The Saws of My Father

sawsI have three crosscut saws I never use. One I bought myself soon after I got married because I needed to cut something, and it seemed like a basic tool that I needed to have. The other two came from my father.

He always had a crosscut saw hanging from a peg over his work bench, just as I do now. In fact, my work bench is an imitation of his, right down to the 4x4s I use for the legs and the 2x6s for the top. It’s a design my dad developed over the years, and when we moved, one of the first things he did was build a new one.

My father died eight years ago this week. After I cleaned out his house, I collected all his tools and moved them into my garage. Many had rusted or deteriorated, left unused for too long in the Central Texas humidity during final years of his life. I was saddened by the state of their neglect, but I couldn’t bring myself to throw them away.

Now, my wife and I are “downsizing,” embracing the latest financial fad of middle-aged empty nesters, and one of my tasks is cleaning out the garage. Tool redundancy would be a logical place to start, yet after several months, it remains an uncompleted chore.

I open a drawer and see my father’s saws. I open another one and see his stainless-steel Black & Decker electric drill, a relic from Eisenhower’s America that probably is worth more as an antique than a tool. But it still works and its housing shines with the memories of all the holes my father and I drilled with it. There’s a soldering gun that hasn’t been used since my dad and I wired my model railroad when I was 11. There are hammers, wrenches, screwdrivers, hacksaws, backsaws and coping saws – a montage of mid-Twentieth century manual labor.

They are more than the touchstone of childhood memories. Tools were a part of who my father was, even after he shed his blue-collar career to become an academic. If he were to walk into my garage today, he would look at these unused, rusted remembrances and ask why I’ve kept them. He had a word for such sentimental retention – “junk.” (Decades ago, my mother boxed up family memorabilia, and my father labeled it “four generations of stuff – some junk.”)

I sort through the tools, moving them in the drawers but not actually moving them closer to the door. More than any of my father’s possessions that I still have, the tools feel as if they harbor his soul. I feel his presence most strongly when I pick up his favorite hammer or pull out the screwdriver that still bears the name of the family electrical business, M.G. Steffy & Sons, which dissolved in 1972.

The tools reflect a lifetime spent working with this hands, whether it was fixing a balky light switch in our home or rebuilding a 2,300-year-old Greek merchant ship half a world away.

To me, they also serve as a reminder of his overwhelming patience. My father never got visibly angry or frustrated. His tools were never thrown in frustration, and he never broke something he was working on because it wasn’t cooperating. If things weren’t going well, he would pour another cup of coffee or light a cigarette and think it through. I search for that patience within myself daily, yet it eludes me.

I spent countless hours watching him work with those tools, then helping him, and then having him watch me. But a generational chain was broken. My ancestors progressed from farmer to stonemason to electrician. They used tools to make a living. I work with my hands as a hobby, a diversion from the never-finished job of tapping out thoughts on a computer keyboard. My own children, exposed only to the occasional birdhouse-building scout project or the mandatory instruction of my “car camp,” have little interest in the excess tools in my garage.

Do I need three crosscut saws? Two hacksaws? Four hammers (three claw, one ball peen)? Three wooden mallets? A wood plane? Monkey wrenches that haven’t turned a pipe fitting in 50 years?

I do. Not in a practical sense, of course, but those old tools remind me of a willingness to take on every project, of a patience to do it well, and of the quiet satisfaction that comes with a board well cut or a screw well turned.

I close the drawers again and move on to the nearby shelf. Old door knobs and radiator hoses from a Honda Pilot? Those can go.

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About lorensteffy

Loren Steffy is a writer, speaker and consultant. He is the author of Drowning in Oil: BP and the Reckless Pursuit of Profit published by McGraw-Hill in 2010 and The Man Who Thought Like a Ship, published by Texas A&M University Press in April 2012. A journalist for more than 25 years, he was most recently the business columnist for the Houston Chronicle.
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