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.”