My father’s old tool chest, and the bent nail that keeps the latch closed. It was classic Joe Cantwell, though the man actually was a rocket scientist.
“I’M NOT JOE CANTWELL’S SON FOR NOTHIN’,” I often tell my dear wife, usually after I’ve effected some simple DIY repair, such as epoxying the broken door handle back on to the microwave. (Hey, it’s a discontinued General Electric part, you can’t order a replacement.)
What really made me Joe’s son was when I used the laser printer to create a tiny little sign with an upward pointing arrow and the word PULL, taped to the handle to encourage users to grab at the top where the repair is stronger.
There, I was totally channeling Dad, in the worst way.
And the best way.
On this Father’s Day, almost five years after my father’s 2014 death, I’m thinking about him. Joseph Robert Cantwell, father of four, of whom I was the baby. Joe Cantwell, forever the aerospace engineer. He could help design the rocket that put men on the moon. Or, much more in my consciousness as a queasy teen who hated for my friends to see these things, he could carve a wooden gizmo and secure it with string and epoxy to replace a broken latch on our Hoover vacuum. He kept that rotten Hoover till he died.
None of his children inherited much of his aptitude for science or engineering, and we had our share of growing-up tensions, sometimes inflamed by not-so-thinly veiled fatherly disappointment. But when we cleaned out his Ballard apartment in 2014, there were things I couldn’t part with, such as his old tool chest that was held closed with a bent nail.On the Washington coast in the late 1950s: Dad holds me, next to my brother Doug, at left, sister Marcia, and brother Tom.
His little fixes were forever functional. They didn’t consider aesthetics. Why should they? A child of the Great Depression, he used what was at hand. Watching the old movie “Apollo 13,” when engineers on the ground had to innovate ways for the astronauts to save their own lives with any humdrum supplies they had in their capsule, I always pictured my father in the fray. He’d have been a star at coming up with a carbon-dioxide scrubber fashioned from duct tape and spare Kleenex.
Recently I was struggling to repair my boat engine and didn’t have quite the right tool. In desperation, I went to Dad’s old metal tool chest, which was probably shiny and fire-engine red sometime before I was born. Now it’s dinged up and rusty and kind of mauve around the edges.
I pulled the bent nail out of the metal loop in the latch and let it dangle on its special Joe Cantwell retaining string.
Opening the lid, I rummaged about and soon came up with something I’d have least expected to find there and don’t remember having ever seen before: a long, thin stainless steel surgical clamp, just like Hawkeye Pierce might have used to stem a bleeder during meatball surgery on “M*A*S*H.”
It was the perfect thing to reach deep into a really narrow space and grab an important little screw I had dropped into the motor’s innards. I’d never have retrieved it otherwise. It was an odd, tiny size probably not to be found in a hardware store anywhere near here.
I felt close to my dad as I replaced the bent nail in its place. If he was still around today, I’d have been at his place making his favorite waffles, to be savored with peanut butter and syrup, with link sausage on the side. Together we’d have tackled the Sunday New York Times crossword, which his old eyes had a tough time reading. It was a routine we followed for many Sundays until he was gone at age 92.
Five years have passed and you’re on my mind, Dad. I might just go bend a nail in your honor.
On a tour of Ireland with Mom in their later years. With typical dry humor, Dad labeled this photo, “Local drunk, waiting for pub to open.”
ALSO: If you missed it, here’s a reminiscence about recent travels with my sweet daughter that appeared in The Seattle Times this Father’s Day.