“Hey, Dad! Can I borrow your drill?”
The unexpected sound of my son’s pubescent voice derailed my concentration from the excruciatingly maddening task of replacing a fluorescent bulb in my bathroom. I had ignored my wife’s pleas for several weeks in the hope that the bulb would magically revert from a hypnotic strobe to the steady warm glow that my wife so missed. I had missed it too, but not badly enough to attempt to change the malicious thing. Whoever invented fluorescent lights makes Josef Mengele seem like a sweet old lovable grandpa. Only after I had amputated the left half of my face attempting to shave by the photonic sputtering of the offending light, had I realized I could no longer procrastinate my fate.
I no longer stress myself over getting old bulbs out. I learned many finger lacerations ago the trick of just wrapping a towel around the bad bulb and giving it a brisk smack with a hammer. As long as I’m not changing it in my bare feet that seems to be a relatively painless solution. The part that drives me insane is trying to install the new one. So there I was, teetering atop a dilapidated step stool, sweating and snarling at the flimsy glass tube I was attempting to pry into a fixture that had to be at least four inches too short. I had just gotten one end up inside the fixture and was at the point in the process where you grab the laws of physics in a headlock and pummel them until they temporarily suspend themselves, when my son spoke.
I hadn’t heard him coming, so fixated was I on the pummeling process. I admit that he startled me rather severely. My body reacted to the sudden surge of adrenaline in three very typical ways. First, I vocalized. Loudly. In the falsetto range. Second, I leaped high into the air. Last, but quite significantly, my hand and arm muscles tensed. In effect, I ejected from the step stool while bending the brand new fluorescent bulb as if it was a raw breadstick. Sadly, fluorescent bulbs are a bit more brittle than a breadstick.
My body defined an arc through the air that was suddenly alive with a flurry of glass shards until my head encountered the fixture. At that point the second bulb joined it’s partner in a glittering shower of glass confetti which tinkled mockingly down upon my form that had come to rest, draped at an unusual and not entirely comfortable angle across the toppled step stool.
“Knock it off, Dad! Stop clowning around. I’m trying to ask you a question.” I barely heard his voice through the throbbing haze in my head and the white noise of bulb fragments impacting the linoleum around me. Somehow the pain, the noise, and the adrenaline surge triggered old memories.
I was twelve. My dad had a workshop full of a wondrous plethora of tools. They captivated my imagination. Tools were so cool—so macho—so adult. I would sneak in the workshop just to wrap my Dad’s tool belt twice around my waist and load it up with a hand-picked assortment of the my favorite tools. I had no idea what most of them were for. I selected them based on a number of factors including coolness, machismo, and their taboo rating.
For some reason, my Dad got weird whenever he discovered me touching his tools. He even displayed certain schizophrenic symptoms upon his first contact with his tools after I had touched them. He had some kind of sixth sense about these things. I don’t know how he knew. He could just tell.
“Georgie,” He would call out through clenched teeth, his left eyelid twitching, “The funniest thing just happened. I found my chalk line lying in the mud puddle behind my shop. Do you have any idea how it got there?”
I jammed my hands deep into my pants pocket so that he wouldn’t see grid of blue lines that criss-crossed my palms and fingers. I opened my eyes as wide as I could to communicate innocent sincerity as I shrugged. “I don’t know. What’s a chalk line?”
I didn’t really like lying; but I was backed into a corner. It was impossible to make Dad understand the brilliant logic of the thought processes that motivated my actions. Inevitably he would misinterpret my motivation as laziness, carelessness or disobedience. Sometimes I could tell by the baffled look in his eye and the way he shook his head, that he considered my behavior to be something in the realm of inexplicable paranormal phenomenon.
Trying to explain only made things worse. If he had been a reasonable human being, Dad would have congratulated me on my ingenuity with the chalk line, of course. I bet he never would have thought of tying the end to a kite. The chalk line reel gave me excellent control, and if Dad had seen the way the wind strummed the taut line, releasing a beautiful blue haze of color in the crisp spring air…my, my! It was almost a spiritual experience.
All Dad seemed to be able to focus on, though, was the fact that his chalk line got wet. Well, I’m sorry, but things happen. When a gust of wind grabs your kite and slams it into a nose dive toward a spruce tree, you have to act fast. The last thing on your mind is finding a velvet pedestal on which to carefully place the reel. You just drop it, if you have to, and haul on the string hand over hand it until you regain control of your kite.
“You don’t know, huh?” Now Dad’s right cheek had joined his left eyebrow in the twitching thing. Except they were twitching at different speeds. His face reminded me of a cartoon character in a badly done Claymation movie. It was the funniest thing I ever saw. I suppressed a giggle.
“Oh, you think it’s funny, do you, young man? You think you can fool me? Well I wasn’t born yesterday. Perhaps you’d care to explain the fine blue dust in your hair?”
I scuffed the ground with my toe. This conversation was hopeless. Now Dad thought I was laughing at my cleverness in fooling him. He’d laugh too if he looked in a mirror. “Sorry, I was just goofing around.”
The twitches became tremors. “You were just goofing around, were you? How many times have I told you not to goof around with my expensive tools?”
“You forgot!” Here came the baffled paranormal phenomenon headshake accompanied by a sobbing laugh. “Like you forgot yesterday when I found you using my six-foot level to bust rocks, or last week when you were shooting metric sockets out of your slingshot, or the week before when you were chasing the cat with my cordless jigsaw? When are you going to grow up?”
Ok, fine. If Dad didn’t want me to find a priceless fossil that we could sell to the Smithsonian for a billion dollars, I wouldn’t touch his stupid level. The squirrels could eat every speck of insulation out of his workshop attic too. A lot of good his precious sockets were going to do him with frostbitten fingers. No wonder I had to chase cats. I guy has to have some way to relieve his stress!
I felt Dad’s callused fingers grip my ear like a vice and found myself being propelled on tiptoe toward the interior of the workshop. This wasn’t a good thing. Dad had an endless supply of spanking devices in that workshop: lath strips, extension cords, wood scraps…
“Noooo, I’m sorry, I’m sorry! I won’t do it again! I promise!”
Dad was done talking. With the hand that wasn’t clamping my ear he cleared the wood chips and woodworking plans off of his workbench with a backhanded sweep. Then he picked me up and laid me face down upon it. I felt like Isaac on Mount Moriah. The sacrificial 1×4 scrap rose high in the air and time stood still as it hovered ominously above the seat of my blue jeans. I waited in vain for a rich baritone voice with lots of reverb to boom from above,
“AbraDad! Lay not thine hand upon thy son, thine only son. Neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that he fearest what thou art about to perform, and verily he didn’t mean to ruin your stupid tools. Look behind thee and thou will find a ram caught in a lathe by his horns. Take him and spank his bottom in the stead of thy poor misunderstood son.”
Alas it was an empty hope. The paddle descended repeatedly and with such gusto that a backswing clipped the fluorescent lamp above my Dad’s workbench showering us both with a flurry of glass shards. That day as I lay there amid the tingling in my bohunkus and the blizzard of glass confetti, I swore through my tears that if I ever had a kid I would never forget what it was like to be one.
“Come-on, Dad.” It was my son again jolting me back to the present. “Can I borrow your drill?”
“I gave you my old brace and bit.” I winced as I spat out some glass chips.
“Dad, get real! I’m talking about your Makita.”
I felt something begin twitching in my right eyelid. “What in the world do you want my Makita for?”
“I’m going to mount a piece of copper tubing in the chuck and use it as a mandrel to coil wire so I can make some links for weaving chain mail.”
“Yeah, that sounds like a great idea! A piece of wire whipping around on the end of a power drill. Are you crazy? The answer is NO!”
Maybe someday my son will grow up and become a father. Then he’ll know what it’s like to be one.