When I was a little boy growing up in East L.A., my father kept a toolbox. It was at the very back of the garage, covered by a blanket, piece of cardboard, or shop towel at the end of each day to hide it from any would-be-burglars. That was my job, to cover it.
I thought about it while we sat in the waiting room of the specialist doctor my father had been referred to. This was the follow up visit to a series of visits after he had started slowing down a lot, very unusual for him. We were both anxious. His left hand trembled a bit, so I asked if he was cold. He said, no.
He then asked me what I’d do with his toolbox if things went bad. Was it really coming to that? I didn’t want to answer that question.
All my life, he would get up early in the morning and go to bed long after I did. Even on weekends, he worked. My childhood memories mostly are of him in his work clothes, dirty and smelling of sweat, gasoline, and oil. Sometimes, though, he’d stop and play with me for a moment, to lift me up with his arms, or swing me around like I was on a Merry-Go-Round. His arms were like steel rails to me as he spun me around, secure in his strong grip.
People were always stopping by, wanting him to work on their cars, a master mechanic, called “Maestro” by all who came to get their cars fixed. I would watch him for hours pulling out entire engines; tearing apart brake and transmission assemblies with so many pieces; and looking through thick books full of car part listings, schematics, and numbers. He’d tell me that it was important to place every component right or the whole thing could fail.
Like a magician he laid out the tools, supplies, and parts he needed for his regular performance. I didn’t like to disturb his show but I would inevitably roam over to him and sit, fascinated by his power to make cars run right. He began to show me how to do simpler tasks for him: to hold a flashlight firmly and aim just right so he could see what he worked on, to scrape off an old head gasket, or to check the electrodes with a spark plug gapping tool. Every now and then he’d say just enough to point out something interesting to me, like the spot where compression gasses had leaked between cylinders from a damaged gasket.
It became a game for me each time he sent me back to his toolbox in the garage. Although I’d climb atop the garage often to play, I didn’t go inside much. That was his place. The inside of it was full of gadgets, parts, and other car entrails. So he called out a tool and I ran in hoping to grab the right one from la caja and emerge victorious. I especially liked retrieving from the toolbox his shiny torque wrench, along with the right socket size. Was that 3/8” or 1/2”? 10-mm or 13-mm? Then I attached the socket, dialed in the torque, and placed my little hands along side his as we tightened a bolt or a nut, listening for the telltale click.
I learned not only about those tools but also about numbers, machines, heat transfer, chemicals, and how systems worked. His strong arms and hands, always dirty, scratched, nicked, and bruised, taught me too that often it was just plain hard work well into the night that got the job finished.
He wasn’t much of a talker. But his tools were. Luckily, I was a good listener. Sometimes, it was the piercing ping-ping of his ball-peen hammer squarely hitting a brake drum that spoke. Sometimes it was the calming whirr of an engine cylinder bore being honed that put me to sleep, as I lay in my bed while my father worked into the night. Sometimes it was the loud, rapid popping of a backfiring engine that woke me in the morning, as my father tweaked the carburetor. Each sound became a cascade of words to me, mechanical memories of my father’s ways and times.
I remember that when he came in the house and it wasn’t dark outside yet, I’d run to him, grab his hand, and smell it. If I caught that lovely odor of industrial hand cleaner, of orange oil, lanolin and pumice, it told me he was done for the day and he was ours. It remains today, one of my favorite odors.
On Sundays, he took the family out to the park, the beach, or the museums. Once in a while he’d have enough money to take us to a place like Disneyland, but looking back, it was the simplest of outings that forged my most enduring fond memories of us together.
One Sunday, we were bored and wanted to go out, but my father had no extra money to spend. Still, he put us in the car and took us to the airport, parked on a side street adjacent to the runway, and we watched the planes take off and land. I worried that we’d get in trouble for being there, but my father reassured me and I relaxed. As I watched the planes approach in a pattern, I took out a little book that showed the silhouettes of different passenger planes and tried to match the pictures to what I saw in the skies. Feasting on plain mayo sandwiches atop the trunk of the car, I savored each bite-sized minute to the very end.
My father liked to watch airplanes just like I did. That became even clearer to me when my father took us to see the war birds at the Chino air museum. I had read all about those old propeller combat planes and couldn’t believe we were actually headed there. The drive from East L.A. to Chino seemed unending then. Chino was a whole different, faraway world. I knew we were getting close when the smell of cow manure rushed into the car, my window open as I held out my hand into the wind like an airfoil.
Once at the museum, I immediately began to identify planes I had only read about or dreamed about: a silver P-51D Mustang fighter with a bubble canopy; an F4U Corsair naval fighter with its upturned gull-like wings; and a big C-47 military transport, a plane produced at the same Long Beach plant where I would one day work myself. I walked around each plane noticing its details, the rivets, oil streaks, and warning labels. At the engines, I read about its specifications and told my father…V-12 liquid-cooled, R-18 air-cooled…Together we marveled in the numbers and compared them to car specifications.
I often asked questions about the new things I’d see on our outings and my father would give me an answer. One day, I asked him what this strange looking array of antennae was for atop a high-rise building. I was shocked to hear him respond that he didn’t know. Still today, I recall that moment.
Now, I realize that he did have an answer for me. It was just that his answer was couched to me in a different, deeper, and more lasting way. I suppose he figured out that I wasn’t going to stop questioning. So he showed me a set of Encyclopædia Britannica he’d bought years before. It was in Spanish. I opened each volume and delved in, lost in the wonders discovered alphabetically.
My father’s name is “Jose” like so many others in East L.A. Father’s Day was not invented, as I had believed, just for him. And his body was not forever strong. He is now a frail old man, though with a mind stubbornly sharp.
I went on to learn to read, write, and speak English, despite starting my school years as a “non-English speaking student.”
I joined the Air Force, too, and served as an aircraft mechanic. Interestingly, much later, I learned that back in his home country of Nicaragua, while a mechanic in the public works department garage, my father came to know a lieutenant in the Nicaraguan air force who’d bring in his vehicle to my father for repair. He invited my father to work for him to learn to fix planes at the air base outside of Managua. He almost accepted because he liked airplanes, he tells me now, but instead he decided to come to America.
Then I studied in college, realizing my arms would never be as strong as my fathers, and made a career of physics. Though my work tools are now mental, I never forgot that toolbox.
In his later years, when my father no longer had the strength to work his craft, he surprised me one day telling me his toolbox was to be mine and that I could sell it if I wished. I didn’t want to think about that.
Now, at the doctor’s office, it was coming to that.
“Jose!” The nurse called my father, startling me back to the present like the crisp click of the torque wrench. I handed him his walking cane and helped him to the exam room.
In the gown, my father got cold waiting in exam room. Finally, the doctor rushed in, apologized for the wait, and quickly told us the diagnoses.
“It’s P.D.,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
My father’s old toolbox now sits in my new garage and when I open it, the cold, worn metal sends me back. My sense of hearing intensifies. My fingers travel the well-worn edges of each tool. I’m there again, waiting for them to speak to me.