I have very few full sensory memories. You know the kind: a memory so vivid, decades later you can still see, feel, smell, hear and taste everything about it.
Most of the ones I have are related to various traumas, things like fires and death and trucks hauling away possessions because of bankruptcy. There are happy ones, too – it doesn’t matter that we lost the videotapes of when the kids came off their respective planes from Korea…the memory is as fresh in my mind as the day it happened.
But one of my most vivid memories is of a winter Saturday many, many years ago. The situation was neither ecstatic or traumatic. In fact, it was kind of mundane. Yet, the memory has been popping into my head with regularity lately.
I was, I think, around 10. My dad had taken me with him to work. Many times, during the boom times, his work would carry over into the weekend. Looking back with the knowledge of a harried parent, I realize that my folks probably had a “childcare situation” that weekend.
Regardless, I was there at the small machine shop my dad had worked at his entire adult life (in the end, it was almost 40 years). There were a few other men there as well, but the place felt empty. It was, really, a big, open warehouse. It was cold – I remember the place had little heating or air conditioning, if it had anything at all.
I remember the sounds: WSM played in the background, and at the time my dad HATED country music. Mixed in were the loud sounds of lathes and grinders and machines being tested. Every now and then, a curse word would waft around the cavernous building when a machinist made a mistake.
I remember seeing huge stacks of metal beams against one wall. I remember trying to lift just one side of a single beam, and realizing where my dad’s muscles came from. There was the small office where the same secretary had worked as long as I could remember.
When the lathe was running, it was hard not to get a metallic taste in your mouth.
And I really remember a certain smell. It is fixed in my mind because I have not encountered it since. It was an odd combination of grease and welding smoke, and the particles that drift into the air when a piece of metal is on the lathe or the milling machine, and stale coffee and cigarettes.
It’s so weird. 35 years later, and I can still smell it like I was there.
I remember being fascinated by what my dad did, and how the other men looked to my father with professional respect, even though looking back, I realize he was not quite 30 yet. My dad was a very, very good machinist. Other good machinists could work to tiny tolerances. Dad could get you to somewhere about .10 mm.
But, his hands were callused and had been injured more times than any of us could count. There were many times my dad went to the emergency room because he had run a file or other object through his hand.
He loved it. He hated it.
And there I was, an impressionable young buck, just watching him work. The day passed quickly (I think it was a half day), then, we got some lunch (a treat in the days before drive-thrus) and went home.
I did not know at the time that his trade, machining by hand, was dying off. CNC was already taking over the industry. I don’t know how my dad’s employer hung on as long as they did (they finally folded in 2000). I know they had some good men working for them, though.
Memories of that day often come into my mind when I least expect it.
My own kids are junior high age, an age where things like class and station seem like life and death issues. They are going through many of the things I did at the time. Most of their peers are the children of professionals: doctors, lawyers, leaders of business, with a country star or two thrown in.
I know they look at me and the life I’ve given them, and find it lacking. It is a kind of cosmic justice, because I did the same at that age. I thought my dad was pretty smart for what he did, but real smart people, in my mind, were lawyers and politicians and the kind of people you saw on TV.
Certainly, they didn’t have working class southern accents or wear shirts with their first name stitched onto a badge.
So, I set out to become one of those people I thought were “smart”. I took Latin, and joined the debate team and purged my southern accent.
The latter is one of the few regrets I have in life.
It wasn’t until later, when struggling with a tricky trigonometry problem for well over an hour – my dad overheard my fretting, and immediately did the problem in his head. He had, and still has, genius in him, but I had so limited my definition of “smart”, I couldn’t see it.
It was later, upon reflection of all of this, that I decided that my one of my missions in life was to find the genius in every person I met. Let me tell you, if you get to know a person and cannot find their genius, you haven’t looked hard enough. I have found it in dishwashers and in prisoners. I’ve even found it in a couple of lawyers I know.
I am convinced that our society’s definition of “smart” is far too limited. I see it in snarky blog comments about misspelled protest signs, as if mastery of the English language is the only indicator of intelligence which allows the bearer to be worthy of having a say in the ordering of his own life. I see it in the devaluation of honest work; any job that requires less than a college degree is called a “sh*t job”, and those who work in “trades” or other non-professional jobs are considered victims or unworthy rednecks.
Every time some snotty blogger insults a working class person who dares to ask for a seat at the table and common respect on his own terms, I think of my father, and how my repudiation of him hurt him, and how sorry I am for that time in our relationship.
It’s weird how it all catches up with you, though. I didn’t become a lawyer, as I had planned. I ended up becoming a computer programmer, which is my own generation’s version of a skilled trade. Oftentimes, when complaining about software architects who have given me specifications that I instinctively know will not work, I catch myself saying some of the exact things my dad used to say about engineers.
There is a certain peace in that, knowing your place in the world, and how it fits with where you came from, and being proud of it.