My Dad was always searching for the next big thing to occupy his spare time. You have to admire a guy who didn’t let eight kids get in the way of having fun or fulfilling life dreams. When a new motorcycle would show up in the garage right after he sold the old one, or when he finally bought an airplane with a partner, my mother would sigh and say “Your father needs toys.” I would nod and think, “Who doesn’t like toys?”
I conjure Dad in my mind: tall, blond, with hands jammed down in pockets and weight slung to one hip. His voice was a tad on the soft side, ears a bit on the long. He had a quick temper that would scare the hell out of anyone, but the guy could not hold a grudge for long, for which I was grateful when in highschool I drove our Plymouth station wagon over a guard rail at the liquor store and bent the exhaust pipe 180 degrees back into the car. I was afraid to drive home. Not only did I think the car would self-combust with a tail pipe jammed into the exhaust system, but I was afraid of Dad.
Timing bad news becomes an art for kids with strict parents, and I waited to tell him until right after lunch, when his stomach was full and there were plenty of witnesses. He checked the car and was laughing within minutes, bending the rusted pipe back with his hands. He never even asked what I was doing at the liquor store. At that moment I had a new respect for the guy. I felt a soul kinship that went beyond father-daughter friendship and I felt that way until he died.
The way I see him, Dad was a curious, impetuous child at heart. He would try things for a few days, and if his first experience was not a good one, he would throw the whole mess into the garbage and be done with it. He didn’t waste his time.
Tennis, for instance, was tried a few times (resulting in some injury) and then the racquet thrown to some dark corner of the garage (“Goddamn dangerous sport!”). Specialized tools bought on an energized Saturday morning, sat unused on the workbench by Sunday night (“What SOB designed this piece of shit?”). Exercise weights and straps meant to trim pounds gained after quitting his four-pack-a-day cigarette habit were relegated to the top shelf of his bedroom (“I haven’t lost one goddamn pound and my back still hurts like a son-of-a-bitch!”).
There were golf clubs, cross-country skis and his mail-order business debris, darkroom enlargers, intricate ham radios and unidentifiable electronics with meters and switches. Then there was the stained glass period. When Dad got older he got artsy and worked with stained glass, cutting and piecing together delicate slices of color despite his unsteady hands. He saw beauty in each swirl of glass and created window designs reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright for each one of us. All his cutting tools are in a box on an old picnic table, next to a stack of flying books.
Over the years there were also Dad’s “special” projects, reserved for long winter nights and snowy weekends. Don’t get the idea that these projects were his favorite thing to do. These projects were an electronic albatross that produced incredible combinations of swear words. These projects were Heathkits.
Being an old radio engineer, Dad had a natural ability for wiry gadgets. Back in the ‘40s he kept radio stations across Wisconsin tuned to their frequencies. So when he was married, Heath hired him to help in the advertising department and he worked there for many years. He was the embodiment of Heath’s primary target market: male, with a dangerous amount of electronic knowledge and enough ego to convince himself that making his own TV set was a good idea.
Most families, when they wanted a new radio or TV, would go out and buy one, but not us. We had to wait months for the final product to come out of production from the basement.
Many a wintery night when I descended downstairs to practice the piano, there was Dad, hunched under a light at the ping-pong table, scouring for a particular miniscule part. Scattered piles of color-coded transistors, resisters, circuit boards and wires accompanied a two-inch-thick manual of electronic hieroglyphics. Peering through his bifocals at a transistor the size of a fingernail, he would solder it down with a deft smoky glob and systematically cross it off the manual with a scratch of a pen.
By March Dad would emerge from the basement on a Saturday afternoon and present us with clock radios that matched our bedrooms, an intercom system that connected the kitchen to the laundry room, or even better–an integrated stereo/TV system that spanned 10 feet of the rec room, probably the first surround-sound-like system of the early ‘70s. Everything he made always worked. For years.
At one point, everything electric in the house was a Heathkit made by Dad, including an early microwave oven, a Thomas organ befitting a church balcony and the front doorbell. Visitors with keen eyes would remark suspiciously on the Heath brand name once they realized it was everywhere in the house, as if we were part of some weird electronic cult.
Not long ago I found an orange AM clock radio in the garage at my mom’s house. It was the radio from the laundry room where I spent hours as a child, either ironing or sewing clothes, before I discovered boys and learned how to drive. Thrilled to find something made by Dad, I plugged it in and turned the dial. It still worked.
For years after Dad died there was something intriguing and reassuring about opening a closet or garage in the old house and seeing the remnants of his life still there. It was as if he was just down the hall, or reading in his chair in the other room. But then my mom started cleaning everything out and piled it all in the garage. The final resting place for cast-off stories of a life fully lived.
Whoever comes across that garage sale could really find something.