sometimes forget how good I have here in the states.

Anonymous said...

Your recent reflections have caused me to again reconsider some of these ideas. Certainly the crafts and artisans movements will always be there for those who heed its call. I think in the this 3rd Wave world, it is an attractive port in the storm of Future Shock. Many of us embrace some Luddite-type leanings. Another interesting question regards an individual's native aptitude or innate skill set and whether this may be passed down from parent to child. My friend Scott, a professional photographer (yes that Scott) gave up a son at birth for adoption. Twenty five years later his son tracked him down and they began the long-delayed process of becoming father and son. The most interesting disclosure is that son Patrick, before knowing who his biological father and mother were, decided to become, and is now, a professional photographer. He's also physically a dead ringer for his father. Coincidence? No idea. On another subject, when hearing stories about your Dad's life and hearing similar stories from my parents, it's a great reminder that many generations and individuals led lives where much more was determined by external forces and much less determined by self. Well clearly Ted, your Mom and Dad did not live in vain. You and your beautiful family and children (and hopefully soon your frames) attest to this fact. your pal Bob.