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Friday, November 29, 2013

Dad's Hammer

The other day, I undertook a small project. More like a minor task than a project.
The circumstances are detailed in the column entitled “The Picture”.
While perusing my woefully inadequate peg board of hand tools, I had a choice. I could use the newer, vibration absorbing, comfort handle hammer, or I could use the early 20th Century, vibration enhancing, we-don’tneed-no-comfort handle hammer that had been my Dad’s.
While reaching for the new tool, I thought; “Oh just use the old man’s hammer.”  As my fingers closed about the work worn, leather wrapped handle, I felt an immediate connectedness to my Father.
The mists of Time parted, and I saw him… saw us… working on our home in Mayfield Village.  Our parents purchased a handy-man house upon four acres of property shortly after I was born. The arrival of a third child rendered the post-War bungalow in a nearby town too small. 
And… following an American tradition…Dad wanted some land. He didn’t want to be crowded into a small suburban lot; he wanted room for his children to run free. Children running free was not only accepted, but was the norm in the middle of the last century.
The house needed some improvements, and remodeling. Dad was more than equal to the task. He added a spacious sunken family room behind the kitchen. He built a large stone fireplace from material gathered on our land. He added a full upper level to the former Cape Cod home. This yielded a large room I shared with my brother, Robert, and my sister Elaine had a room to herself. In between was a hallway large enough to hold dances or wedding receptions. It was a great play room, away from the main living area (clutter upstairs, thank you), and provided many happy rainy day hours of play.
To me, it seemed as if Dad was continually working on the house. Adding this, doing that, fixing the other thing; it was truly a labor of love for him.  I have vivid memories of Dad cutting lumber with his hand saw, the wood supported by a pair of old, paint-spattered, nicked wooden saw-horses.  The saw resides in a spot of honor on my tool board.
Next to him sawing, I see him hammering. Driving nails with 2 or 3 blows, never bending any, and whistling while he worked. Again and again, I would watch as the hammer rose and fell. The sound of the impact caused me to involuntarily blink. I was fascinated with the hammer, and what it was capable of doing.
For example, did you know hammers could fly?
Dad was a first generation Irish-American. My Grandfather emigrated from County Mayo, Ireland late in the 19th Century. As such, the bonds to the old country were strong in my Dad and his siblings. One of the stronger ties was a good old Irish temper.
When Dad would be working on a project and things didn’t go quite as he would have liked, one of the initial things to occur was the hammer would take a trip. With a burst of language I did not understand, yet would repeat, the tool sailed off into the yard, the field, the garden,  and one time through a window.
Dad’s hammer probably had as much flight time as an intercontinental airline pilot. 
As I became somewhat older, it became a self-appointed duty to retrieve the hammer. My mother encouraged this as well, since it provided Dad a chance to cool off out of the presence of little ears.
I was a precocious child (a fact my sister may dispute; but what does she know. She wasn’t the one walking around in my skin), and taught myself how to read prior to entering Kindergarten. There were no pre-schools in those days. Pre-school was staying home with Mom, and playing with your buddies.
I always loved books, loved words, and their usage. It was a short leap from having a story read to me, to being able to read it myself. Naturally, my parents were proud of their child, and would brag to family and friends about my ability to read.
However, one time this skill provided my Mother no end of merriment and my Dad no end of chagrin.
After one particularly hefty toss from the roof of the house, I set off to locate the errant tool. I finally located it under a blackberry bush, the metal shaft glinting in the sunlight. I picked it up, and started my return. I turned the hammer in my hand; and there it was. Something I thought was so apt, so prophetic; I could not wait to share it with Mom and Dad. There… engraved in the metal shaft of the hammer were two words. Two words which summarized the atmosphere surrounding one of Dad’s projects:          TRUE TEMPER.
Well… this must be a message from on high, just short of angelic beings filling the sky. I ran back to my parents, face aglow with this new revelation.  I shouted, as I handed him the tool. “Dad! Look! This hammer was made just for you!”
Puzzled, he examined the familiar item. My Mother peered over his shoulder. I kept saying “See it? See it?”  until finally, they admitted their eyes were blinded to this earth shaking news. I proudly pointed to the words, proclaiming “See??? The hammer has a true temper, too! Just like you!”
My Mother did not even try to conceal her amusement at this. She laughed, and laughed. She finally had to sit down on the back step, as she could barely stand, tears streaming down her face.
Dad, on the other hand, didn’t see the humor in this. In fact, I don’t recall him even so much as smiling. He did harrumph once or twice, and went back to his project, muttering something about kids shouldn’t be reading so young.
I also learned the hammer had several names.
One was “Ding-dang hammer”. Another was “blanketey-blank hammer”. Yet another was “ding-danging, blanketey-blanking hammer.” I did observe a correlation between the intensity of my father’s anger and the length of the hammer’s name.
And… perhaps one of the most memorable events with the hammer was turning the piano into kindling wood.
We had an old upright piano. Were it came from I have no idea. All I do know is my sister was to take lessons, and become a musical prodigy. The piano was painted an off-white color, with pastel pink trim on the legs, etc. In retrospect, it looked as if it may have formerly resided in a honky-tonk.  Our parents had a man come and tune the thing, and once a week, Elaine would go off for her piano lesson.
For some reason, they didn’t consult with Elaine about becoming the youngest pianist for the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra by age 16. While she went (somewhat unwillingly) to the lessons, she would not practice much during the week.
Elaine preferred to be outdoors riding her pony, exploring the woods, hanging with her girl friends; just about anything but practice the piano.
Oh, once in a while, she would sit down and coax some semi-musical sounds to emanate from the mysterious innards of the thing. These sessions had usually been precipitated by an argument which shook the very frame of the house.  The progress she was making was far below what our parent’s had determined to be reasonable. Personally, I thought she had a very good grasp of “Chopsticks”, and the
Ed Sullivan show was just around the corner.
Well…. After one particularly difficult week trying to get Elaine to practice the piano, our Dad had reached his boiling point. I recall him stating, to the effect: “By Jove, if you don’t desire to play the piano, they we will just have to get rid of it.” Or something like that, just add a few ding-dangs, blanketey-blanks and so on.
This was proclaimed immediately prior to Dad’s shoving the piano through (literally) the storm door leading to the flagstone patio he had carefully built. The instrument landed on the stones with a loud wooden bang, accompanied by an Eminor7th chord. Dad then headed toward the garage, to retrieve a sledgehammer, a saw, and the hammer.
With each epithet, a hammer would fall, or a saw blade would rasp. The sound of breaking piano wires could be heard pinging and popping deep within the box. Our Mother was saying “Bud! Bud! Stop it! You are making a scene!” to no avail.
Finally, when the final hammer blow sounded, the piano was no more. Just a jumbled up pile of garishly painted wood, and odds and ends of piano parts stood on the patio where the instrument had landed.
I remember that piano burned pretty good. The wood was dry and made excellent kindling. The larger pieces would hold a flame for some time. Elaine, Robert and I would be mesmerized as we watched the honky-tonk paint darken, form a huge bubble, and then explode with a little “poof” of flame. Dad seemed to enjoy those fires more than others, for some reason.
I hang Dad’s hammer on the peg board, a smile on my face. My hand lingers just a moment upon the worn leather; feeling the strength of his hands once again.  I look back, the old residing by the new, glistening in the faint light from the cellar window. Snapping off the light, I wipe a tear as I go back upstairs.


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