I grew up in a big house in a small town. A third of that house was basement, the Midwestern kind with a cellar door angled nearly flat to the ground. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, you bent down to open it, and yes, you usually had to kick it a time or two to break it loose of the dirt and spiderwebs sealing it shut.
It opened with a horror movie squeak to reveal dark cinderblock walls and a plank stairway. As a boy I was certain that somehow I would fall or be dragged by my skinny legs through the open spaces between every step. I often descended sitting down, sliding gingerly down each splintery plank to the underworld.
At the bottom was a strong wooden door with heavy beams. The dark, unfinished oak was rock hard, with a “None shall pass” feel, secured with a sliding bolt on the inside. We were warned from birth to keep it locked, lest someone – or something – get in.
One had to open that door with care, for on the reverse side hung a dartboard. The inside face of the door was pocked with a thousand dart scars, evidence that we were a family of lousy shots. Had we been been hunters, we would have starved.
A skeleton had been spray-painted in silver across the door, a murky memory of the single Halloween party we hosted. The unfinished basement, draped in cobwebs and dark beams, hardly needed decorating. Yet in rare abandon, my father sprayed graffiti ghouls across the west wall, across the cellar door, down the south wall. I was aghast. I was thrilled.
The door shut with a chunk. And there I was, in the silent unfinished basement. There were a few toys and games down there, the destructive kind like darts that weren’t allowed in the rest of the house. My Hot Wheels, which benefited from all that smooth concrete and unobstructed floor space. But usually I crept across the stairs to the Holiest of Holies: my father’s workshop.
I would walk reverently with my little Keds deck shoes, shy to disturb anything, as one tours a funeral home. The room always had a slight powdery sheen of wood dust, and the floor was a scrapbook of paint drips and varnish. My dad had been generous letting me watch him work, a single bead of sweat always hanging from the tip of his nose as he patiently explained how to use each tool. He warned me of the dangers of the ominous radial arm saw, relating stories of skilled craftsmen who were missing a finger or lost a whole hand in a single lapse of attention.
I took a wide arc around the Saw of Death to the Wall of Tools, each designed for a small, specific task. Dad bought tools he thought he might need, like the tiny mirror with a curved handle that let you see into awkward spaces to find the ring you dropped down the heating grate. Or the long spindly grabber with a syringe-type plunger on one end and a little claw on the other, to reach deep and retrieve that ring. Most of his tools were never called upon. Once you had a tool to retrieve a lost ring, you never dropped a ring. But hey, you never know.
The cardinal sin against my father was failure to return a tool to its rightful spot. He traced each tool’s shape with a marker on the pegboard wall. A missing tool stood out accusingly like a homicide outline on the sidewalk.
I would pass the double-wheel grinder, an irresistible tool perfect for sharping knives and darts. I also sharpened Matchbox cars and Barbie dolls. It spit radiant sparks with a screech I think of every time I’m in a subway. It’s the kind of tool that makes you look for things to sharpen.
At the end was the Wood Room, or the Shack of Dreams. Dad never threw away a scrap of wood larger than a quarter. He stacked everything neatly: small slivers here, large planks there, old window frames and boxes in neat files that made sense only to him. I would stand in the middle of it all, as if I could summon the pieces to swirl up into a living whole. I was certain that with the right wood and the right tools I could build myself a bicycle. I would select a single dusty plank, pick out a screw from Dad’s library of spare hardware, and twist it into the wood. Then I’d back out the screw and put it away again.
After my dad died, my older brother who lived nearby appropriated most of Dad’s tools, but I got some of the leftovers for my own tool room: a few C-clamps, a set of tiny craft screwdrivers, an old Dremel tool. I discovered Dad’s original plans for building a scow sailboat, which he had torn out of a Popular Mechanics magazine. In the corner was a photo of how the boat would look finished, skippered by a proud sailor with a pipe. In my scrapbook I have an identical photo of my own dad with his own pipe on his own sailboat built in his own basement.
I never built my bicycle.
Yesterday I went to the hardware store to get a new lawn sprinkler. Like Dad, I detoured through the tool isle. In the middle of all the screwdrivers and saw blades and drill bits, I spied a shiny Combination Depth Gauge with Inside / Outside Calipers. (That’s it in the picture.) With this caliper one can measure (to a millimeter, thanks to its clever Vernier gauge) the width of a shaft, or the hole it hopes to go into. In my thirty years as a handy adult I’ve never used such a caliper. Never needed one.
I bought it anyway. You never know.