Handyman, My life

My handyman mentors: 1) Dad

In Pasto and Puerto Asís, Colombia, in the early 1960s, our whole family of eight drove around in a red Willys Jeep. Dad used to have to fix flats himself. Many times I watched him jack up the car, lever the tire off the rim, patch the inner tube, reassemble the tire and rim, and pump the tire by hand. I still remember the smell of those old hot-patches he would clamp on the inner tube; they had a cork back that he would light to provide the heat to melt the seal.

Dad had our Puerto Asís house built out of cinderblocks. The first ones were made with a machine; he dumped wet concrete into the hopper, two men pulled down on the long levers, and a block was squeezed into shape, which was set aside to dry. After the machine was stolen, Dad had to buy blocks at the depósito de materiales like everyone else. (Our jungle house is now occupied by a community of nuns.)

I was fascinated watching the masons and carpenters. There was no electricity in our part of town, so all the tools were manual. Dad had an eggbeater drill. When I tried it out, I broke the bit and was devastated. After I told Dad and he forgave me, I felt better.

There was a rainwater tank at one corner of the house, and a well and outhouse out back. We took turns pumping showers for each other (the pump had a metronome-like handle to jerk back and forth). Each of us had a chamberpot, to avoid going to the outhouse at night, but that meant that in the morning you had to carry the full chamberpot down the stairs and across the back yard to the outhouse, and then around to the rainwater tank to scrub it with Cresopinol.

Mom and Dad gave me a set of carpenter’s tools for my seventh birthday. I had access to the scrap lumber bin and a can of bent nails. I became very adept at straightening the nails by tapping them with a hammer while rolling them on a concrete surface. I can’t recall what I made besides wooden swords for battling with my brother.

We moved to Medellín early the next year, and were blessed with running water and electricity. When the water heater was replaced, Dad kindly let me tear the old one apart. I patiently took off the outside metal and the fiberglass insulation, and was disappointed to find that there was nothing inside but a steel tank that I couldn’t find a use for.

When we went back to the States for our second furlough in 1970-1971, Dad bought various power tools including a radial arm saw, a miracle machine that could do precise, clean cuts and had attachments for routing and dado cuts. He was very happy with his new toys and spent hours making picture frames and shelving.

Upon our return to Medellín, he bought us an old country house about three miles from the edge of the city, and remodeled it completely. Several of the old adobe walls were replaced with brick; my brother and I wheeled dozens of wheelbarrow loads of dirt and rubble out to the yard, leaving it considerably more level than when we started. A mason built a rock retaining wall at the bottom, and I helped Dad pour a concrete top to the wall so it wouldn’t come apart. (My initials are still there.)

Dad used the radial arm saw to build cabinets and shelving. He loved to create diamond-point drawer fronts and doors. This cabinet Dad built in the 1970s is still in use. (The house is now an old folks’ home run by a charity.)

He also built these shelves. As you can see, he liked scalloped edges.

I spent many weekend hours helping him push plywood through the saw, and sanding and staining the wood after it was cut. I hated sanding, but discovered its importance when I forgot to sand my parents’ closet doors. They were made of finish plywood, and the stain highlighted a multitude of tiny scratches and scars that didn’t get sanded out. Every time I saw them, I would squirm with guilt.

Over the years, I helped Dad replace a master brake cylinder and make other repairs to the truck, maintain the pump he installed to supply potable water to the house (the water plant was across the street, so there was no pressure at our house), replace large concrete drain tiles to connect our house to the sewer, install electric lights, and build kitchen cabinets. When Amerian or Canadian volunteer craftsmen worked on the plumbing and wiring and fireplace, I followed them around and learned about PVC pipe and pulling wires through conduit and the difference between fire brick and ordinary brick.

Growing up with a dad who was used to fixing and building things himself and who loved carpentry left an imprint on me. Once you’ve learned to do a few things, you realize that you can do almost anything if you’re willing to try. I dabbled in electricity and electronics in junior high and high school, and in grad school spent a summer working construction. Later as a homeowner I remodeled one house completely and made changes to several others. After my divorce, I had a handyman business for ten years.

In the 2000s I took my kids yearly to visit my dad and his second wife, and he and I installed tile in their kitchen and built shelves for his shop and the garage. While we were building his shop shelves, he chuckled. “When you were a kid, I always had to tell you what to do when we were building something. Now it’s the other way around.”


27 thoughts on “My handyman mentors: 1) Dad

  1. You really have had a very talented Dad. In the sixties, having those scalloped edges on wall cupboards, and shelves was a thing. I remember my grandparents having the same scalloped wall shelves in their home. By you doing work along with your father, would have helped with the bonding.

    • I remember those afternoons in the shop very fondly. I think my brother missed out on a lot by preferring to run off to play with his friends instead of helping Dad. He ended up with a bigger father-void than he needed to.

  2. this is such a great post Tim. material like this really shines on WordPress. thank you for sharing this part of your life. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. you’ve got quite an awesome dad!

  3. This is a great post! I loved reading about your Dad! He did great work in many ways! 🙂 For example, You are one of his best creations!!! 🙂

    You were blessed to have him in your life! It’s so cool that his love of carpentry was passed on to you. I’m sure you are like him in other ways, too! 🙂 And your handymanness has come in handy to you and many other people! 🙂

    Your words remind me of my Dad…he wasn’t a carpenter by profession…but it was a hobby. He built most of the furniture in our house (when I was growing up) and I have one of his creations in my home now.

    HUGS!!! to you and to Alicia!!! 🙂

  4. Thank you for sharing your lovely memories. It’s wonderful what he gave you. I run across people all the time who don’t even know how their toilet works! I think that, the more you know about where things come from and how they are made, the more you will appreciate everything. And the more useful you will be!

    • It’s amazing how many people don’t seem to know anything about how anything works or how to fix it. I wish I had spent more time having my girls work with me, especially basic things like changing tires, doorknobs, toilet works, toilet seats. They all learned the basics of tiling, but I didn’t have them help me with much else.

  5. You learned so much from your father. He sounds like an awesome person. My grandfather taught me about building and repairing things. My dad was not much of a fixer/builder.

  6. Such great memories. Thanks for sharing them.

    I learned a lot from my father, too. How not to do things, mainly. He was too miserly to call in professionals and tackled everything himself, and being compelled to make his handiwork right left me with many proficiencies. It all worked out okay in the end. 🙂

    • I’m miserly myself, and can’t bear to hire someone for something I can do myself. But I’m a perfectionist so I usually do good work. Never had to clean up after my dad, although he might have corrected a mistake or two of mine when I was young.

  7. digitalgranny says:

    Your Dad did good work like you do. Like father like son-so wonderful that he passed his talent on to you, his son.

    • My son would have learned more from me if his mom and I hadn’t divorced when he was young. But he helped me with a lot of jobs anyway, and learned from both of us that he is capable of doing whatever he wants.

  8. Ha, if I don’t go back and click “Comments” there is *no* comment box at all. Some suburban programmer’s dad never showed his kid how to write a decent routine. In BASIC or Cobol. or whatever.
    As usual. we have only the best of things in common. Your zinger point was that once the conclusion that ‘I can do it myself, and hey look, it works!’ has been inte many others have said, you are arnalized, the kid (you or me) will forever not be fearful of anything.
    Oh, except for refrigeration maybe. My Dad always said that was the one thing he’d never even try to work on.
    Nearing 80, je finished his first airplane, took off, the fuel line clogged and he crashed, bruised but still full of the Wright stuff. He re-built the whole dumb thing and took it for one spin. just to prove ‘Who’s the Boss.
    As many others have said, you are a lucky boy, although some fraction of the advantage was a product of growing up in the Third World.

    • He built a plane? From a kit or what? That’s amazing! When i was a kid we used to devour Popular Mechanics and Mechanics illustrated to learn about technology of the future and how to build cool things. The ads in the back for the Hovercraft kits and so on were just as fun as the articles. Now PM is basically a product review catalog.

      I don’t understand refrigeration. It would be worth my time to learn to charge up my car’s a/c, and I’ve seen it done, but haven’t tried it. I do my own brakes and belts, but that’s about it for cars. I don’t enjoy working on engines much.

      I would probably have learned a lot even if I’d been raised in the US. My dad built the California room onto the back of my grandparents’ house back in the 1950s, and he and a professional carpenter built the family house from a kit in the same period. He loved carpentry, having learned it from an uncle with whom he spent summers in high school.

      • The plane he built was from a note-book of drawings and specs he purchased. All the parts, frame, ribs, fabric, control lines, grommets and gussets were hand-cut and welded. The powerplant was a salvage stationary generator engine, about 90 hp. took him about 7 years, which is typical for entirely homebuilts. Mine took me a year, but I was banging meth at the time and barely slept for weeks. Plus, the powerplant was *my legs* running downhill until airbourne.
        Ok, one needs both a third-world address and a time-machine these days. You grew up when men were still men, to misuse a cliche. But yes, perhaps with your Dad, even in a modern blase setting, you would have turned out with prodigious skills.

  9. WP mangled my comment, and it has no Edit. You’ll just have to reconstruct it somehow from the pieces. ‘Internalized. for example.
    Wait, *you* are allowed to edit comments. Have fun/ JS

  10. Forgot to mention that my Dad’s plane was built for a 5′ 10″ man. I never took it up, after trying to fit six foot into the cramped cockpit once. I had a full-blown claustrophobia attack, unacceptable when you’re at altitude and have work to do.

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