Quit whining about politics and get to work

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Three months lie between us and the election in November. The airwaves will likely be long on attack ads and self-righteous politicians boasting about how much more family oriented or moral or conservative or gun friendly they are than their opponents.

voteThe PAC attack ads will saturate the television and radio. We will be inundated with lies, half-truths, and out-of-context statements. Sincere statements and policy positions will be in there somewhere, but amid the noise, they will be hard to hear.

All of it so far, and in the future, will roll off of me. I have a very simple way of making election political decisions. I vote Democrat. Period. My grandfather was a straight-party voter. He came to know the Democratic party through the Tom Pendergast machine. It’s likely my grandfather received some benefit from his affiliation with the machine. More importantly, as an auto worker and one who lived through the darkness of the Great Depression, he saw only one party willing to do anything for common people. He said at one point that he would vote for Satan as long as he ran on a Democratic ticket.

My dad, on the other hand, was a reactionary who resented change. He only voted Republican. He was a many-issue, one-issue voter: He loved guns and was afraid the government was going to come take them. He vehemently condemned abortion. He hated communism with the fervor of Joe McCarthy. He detested illicit drugs. He was a real law-and-order kind of guy. He didn’t like Black Americans protesting in the streets (and believed the Soviets were behind the Civil Rights Movement). He derided anti-war protesters as agents of subversion.

I’ve only ever voted Democrat, as I have never met or heard of a Republican who really gave two shits about the welfare of the working person and the working poor. I do not vote against my interests, since my interests include a robust social safety net, free college tuition, and universal, free healthcare. There are no Republicans who stand for those issue that I know of. At least the Democratic Party makes some nod to those issues.

Some of my friends bemoan the two-party, winner-take-all system we have. They pine for a third-party candidate. I, too, wish we had a third party. But the third party needs to get involved at the local level before it can become viable for the presidency. Although I agree with all the Socialist Party USA and Green Party positions—and have views even more radical—I am suspect of them. They only come out of the woodwork once every four years to run for president. Otherwise, they are absent, at least around here.

Where are Green Party and third-party candidates for the city council? The mayor? The school board? While the local elections around here are nonpartisan, everyone who runs for a city council position gets started with a party, and most voters know what party the nonpartisans are connected with. I want to see a Green run for a position in city government. I want to see Green Party principles applied to fixing sidewalks and picking up the trash, maintaining sewers and running the airport.

The county legislature, one of the more corrupt in our local circles, is a Democratic stronghold. In my district, whoever wins the Democratic primary takes the seat in the general election. I don’t see third-party candidates lining up to run for county elected positions. County offices not glamorous. County politicians have to show up at baptisms and funerals. They have to participate in neighborhood meetings and get involved with nonprofits. The pay is subpar. The position, at least in Jackson County, Missouri, demands 30 hours a week or more for the $25,000 a year in compensation.

Once in a while, we might have someone who calls him or herself a Libertarian run for a Jackson County legislative position. But in my years as a voter, I’ve never seen an independent or third-partier take a campaign seriously. They don’t get out and raise money. They don’t attend forums or show up at neighborhood meetings. They whine about being on the outside. They say they are unfairly treated—by media, political parties, and the general public.

I ran for the county legislature in 2006 as a Democrat. It was a primary election against an entrenched politician, a fellow Democrat. I busted my ass. I had to raise money from individuals, organizations, and unions. There was no way I could run a legitimate campaign on my money. I would have gone broke buying the signs, the literature, and the T-shirts. I had to convince people to believe in me, and the most tangible evidence of that belief was either a vote or a dollar or both.

With a list of probable voters in my hand, I went door-to-door all summer, rain or shine. Some days were so hot that I had to take extra shirts to change into once the one I was wearing soaked through. I went into rough neighborhoods. I walked sidewalks in posh quarters. I talked to all kinds of people.

Most people who answered their doors gave me a little of their time and I handed them my literature. Several times, people invited me up to their porches to visit with them and their friends. On a couple of occasions, my prospective voters filled me with lemonade. On hot days, I was often offered cold water or a step out of the heat into the air conditioning.

I knocked on over 3,000 doors. Some of those doors were slammed in my face. People were sometimes very nasty. On at least two occasions, when I told a person I was a Democrat, they told me I was an agent of the devil. A couple of people said I was responsible for aborted fetuses and dictatorial government. Some bashed immigrants and black people and talked about crony-ridden unions.

Calmly, of course, I stuck to my principles. No one wants people to have abortions, I said. But I am not a woman and would never have to go through the heart wrenching circumstance of an unwanted pregnancy. I live in an immigrant neighborhood and have seen how hard undocumented immigrants work. As far as I have seen, not one immigrant has taken a job that someone else would fill. I have Black neighbors and friends. I believe in labor unions and am a union man myself.

One time, I walked into a Quaker meeting. The house was a sturdy but old two-story in Northeast. A man invited me into the living room, where about ten people sat on dilapidated couches and chairs. The women wore bonnets. The men were dressed simply in plain colors. I excused myself for bothering them at prayer. “We were waiting for the Word of God,” one of the men said. “We were waiting for you.” They listened politely to my introduction and spiel. They offered me something to drink and wanted to share their food. They asked intelligent questions about what I wanted to do on the county legislature. When it came time for me to go, they all stepped forward and laid their hands on my shoulder. “Go with God,” one of the women said.

I lost the race but it taught me a lot about running for office. You just don’t show up and demand attention and expect support. You cannot offer an alternative unless you get out there and do all the things demanded of a politician and political campaign. You have to be willing to work, to sweat and to walk and shake hands. You have to meet people where they are and be sincere in your words and actions. You have to ask people and organizations for their support. You have to ask for money—otherwise those yard signs, pamphlets, and T-shirts don’t get made. It’s all part of a larger process.

Yes, there was a smoky backroom. I had to run the gauntlet of jaded party operatives that try to keep the gates. I had to shake the hands of people who believed they deserved recognition just because they thought they were someone important.

In the end and despite all of them, my name appeared on a ballot. People voted for me. Even today, ten years later, there are party operatives who are still angry at me for running against their boy. But some party people also remember that I went up against a formidable candidate and did better than anyone expected.

And I made a difference. The politician I ran against had become comfortable in his office. He had become sloppy and had some ethical difficulties. My run against him made him clean up his act. While I can’t call him a friend today, I can call him an acquaintance. I am happy to see him when he comes around the nonprofit I’m involved in. He has done a lot of good for us. I’m happy to have him at his post.

My circumstances changed after I ran for office. We adopted a son. I didn’t have time for the party machinations, fundraisers, and meet-and-greets. Over time, I lost the precious footing and recognition I gained from running for office. Once you get involved, you have to stay involved or people forget about you or see you as someone who wasn’t serious about public service to begin with.

But if I were to run for office again, I know what to do. I’d be a third-party, socialist candidate. I’d build my bona fides with the Socialist Party USA or the Greens. If they weren’t around (and in Kansas City, they are not), I’d run as a democratic socialist in the Democratic Party. I’d be relentless. I know how to do it. I understand what it means to be a politician and the importance of politicians—people who make public service their careers. I also understand that as a third-party candidate or a fringe Democratic candidate, it would take a miracle to win.

A third-party, progressive, left-wing party must infiltrate the structures of government from the bottom up. They have to put in time on unpaid school boards. They have to serve time in city councils picking up trash and fixing sidewalks. They have to get involved in the mundane business of running city council districts, county and state legislative districts. They have to get themselves elected to regional levee districts and rural fire-and-rescue boards.

I’m all for a third party. I invite third-party candidates to come to my house. I want them to show themselves and ask me for my support and my money. I would go door-to-door for a legitimate third-party candidate. And I’d tell if they were legitimate by how much they were involved in local politics at the neighborhood, city, and county levels. I’d expect that they would have a little money behind them. I want to know that they had a list of voters in their hand and that they were serious about knocking on doors and taking knocks on the ego.

But I also know why we have a two-party system. It’s not written into the Constitution but the founding documents set up a structure in which only two parties will work well. The winner–the one with more than 50 percent–gets it all. The parties depend on their bases and fight for the independent vote. That’s the shenanigans we’re going to see. It’s not about people who are going to vote Democrat or Republican, regardless of who runs.

The efforts of candidates of both parties in the congressional and presidential races are going in three directions. The first is to insure the base. Another is to snag the odd independents that will get them to 50.1 percent. Third, the parties and and their allies are going to try to convince as many people in the other’s base to stay at home.

American politics almost always turn into bloody, ugly grudge matches. It’s almost as if these fights were built in by design. The only way a third party is ever going to make it is to start playing that game on the local level to get that 50+ percent.

Don’t start at the presidency, start at my sidewalk. Run for office. Get a taste for elective politics. Get people on your side. Quit the whining and get to work.

The beauty of a real letter

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Back when I started this blog in November 2009, I wrote all my entries in the form of a letter. Over time, I developed a number of personalities as recipients and tailored the voice of the letters to those people. I can’t remember exactly when or why this ended. My attention to the blog came and went. At some point, my essays became more comments on and about daily life. Of the 264 posts that I’ve written so far for during this adventure, well over half of them are letters.

erikaThe reason I chose the letter form was that I missed writing letters. Back before E-mail, I engaged in correspondence or ongoing conversations with people through the mails. For years, I depended on the letter for the heartfelt connection that doesn’t happen in any other form of communication. A letter has a specific audience. The voice of the writer is more personal, more revealing. I could talk about anything that struck my mind. I can do that now. I conceive my essays on whatever happens to be in my head when I sit down to write. But writing letters, I think, is an art form of its own and one that the E-mail has essentially obliterated.

Still, when I write E-mails, they are rarely snippets of thought. I tend to write E-mails that look like letters. I write in sentences. The grammar is about as right as I can get it. I spell out words and don’t use shortcuts. Even my texts, small as they can be, contain sentences, paragraphs, sometimes even theses which guide and direct them.

My thirst for letters first occurred when I lived in Germany. When I traveled there, I was alone. I had no contacts and very little money. By luck, I wound up with a job at a reputable German winery in Trier. The winery’s director intervened on my behalf and found me a small room in the attic of the winery apprentice school. For 210 DM, I got the room and a breakfast at the school. There were three rooms at the top of ten flights of stairs. A bathroom and shower stood at the end of a small hallway. The view from my room’s window looked out on the quiet neighborhood in the Gartenfeld district. The Petrisberg, a mountain-like prominence, rose up beyond my street, Egbertstrasse.

Trier is an old city. The Romans established it as a western outpost in Gaul in 16 BCE. The city grew to be a significant center of Roman life in the West, with all the amenities and infrastructure to support a population of several tens of thousands of people. Just under the Petrisberg stood the old Roman amphitheater, where gladiators fought and lions ate Christians. Egbertstrasse, it turns out, formed on side of the city’s circus, or track for chariot races—Ben-Hur style—track and field events, and other forms of Roman sport. The houses across the street from where I lived were built on the berm separating the two sides of the circus. Hettnerstrasse, the next block over, formed the other side. Hermesstrasse and Schutzenstrasse bounded the short sides of the track.

At first, I didn’t know anyone. I made acquaintances of some of the other interns at the winery and we got together once a week or so to visit the Trierer Loewenbrauerei, the brewery in my neighborhood. Other than that, I spent a lot of time alone. Evenings after a nap, I took walks around Petrisberg and up beyond the amphitheater toward Olewig, which Trier swallowed in the modern age. I ventured into the center of old Trier, which was only about a five-minute walk, and strolled around the pedestrian zone watching people come and go at the cafes and shops there.

On weekends, I made long tours of the city. I woke and drank coffee and then lit out for eight or ten hours through the streets and into the surrounding countryside. I came to know the town well. Even today, I can find my way around Trier as well as I can my own neighborhood.

When I came home to my empty room, I spent time each week, sometimes every day, writing letters. At first, I wrote by hand. Then, at breakfast one morning, an intern named Petra told me she had a typewriter she wasn’t using. It was an Erika portable. Made in East Germany, it was built like a tank. I told her I would buy it from her but I didn’t have much money. Fortunately, the typewriter didn’t mean much to her. I traded a hat of mine she liked and threw in 5 DM for the typewriter. It changed my life.

Now instead of laboring away with pencil and pen, I could spill my thoughts out on paper at nearly the speed in which they came. Instead of a letter or so a week, I wrote five and sometimes six. I covered my daily goings on, what I was thinking, and the hardship I felt at being all alone in a strange city. I wrote letters to family members and friends. People I hardly knew received my missives.

And, every day, I came home from the winery and checked in at the office of the school to see if I received any word from my correspondents. I came to live by the post. I received letters at least once a week. They sustained me until I began to build a set of friends. Even after, the mail kept me going. I started a long correspondence with an American opera singer who would come to Trier in the summer. We started a steamy relationship. After the summer, I kept writing. She kept writing back. Those letters would lead through a relationship would end in heartache, the greatest of my life. (See, http://patrickdobson.com/?p=118.)

So, today, I write letters, sometimes E-mail, sometimes the old postal kind with a hand-written address and a stamp. When I send a letter, usually the recipient is so surprised that they get out their paper and write back. Getting a letter in the mail is a special event these days. It fulfills a desire to carry on conversation unfettered by time and place.

Now, whether E-mail or post, I carry on correspondence as if I had that old Erika typewriter. I used it long after I returned to the states. I still wonder what I did with it. My letters took on a kind of personality on that typewriter. So, while I still write letters, I miss that old East German.

Summer heat, 1983

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It’s hot. It’s summer. It’s supposed to be hot. I like it. Extreme weather of whatever kind I like. And it gets extreme here in the Midwest. In fact, I get disappointed when it’s not extreme. I mean, those beautiful spring or fall days when the temperature is just right have a place. But I’m really into when it gets dirty.

wiedemannThere comes a time each summer when the world just smells hot. Dried grass and dust in the wind have the vegetal odors of life on the wane. Chlorine floats across the park from the swimming pool. The pines ooze the twangy scent of turpentine. The oaks and elms crowd out each other with the redolence of leaves burning in all that sun.

I remember hot. In 1983, my parents moved away from Kansas City and I was glad of it. Free at last, I took up with two other guys in a dingy second-floor apartment at the corner of 43rd Street and Warwick. That swath of Midtown wasn’t the nicest place to live in those days. Time had worn on the neighborhood, made it ragged. The mental cases from the Rockhill Manor, a halfway house for the schizophrenic and detached, wandered up and down the street bumming cigarettes and drinking coffee from little styro cups.

My roommates took the two bedrooms in the apartment and I made my room in the solarium. That was the nice word for it. It extended out from the living room and had windows on three sides. We hung some gauzy cloth across solarium to separate it from the rest of the room. All my worldly possessions were in there. I slept on a hide-a-bed and had plants my parents left behind on the sills under the windows. A box fan stirred the furnace-hot air around.

That summer, my car pooped out and I left it at the curb in front of the apartment. With no money in my pocket, I let it stay there until I could earn the jack to get it fixed. I walked the mile and a half to work every afternoon. I sweated away in the hot kitchen and then walked up the Main Street hill back home. I might take a minute in the restaurant’s dining room to get away from the heat, but that was about the only respite I had from the heat that summer.

Meanwhile, people were dying in their closed up little apartments. Old people, mostly, people who had shut themselves up in their houses and apartments, afraid to come out and fearful of forced entry. Their places heated up to 110 degrees or more. Who knows when they actually died. Neighbors would nose them out when the corpses began stinking up the apartment buildings or the miasma of death would waft out into the street. A neighbor might look up and say to him- or herself, “Well, I haven’t seen Mr. Jones in quite a while; his place sure smells funny.” Flies would swarm the house. Someone called the fire department. The firefighters would bash in the door to find Mr. Jones in his armchair with a blanket around his shoulders, a fan rotating on its base.

I was mostly drunk that summer. As unconscious as I was, even I knew about the heat deaths. Several kids died that summer running around in parks or on the streets. Grown men died on their construction jobs. I watched the news sometimes and the heat was all the news anchors would talk about. When I walked to work, people would shuffle by, towels over their heads. It seemed nearly everyone without air conditioning was in a state of constant heat prostration.

I felt it as I sat on the fire escape on the second floor smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. The grate radiated the day’s heat up through my bum and into my sweating upper torso. The heat pounded the pavement all day. After nightfall, I could feel the city relax. It had nothing to do with the people. The streets, houses, and apartment buildings themselves seemed relieved of the sun.

Except for one year when I lived with another raging drunk in a basement apartment at 43rd and McGee, I lived without air conditioning until 1996. Summers were hot but I don’t think I ever lived through a heat spell like I did in 1983. Maybe it sticks with me because it was the first time I’d been without air conditioning since my dad bought the behemoth window unit stuck in the dining room window at 9915 State Line. Even then, my dad only allowed the electric-hungry beast run through the hot part of the day. Before and after, we ran a whole-house fan that kept the curtains in a constant flutter. Box fans moved hot air from one room to the other. When we weren’t outside playing or away from home working, we laid in front of one of those fans, the four of us kids sharing what hot air puffed from the blades.

But I found myself happy in all that heat in 1983. There was something about the smell of the lawns in front of the apartment buildings at 45th and Main, that burned-up grass smell. The downy colors of high summer soothed me. Everything that grew was brown or blond. The leaves on the trees drooped.

Being 20 and drunk, I felt like I had it all. Every now and then, a friend of mine would come around at 2 a.m. after she got off work, three six-packs under her arm. We’d sit out on the fire escape drinking until morning.

Several times a week, I worked until 9 p.m. Coming home in the evening, I’d stop at the liquor store at 45rd and Main. The place felt like an ice box. Coming in out of the heat, I felt like I walked into a wall. I lingered in front of the beer case, even though I knew that I would buy the case of Wiedemann’s in bottles and leave. (Wiedemann’s in the returnable bottle cost $4.95 a case). I hefted that sturdy case of 24 longnecks down the street. I always carried a bottle opener with me—this was in the days before twist-off caps. I’d have to stop at the streetlight at 43rd Street, so I pulled out one of those bottles and drained it while I waited for the light. I huffed up the two blocks up the street, stopping for another bottle of beer somewhere along the way.

Then, I would up in that apartment, whose confines seemed to have soaked up all the heat of the day. Maybe one of my roommates were home, which meant that we’d have to get to the liquor store at least once more before it closed. Twenty-four bottles were enough for me, but not for two of us. We stewed in the heat before going out to sit at the end of the walk and take it the humid night. The air fell still after dark. We’d smoke and talk to the mental patients as they paced 43rd Street. Being outside, at least, gave us air.

I don’t look back on that summer with fondness, except that I was still an innocent. I believed that all I had to do was pay rent and drink. That was the whole of life. The heat was part of it.

So, I am not one to complain of the heat. In fact, I enjoy it. I like working in it, walking in it, and riding my bike in it. Sometimes I can’t get enough. Even though I love the rain, there’s something about summer rain that interferes with the dry brown that I so love about this time of year.

The problem for me is that I can only take so much heat. I tend to keel over in it. But that doesn’t stop me from getting to the edge, being out in it just up to the time I begin to slur my words and start moving slowly. I start to feel cold. My heart races. My mind tells my body what to do, and my body doesn’t respond. When that happens, it’s time to get inside, and these days, inside is always cool.

It’s hot out. Sure, it is. But I don’t hear about people dying of it this year. In fact, until just the last couple of weeks, we had a mild summer. A big disappointment. I don’t want people to die. But I want all that heat.

The summer’s big adventure

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Nick and I are going for a trip down the Missouri River from the tiny town of Rulo, Nebraska, to Kaw Point, a park where the Kansas River drains into the Missouri. He has been talking about it all summer. We have the canoe. I’ve bought a new dry bag and a cell phone charger. We just have to get a small, waterproof case for the cellphones, go the grocery store, affix the canoe to the top of the car, and we’re off.

Nick on riverNick’s looking forward to the trip because now that he’s had a taste of the Missouri, he wants more. He and I went with an anarchic group of paddlers from Jefferson City, Missouri, to Hermann in April on the Missouri.

We arrived the Friday night before the float and met with about 35 paddlers and the people who had come to see them off. Together, there must have been about 60 people there. This disparate group ranged from the young (Nick, 14) to about 70. Members of the city council and the Mayor showed up to visit. American Water provided coolers of cold water and water bottles. A local beer distributor brought Budweiser and Bud Light. News crews came with their cameras.

As the sun set, the river flowed like a mirror. The capitol dome and the city reflected off the river. When the dark settled, streetlights shown on the river’s surface like fireflies. The beach at the park across from the city is a wide bowl of sand that comes down off the bank into a large flat area along the riverbank. They city had provided firewood for us. People sat around the fire. A couple of people had guitars and played while their compatriots sang. Conversations started and died down, giving the night over to the silence of the river.

Nick and I headed to bed early. Who knew what the next day would bring? Every paddler dreads the wind that can blow up from downstream and push their boats up the river. The night was quiet and windless. We all hoped for a calm day.

Early enough, Nick and I got out of our sleeping bags and began, with everyone else, to strike our tents and get our gear ready for the day. Everything buttoned up, we hauled our stuff to the bank and set it in a pile. We brought the canoe down and packed our gear in it carefully. Nick is a skinny little kid. I am an old fat man. In order to balance the boat—so that the front where Nick would be sitting wouldn’t tilt up and make a perfect sail for any wind—we packed most of the gear forward.

One of our mates, a woman who had wide canoeing experience on white-water streams, stood at the bank. She looked out over the water. Anxiety overwhelmed her. She had never been on the big river, and now looking at it, she was ill. She asked a hundred what ifs? What if the wind comes up? What if I run over a wing dike? What if I capsize?

I shared her fear. The river always makes me anxious, particularly when I’m with someone else. By myself, I can bear the idea of the big water. I swallow the fear and get going. I know what to do, I have navigated over 2,000 miles of this river. But as I stood there thinking of my son, scenarios went through my head. A rocky wind dike would rip out the bottom of the canoe. The boat would capsize, sending my son to an early death. The wind might hang us up all day. We might have to canoe the river at night—my biggest fear.

But Nick looked out over the river and could not wait to get out there. He cinched up the last of the gear and stood, facing me. “Well,” he said, “let’s get this show on the road.”

We slid the boat into the water and pushed ourselves away from the sandy beach. Soon we were in the middle of all that water. In the river, when you’re going the speed of the water, it feels as if you’re sitting still and the banks are moving by you on their own. It’s almost like the earth is turning under you. We experienced that feeling almost immediately, and the sort of vertigo that comes with it.

Nick showed no fear. As a matter of fact, about an hour into the trip, he stood in the boat to adjust his pants. I remembered when I first put my boat in the Missouri so many years before, it took me a week to gain the courage to stand in the boat. He trusted me. He never thought twice about it.

The day was sunny. A slight breeze came downstream and kept us cool. Nick paddled sometimes and played with a string with a hook he made from a wire clothes hanger. As we pulled up to sticks and limbs, he cast his little grappling hook out to get them. He played this game on and off all day. The miles flowed by us and before we knew it, we had covered the 27 miles from Jefferson City and pulled in on the boat ramp at Chamois.

The park at Chamois has four camping pads—gravel parking spaces with electrical and water hookups. Each had a metal fire ring. As the paddlers came in, they claimed their spaces. As the evening turned, the paddlers all made their meals. Several fetched firewood for later. Conversations happened in little groups of four or five. Many of us walked around visiting the groups through the evening. The woman who had so feared getting on the river that morning pitched her tent near ours and took up in a camping chair. The day, she said, started fearfully. But after a few hours, she got the hang of it.

The next day, flights of paddlers took off from the boat ramp for the 20 miles to Hermann. At a distance, they looked like dragonflies buzzing over the river. The day was warmer and the wind changeable. The miles passed by with hardly a breath. The wooded hills rose up from the side of the river 200 or more feet above us. At one point, we paused to watch a bald eagle watching us from its perch high in a cottonwood. We had to paddle against the wind only a few times. Otherwise the river and the weather were kind. When we arrived in Hermann, he concluded that our journey was a complete success.

Now, we approach our August trip. It will be just he and I. We will take our time doing the 137 miles of river ahead of us. If we are lucky, we will find those perfect sandbars to camp on. We will build big fires and throw a line in for a catfish. Evenings will roll over us. We will hear the massive silence of the river.

I still fear all the things that can go wrong on the big water. I have never spoken of my fears to Nick. I have told him matter of factly about what to do if the boat goes over, how we need to stay wide of the wing dikes and buoys, and what to do if we come along a barge packet. We will wear our PFDs the whole time.

He sees our Missouri River trip as the summer’s big adventure. I am anxious. The river always confronts me with my darkest fears. But once I’m on it, I am in my element.

The Mustang and the Titanic

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My dad was a classical music freak who knew little about the music except that he liked it. He’d gotten a job at the National Cash Register Corporation in 1958 or 1959 when he was 19 or 20. Typical of many white-collar jobs at the time, the moment he walked into the building at 16th and Broadway, his career was sealed. He would work for NCR for the next 35 years.

mustangHe labored in a concrete room with a workbench and a fluorescent bulb above him. He had a working lamp on the bench. There, he repaired cash registers. Sometimes he was sent into the field, especially after the advent of electronic registers and copiers, to work directly with clients. He saw people in their shops, and more often, in large corporate stores, like the Jones Store or Montgomery Ward..

He hated leaving the confines of his small workshop. He’d rather work by himself. He wasn’t good in the field, though he was a talky and gregarious guy outside of the workplace. He didn’t like dealing with people on their terms. He hated that the customers mistreated the machines. He found himself disgusted at the ways that operators screwed up the devices by sticking paperclips and scissors into holes to free up jammed devices. I remember him coming home in the evening after a day working with customers complaining and cussing.

Most of the time, however, he spent his days in the concrete room. About the time he got his NCR job, a new radio station, KXTR 96.5 p.m., began broadcasting classical music. They played all kinds, from the great composers and symphonies to little known chamber pieces and small quartets. It didn’t matter what was on the radio station, my dad listened. The commercials were never loud or gaudy. They all kept within the dignified tone of the music the station broadcast.

The music was soothing to him. He grew up in the 1950s and during the rock-and-roll revolution. But he was one of the few youth of the time that didn’t go in for that sort of thing. It was too jangly and loud. As a career man, working in the basement, he flipped on the radio tuned to KXTR and had it on all day.

I got my love of classical music from him, and know about as much about it as he did, which was very little. I can see how it soothed the soul of a guy who really didn’t like his job much. We listened to KXTR when he would fix the second-hand cars that always needed attention. He would fix, of course, and I had to watch and hand him tools. He wasn’t good about telling me what he was doing, he expected me to observe and learn. His instructional method left much to be desired. When I grew up, I could do simple car repair. The big stuff, tie rods, cylinder heads, head gaskets, and oil pumps remain a mystery to me.

One of the best memories I have of my father comes from a time he decided to buy and build a model of his favorite World War II fighter plane, the P-51 D Mustang. I have to admit, I still have an affection for the plane, whose smooth lines and futuristic (for the time) design made it look like a plane I would one day learn to fly.

The plastic model had 1,500 parts. We had to assemble everything from the engine to the machine guns (and cameras) in the wings. My dad bought the glue and dozens of paints needed to for the parts. He cleaned off one of his workbenches in the basement, got us two chairs, and lined up all the goods—model parts, paints, glue, tweezers, paintbrushes—along one side and the part of the bench that faced the basement wall.

Working on the model became high ritual for us. For months, after he came home, read the newspaper, and sit down to the family dinner, he would stand and tell me it was time to work on the model. He would grab a couple of beers before we went to the basement and sat in the chairs. When he got comfortable and had his beer open, he would turn on the radio.

Just like when we fixed cars, I was there to watch. He meticulously painted the pieces, trimmed the plastic flashing from them, and glued one part of the plane together, then the next. While I didn’t have much to do but sit and ask questions, we were at least doing something together. The bright light of the lamp on the workbench broke dimness of the basement. The classical music filled in the space around us, giving the bare, concrete basement a reverent, almost church-like atmosphere. I became attached to the smells of model glue, oil-based enamels, and my father’s body processing alcohol. Even today, drunks don’t smell bad to me, they smell like my dad in these tender moments.

When he was working on the model, he attained a gentleness and ease of character that he normally didn’t possess. He was not physically affectionate man. He didn’t have much to do with us kids after he came home from a long day downtown in the basement. He preferred to read the newspaper and drink beer until the 10 o’clock news and then hit the rack. He wasn’t always patient with us kids, or even with my mom.

What made the airplane so special wasn’t that we were working on it together. We were not. He was putting together this model. He let me do a few things, just like when repairing the car. I handed him paintbrushes and fetched the paint from the rows of little jars. I handed him the plastic matrixes that held the minuscule parts. I ran upstairs to get him cold beers from the fridge. But when he sat down to that model, he talked to me like a human being. He answered my myriad questions—about the airplane, the war, life, and work.

I don’t know how long it took us to put together that model. I don’t even think we finished it all the way. My father had a way of starting a project with energy and see that excitement wash away. But we almost got it all together. When we stopped working on it—the times we sat together became less frequent—it sat on the workbench until I ventured to take it in hand and zoom it around the basement, pretending I was the pilot sitting in his little ejection seat.

My son recently bought Father’s Day gifts that we would have to work on together. He loves that kind of thing. One of the presents was a plastic model of the Titanic with hundreds of parts. It came with acrylic enamels (without the odor of acetone). The glue, however, transports me back to the basement with my dad.

I cleared off a space on my workbench and pulled a plastic sawhorse up it. Nick and I laid out the paints and brushes. We were careful to order the matrixes with the parts. We read the instructions and began with the first diagram. He and I are now working on the model a couple of times a week. My goal is to finish the model all the way. It may take up months or even a year, doing one section at a time: The foredeck, the afterdeck, the bridge, etc.

Our first evening working on the model, I made sure that Nick had as great a role in its assembly that I did. We took turns cutting painting the tiny pieces and then cutting them from the matrixes with an Exacto knife. We trimmed away the flash. He glued one piece in, then another. Then, it was my turn. After just a short time, my cares and worries melted away and I was just present, which isn’t a familiar state for me.

There was one thing missing, however, and I couldn’t identify it at first. After two nights working on the model, I realized the basement was quiet. Not a peep.

I’ll fill the silence when we next work on the model. KXTR doesn’t broadcast classical music anymore. We have to wait until after 9 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, and after 10 p.m. on Thursday to hear the classics on the public radio station. In the meantime, I have some CDs that will fill in the gaps. We will be listening to music on an old CD player/radio that my grandfather used in the years before his death.

As an adult, I’ve been able to do with Nick the things I didn’t get to do with my dad. We built a crystal radio—something I always wanted to do. We do camping and hiking, just me and him. Coming up in August, we will take a week out on the Missouri from Rulo, Nebraska, to Kansas City. Father/son stuff.

And, I get to include him in the building of the model Titanic. Both of our hands will be busy with it. Mozart and Beethoven will fill the air around us. I get to relive one of the favorite times of my life—those few months my dad dealt with me as a sidekick and not as a burden.