A Self-Made Man

Happiest when he raced jalopies in downtown San Diego

There were six pairs of Sunday school shoes lined up on the kitchen floor every Saturday night, three little patent-leather pairs with rounded toes and a single strap across the top of the foot, and three variations of black-leather lace shoes for boys. By morning my father would have polished them all. I remember realizing my father was a handsome man when I first saw him as if a stranger, as an usher in a slate-blue suit and polished black shoes, passing me the collection basket in the Pilgrim Lutheran church. My father was a large, strong, competent man, who could fix anything. Still, out of strength not weakness, he acquiesced to my tiny mother in almost all things.

In this way I conceived my idea of what a man should be, a combination of strength, ability, and virility, coupled with a willingness to do any job. People often said about my father, “Melvin loves little babies,” which was a good thing since he and my mother had six of them. But it was never an issue requiring a feminist movement to get him to change diapers, wash dishes, or mend clothes. His big hands, which tore apart car engines or reconstructed airplane engines by day, by night tended the small bodies of his children with the gentleness of the best mother.

“What did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?” says the poet Robert Hayden about his own father, who rose each morning in the blue-black light to make the banked fire blaze. Perhaps it is the task of memory, and also writing, to reconstruct love. Perhaps our emotions are condemned to trail us like tails until we come to a sudden stop. My father worked hard all day at Rohr Aircraft, and for a number of years he returned to work again at night at a gas station in Bonita. When he came home exhausted and sat down at the kitchen table to his small squares of longhorn cheese and his bottle of beer, I never imagined his fatigue. I never thought of him as heroic, nor thanked him for the sacrifice of all his days. As a petulant teenager, I looked at my father and thought of all the ways I would change him if I could. I would have had him come from old money, speak more often and in more than one language. I would have had him play classical music on the stereo at night instead of one of the three records that the family came to own: Speeches by Robert Kennedy, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, and Porgy and Bess.

On the nights my father didn’t go to his second job, he worked in the family garage. I resented that. Once I asked him to teach me how to work on cars as he had taught my brother David. “Girls don’t work on cars,” he answered me, not out of unkindness but from within the blinders of an era. Truthfully, I wasn’t interested in how things worked; I did not inherit that useful gene from my father. It’s just that the scent of metal and oil and mechanic’s soap, and maybe a pheromone that only my father possessed, made me wish for a reason to linger in his domain. Out of that garage my father fashioned his love for his family into patio furniture and lattice work, into stilts, see-saws, playhouses, pigeon cages, and his piece de resistance — a giraffe slide. For years we children climbed the ladder of the tall, spotted back legs and slid down the hot silver neck, coming to rest in the grazing head of that giraffe.

About my father’s childhood I know very little. As children we visited his small hometown, Craig, Missouri, only once. It was so small you could circle it on foot in 15 minutes. The young people had to leave Craig to find work. Of my father’s time in that town I know only three things: that his own father used to be a janitor at the local school and that my father and his family would go there on Saturday nights to shower; that my father once won a corn-shucking contest for the state of Missouri; and that he used to lie in haystacks and whittle the images of the planes flying overhead: he had fallen in love with airplanes.

This, I think, is not how my father would like to be remembered. But these tiny vignettes reveal what a self-made man he was. The things that follow are what I think are true about my father’s past. He joined the Air Force because he so loved airplanes and wished to fly them. But he never could realize that dream because he was almost deaf in one ear. When he got out of the Air Force, he went to Wichita, Kansas, to an aircraft mechanic’s school. That’s where he met my mother. He left that school with a certificate and a bag of tools. He and my mother set out for California, where he worked first at Convair, then Rohr Aircraft. At Rohr Aircraft he worked in the mock-up department, worked his way up to supervisor, and after retiring was sought after as a consultant. This was the skeleton of his life, though it was always his family that was the flesh and blood.

Of the essential man, the one that was neither father nor worker, the first thing that comes to mind is his laugh. He was barrel-chested; it seems he had a chuckle that came up from the bottom of the barrel, a deep and pleasing chuckle, a beautiful smile. I think my father might have been happiest when he raced jalopies in downtown San Diego. The stadium where the races took place had circular stone benches rising higher and higher like a coliseum. He was the mechanic and partial-owner of a jalopy; he would have loved to drive as well, but it would have terrified my mother. There was the excitement of a bullfight on race nights. My father, costumed in white pants and a shirt that matched the driver’s and the car, would dance in the pit like a toreador waving checkered flags or a red mechanic’s rag. If my mother permitted, we children would sit on the bottom bench and feel the heat of the racing engines and the little flecks of dried mud fly up in our faces. Ultimately, this pastime boiled down to golden jalopy trophies in our tame, blue living room, but I believe my father was in his element on those nights.

He loved to travel, he loved a good vodka and orange juice, and he loved being alive. Though I had always hoped that one day I would have enough money to send my parents on a cruise or something grand, I never got that opportunity. But I count my blessings. One summer when my husband and children and I studied Spanish in Guadalajara, my parents and my mother-in-law joined us. At the end of our studies we traveled to Puerto Vallarta. I remember my father swimming underwater to get to the wet bar, then reclining in the sun. This happiness exists in time as well as memory and warms me even now.

I have written before in the Reader of my father’s tragic death. He and my mother were murdered 11 years ago. The way the author John Berger describes the people in his village is the way I would like to tally my father’s life. “They were waiting to be completed by the knowledge and actions of their descendants. And, at the same time, they were complete for they had completed themselves: they could do no more.” The autopsy revealed that my father received multiple stab wounds and slashes to his left arm, used that arm like a shield in order to do battle with the attacker. My father loved my mother, cared for my mother, humored my mother, defended my mother — first, last, and always. Though it is an ugly thing to include in this portrait, it is the exact heroic act of defending what he loved most that completes the man my father was. My father’s children go on completing him, each in their respective way. I never told my father that I thought he was handsome, or that I liked his laughter, or that I leaned on his strength as my mother did, but I’d like to think that I’m telling him now.

This article is part of the Father's Day issue. To read additional articles from this issue, click here.

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