Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Smell of Sawdust -- My Father's 100th Birthday

When I was a kid in Ohio, we lived just a few miles from the runway of the Canton-Akron airport. We used to make fun of our father, who’d stop whatever he was doing every time a plane went over. He’d look up and invariably utter, “Isn’t that amazing?” We thought his unsophisticated awe was embarrassing. We, after all, were kids of the Sputnik age.

Our father never quite got comfortable with a telephone, either. He’d jump whenever it rang and hesitate before picking it up as if it were a poisonous snake. While he died before the era of a PC on every desk, computers likely would have flummoxed him.

But lately I’ve been missing the stubborn old coot. He would have turned 100 today, and even though he and I tangled endlessly through the years over everything from dancing to the GOP, I’ve begun to think that the world is deeply poorer without men like him. I wish he were back, with his contrarian self-sufficiency and plethora of skills.

My father was born on a farm in Central Indiana. In 1907 they had no cars, no electricity, and no indoor plumbing. The first house he remembered burned to the ground. He grew up in a punishing seasonal cycle of efforts to keep the farm afloat: a few cattle, horses, chickens and hogs, about 80 acres of corn and alfalfa. Once he was bitten by a rabid mutt and had to take the train to Indianapolis a dozen times for painful shots in the stomach – a terror that filled his adult nightmares and fueled a lifelong fear of dogs. There was not much fun. It was a crushingly difficult life and he craved adventure and aimed to escape. At 18 he rode the rails to North Dakota to work another harvest for a German farmer – a journey that morphed into an epic family myth. But he came home after just one season to his own extended family. A mix of Quakers and Nazarenes, they were opinionated and devout, and they encouraged him when he received the call to the ministry. Halfway through divinity school in the depths of the Depression, he had to drop out when his father was hit and killed by a car in front of their farm on Route 40. The family struggled to survive but lost their land, a crisis that plagued my father with grief and guilt for the rest of his life.

Eventually, though, he did become a minister in a succession of parishes in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. In one of his assignments, he was a “circuit rider” among four small churches in the Coshocton County, Ohio villages of Nellie, Blissfield, Layland and Shepler. He bought a motor scooter to travel between them, not always avoiding ice, floods on Killbuck Creek, turkey vultures on road kill and slow-moving tractors.

I’ve often called him “fundamentalist” for want of a better word, but he was also an intellectual, poring over original Greek and Hebrew texts for his sermons and even reading Saul Bellow and John Updike to try to understand the secular world. He studied the theologians Reinhold Neibuhr and Martin Buber. One of his favorite writers was the Quaker Elton Trueblood.

In 1950, concerned about not owning any land as they moved from church to church, my dad and mom scraped together a few hundred dollars for a single acre of Ohio land. It had problem drainage so my father brought in topsoil and designed and installed an elaborate system of drainage pipes. He drew up plans for a small house and built it from the foundation up, doing the masonry for a stone fireplace. He planted a modest orchard of pear, plum and apple trees. And then there was the garden – a quarter acre of potatoes, melons, tomatoes, strawberries, corn and beans that kept our family healthily fed for years. He was self-sufficient and shrewd.

For fun, he started designing wall “sconces” to hold candles and antique oil lamps. His favorite woods were cherry, knotty pine, wormy chestnut and walnut, and there was nothing that roused his passions more than a pile of seasoned lumber. Forever scarred by the Depression, he paid cash for everything, and it turned out that his sconces were also puzzle boxes, with secret compartments where we eventually found astonishing rolls of greenbacks he’d squirreled away. While he was suspicious of “art,” he created it, including a screen carved with grape leaves, the symbol of plenty, for one of his churches. The trustees, scandalized by such idolatry, made him take it out: he and my mother used it as a headboard for years. (I wrote about that notorious "raredos" here months ago. )

The other day I tried to tell my students that writing was like building a house. But before I’d gotten very far, I realized they weren’t getting my point.

On a hunch, I asked, “How many of you have ever built anything?’ Only one lone hand went up.

It hit me hard that they haven’t grown up like I did – with the smell of sawdust never far off, the apple trees tended with care, and boxes and jars of fresh beans and corn frozen and canned for the winter. My father left me with many gifts, but today it also feels like something rare and irreplaceable is gone.

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