by Curtis Clemens
My eyes found the old workbench, and as my fingers probed the rough surface, a nostalgic grin spread across my face, and I imagined the workbench in its proper place and time.
The day my family moved was a solemn one. Still shaken from the events of the past week, we determinedly proceeded with our plans to move. The Ides of March had been less than a week before, and, since then, everything had been surreal. As we burdened the moving truck with all our possessions, a complementary pile of trash grew upon the roadside. In its own way, it was sickening to see the last thirteen years of my life shoved unceremoniously into the back of that truck. I strode over to the trash heap to see what pieces of my life did not make the cut. My eyes found the old workbench, and as my fingers probed the rough surface, a nostalgic grin spread across my face, and I imagined the workbench in its proper place and time.
I found myself in the basement of the house, long before the move. The dusty cement floor was rough and cracked in places, with the gray remnants of some long-forgotten paint job. The far wall hosted the shelves of a pantry, where mom periodically would send me down for food. In the adjacent corner sat the washer and dryer: again, familiar and domestic. The rest of the basement was filled with curiosities for a young boy such as I was: the furnace in the center of the room; in the corner, a table filled with chemicals, salts, sands, and a few pieces of apparatus; and a plain, wooden workbench against the near wall, dimly illuminated by a small, clouded window above.
The workbench was overladen with what might appear to the casual observer as detritus: motley scattered tools, an old metal tackle box filled with comparably old electrical components, and always, a big mess of something in the center. Over the years, I found so many things on that table: circuit breakers; ceiling fans; computers; air conditioners; compressors; valves; solenoids; generators … strange and fantastic devices acting on principles as yet unknown to me. Thus, all the more insanely curious, would I stare over the shoulder of my dad as he dismantled, studied, and repaired them. In this fashion, I became a sort of apprentice to my father.
Quite clearly I remember dad's voice as he spoke to me during those times:“If you don't have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it again?”
Appointed to this position, I was never at a loss for something to watch or to do; my father's interests were many, and I had much to learn. It all began with observation. I would faithfully follow dad around whenever he was doing anything remotely interesting, ranging from cooking to construction and repair. Quite clearly I remember dad's voice as he spoke to me during those times: “If you don't have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it again?” “Measure twice, cut once.” Dad taught me a great deal more than industry, though. I learned to splice wires and clean corroded contacts, I learned to replace thermocouples in the furnace and to use and name all manner of tools, and I learned the value of intrepidly pulling apart my things when they ceased to function.
As an enterprising youth between the ages of eight and twelve, I slowly began doing more and watching less. When my dog chewed through the cords of my game console, I located the electrical tape instead of killing the dog. When my remote control car refused to charge, I found a bottle of lemon juice and swabbed and scraped the contacts of the battery instead of playing demolition derby with a sledgehammer. When the disk tray of my relatively new game console refused to open, I popped open the case and unjammed the mechanism instead of throwing a fit. I never replaced my toys; I just fixed them, and on occasions dad and I would build things, too.
I came to know much of my father's trade as well. Of course, I learned how to do oil changes and tire rotations, but from time to time, dad would bring me to his shop and show me a piece of an engine and its place among the other parts. I learned how carburetors use low pressure to vaporize gas, and how the magneto in the lawnmower fires its spark plug; how the alternator charges the car battery; how the radiator carries heat off; how the manifolds provide reactants and expel exhaust; how the muffler and catalytic converter treat the exhaust; how the crankshaft provides torque to the transmission, and eventually to the wheels; how the camshaft controls the valves throughout the cycles of intake, compression, power, exhaust … the list seemed endless.
One summer, dad decided to build a deck on the back of the house. Carefully following his instructions, I dug holes for the posts and mixed cement. I carried wood from the truck, cut it, and handed it off to my dad, who was busy anchoring the joists and screwing down the planks. Then I helped cut a hole into our house for the sliding glass door. After it was finished, my family and I spent the rest of the summer sitting out on the deck. It was great; we had barbecues, campfires, parties, and Fourth of July celebrations on the deck. The best part, though, was having built it ourselves. We were so proud of our work.
The resulting tank really felt like a little corner of the ocean, and staring at it long enough, one would always find something new in its dark corners:urchins, shrimp, coral polyps, and even some fish sprouted forth from the live rock.
Another summer, dad wanted to replace his fifty-gallon saltwater fish tank with a hundred-gallon coral reef. After doing some research, he began collecting the necessary parts in the basement. He ordered a custom acrylic tank and built the stand himself. To mom's dismay, we cut a hole in the family room floor and ran pipes into the basement. The one hundred gallons in our family room was only to be the smaller part of the full tank. In the basement we designed another large treatment tank to hold all of the peripherals necessary to support healthy corals: calcium and phosphate reactors, protein skimmers, sand-bed filters, and bacterial cultures. Unfortunately, the calcium-rich water produced particularly tough algae on all the surfaces, and the live rock produced an infestation of anemones. But after a few weeks of tweaking, the algae died off, and we poisoned the anenomes directly with a syringe. The resulting tank really felt like a little corner of the ocean, and staring at it long enough, one would always find something new in its dark corners: urchins, shrimp, coral polyps, and even some fish sprouted forth from the live rock.
In the following years, dad acquired chronic back pain, and after his mother died that March, he was never quite the same. He lost weight, became quite humorless, and concentrated on his business. We moved from our home of thirteen years to a larger house with fewer neighbors and more land. In the move, the workbench was thrown out. A new era of my life was beginning, and as exciting and exquisitely terrifying as the prospect of this new life was, I found myself clinging to the memory of the old, nostalgically recalling those times when I would stare over the shoulder of my father.