The centerpiece of my father’s garage was his huge, red Snap-On tool chest. Nothing could match the excitement of helping my dad as he used those tools.
Since I was old enough to carry them, I was the gopher for everything in his tool box.
Dad dropped out of high school in 10th grade and spent his life working on cars and school buses. That meant he repaired his own cars, too, and never understood why anyone would pay to get their oil changed.
This was an era when a new set of spark plugs, fuel filter and properly set points could go a long way toward making a car run right. The days of hooking an engine up to a computer were still decades away.
As a kid I would stand in the garage for hours staring at my dad’s legs as he would yell for tools from under the car.
By the time I was 7 I knew the specific contents of each Snap-On drawer. It consisted of two parts, a lower box with deep drawers for big hammers and other large tools. The upper box had smaller drawers filled with open-end and box wrenches, screwdrivers, socket sets and more.
I was fascinated with the miscellaneous drawer. It probably weighed 100 pounds on its own and took two hands for a little boy to open. The drawer was filled with strange leftover parts, small tools, springs, screws, bolts and other cool things I would dig through to find just what my dad needed.
I could barely reach to the top and sometimes used a little wooden step stool to get up there.
The bigger drawers had a unique aroma; it was a combination of grease, oil and grime — just what a garage should smell like.
Sometimes things inside would draw my attention and when Dad emerged from under the car, he’d explain what the tool or part was for. When he went back under, tool orders were barked out again. “Get me a 9/16th open end, or the long Phillips-head screwdriver,” he would yell.
I would beam when I found the right thing and cringe when it was wrong. Young sons live to please daddy. “I said Phillips-head,” he would bellow, as I quickly found the right screwdriver.
Nothing was worse than being unable to find the right tool even after he told me exactly where it was. Eventually, overcome with frustration, he was forced to roll the creeper out from under the car. After securing the tool, he would often say, “It was right here,” shake his head and go back to work.
It didn’t take long until I knew what everything did and, more importantly, where everything was kept.
Dad’s tools linked us together as I learned the ins and outs of working on cars. I’ll never forget the first time I changed the oil in our 1972 Ford LTD station wagon under my dad’s supervision. He looked so proud when I started the engine and oil didn’t cover the garage floor.
As I got older, I started fixing my own cars and friends’ cars. I begged Dad to walk me through the various jobs for the family vehicles, too.
My father had strict rules about those tools when I started using them. Not only did they need to be put away in the right spot at the end of the day, each one needed to be wiped down. There was hell to pay if he picked up a dirty wrench during a job.
When I announced I was going to leave my normal high school studies to pursue a career in auto mechanics, he was furious and put his foot down. “You can learn to be a mechanic anytime,” he said. “You’re finishing high school and going to college … period. If you want to be a mechanic then, it’s OK by me.”
At the time I was beyond upset as I thought I had found my calling and wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps. But he was right, as usual; I’m much happier typing on a computer than I would have been looking up at an oil pan.
My “Cat’s in the Cradle” moment came the day Dad died in his sleep. I drove right to the house, Dad still lying there in the bedroom. A week earlier the family had gotten together, but work was crazy and I decided not to go. As I sat there with my brothers waiting for the ambulance, my mom blurted out, “At least we were all together one more time before he passed away.”
She didn’t mean anything by it, but the comment hit me hard.
Months later it took three people to lift those tools into my truck. As I drove home with them in the back, I felt my dad was with me. They were the only thing I ever wanted to inherit. For some reason, owning them lessened the sting of not being there before he passed — as if they were helping to fix me, too.
I still follow the rules my dad set up for his tools and think about him every time I reach for one. Unlike all the other tools I own, these are always put away, and put away clean.
When I open one of those big drawers filled with the smell of a 1960s garage, I think of those days when I stood waiting patiently for my orders at Dad’s feet.
The rich personal history that resides in these tools makes me smile sometimes. Who could have known they would bridge a generation, connecting a father and son for a lifetime and beyond.
Doug Oster is a staff writer and garden columnist for the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-779-5861). Visit his blog at www.post-gazette.com/gardeningwithdoug.