I once visited Dad’s engineering office with Mom in the early fifties when I was nine years old. I knew nothing about what he did at work. Instead for me, Dad was the man in the basement who led a separate life building his boats or creating his railroad tableaus. His workshop was orderly with every tool in its place and rows of empty jam jars filled with nuts, bolts and nails. We’d hear him hammering or cutting wood on his table saw, always building something. When there was no sound, we knew he was painting or designing another building for his railroad diorama. Dad’s hobbies defined him. None of them interested me.
During his life, Dad built two sailboats. He christened the first one “Sat’day Nite” since he admitted it resembled a tub. He spent hours in the cellar during winter and in the garage during summer. Even at an early age, I understood that building a boat was an impressive accomplishment. Even a minimum of enthusiasm on my part might have brought us closer, but my indifference was impenetrable. One evening when I went to the basement to kiss him goodnight, I asked how he made wood bend as it neared the bow. He gave me a detailed explanation, but it was long, and I could barely keep my eyes open. Leslie and I soon learned that asking an engineer a question was done at one’s peril.
On family sailing trips to a lake in Arlington, Leslie and I counted the seconds until we docked and were free. These excursions bored us to death. Every time Dad circled the Upper Mystic Lake and approached the mooring, Leslie and I held our breath, hoping this was the end, but too often, he turned the boat toward open water for another circuit.
On one occasion, he decided at the last moment to continue sailing. “The wind’s picking up.”
Mom agreed, but as far as I was concerned, the wind never picked up.
“Are we almost done?” Leslie asked Mom.
“No, and be happy.”
Leslie shot me a dark look. “But I have homework to do.”
I laughed because Leslie used any excuse to avoid homework. To amuse myself, I dipped my fingers in the water, fascinated by the whirlpools I created.
“Hey slick,” Dad growled, “we’d go a lot faster if you didn’t stick your mitt in the water.”
He tried to teach us how to sail, but usually, it ended with him shouting, “You’re letting the boom swing around too fast” or “To starboard. No not that starboard. The other starboard.” I was too self-conscious, and his criticism stung. Even when another boat sailed well away from us, I panicked, positive I was destined to hit it. Once the boon swung around and gave me a knock on the head. I was convinced that Dad had allowed it to do so deliberately. It confirmed my future reluctance to board a sailboat.
Dad’s second passion was model railroads. His father had been a train engineer, and this was the genesis of a lifelong fascination. In our home, the builder had divided the basement in half with one side shared by Dad’s workroom and the laundry. The other half was the family room. Over time, Dad’s railroad diorama grew too large for this room. He solved the problem by expanding to all three rooms including the old coal cellar. He broke through walls and built shelves with tracks on multiple levels circling the perimeter of the basement. The locomotive raced through his workshop, past the furnace and hot water heater, through the laundry room, across the top of the bookcase in the family room and onto a large plywood table supporting the buildings and homes in the town, and the rivers and bridges in the countryside.
My favorite section was the length of tracks running under the cellar stairs. If I stood on a chair and leaned against the bookcase, I could look through the hole and see the headlight on the engine. The tracks didn’t run straight under the stairs. Instead they curved in a circle and over a junction allowing the locomotive to continue forward or to veer onto a branch line to return the way it had come. From the darkness under the stairs came the red warning lights of the crossing and the rattle of barriers lowered into place. The engine light disappeared as the locomotive traveled out of sight behind buildings and trees before bursting out of the tunnel, blowing its shrill whistle.
After powering up the control panel to operate the track switches, lights, turntables, and a rockslide in the mountains, Dad sent a train on its journey. Leslie and I ran from room to room to keep up with the train. I was spellbound watching the train circling the mountain Dad built in the empty coal cellar where coal was once stored for heating. If the train was long enough, I could watch the caboose disappear into a tunnel at the same time the engine appeared two levels lower on the mountain. No matter how much he encouraged me, I wasn’t comfortable ‘working the big board’ and risking an accident. I was a risk-adverse child at an early age.
Dad maintained his interest in scouting all his life. As a teenager, he camped with his troop every summer. After the war, he volunteered as an assistant scoutmaster in his boyhood troop. I have several photos of me between the ages of three and five accompanying the troop on camping trips. In one photograph I’m standing on a picnic table with Dad beside me. As the son of a scoutmaster, I enjoyed being the center of attention.
I have no recollections of these trips except for two memories. In one, Dad is hiking with the troop up a steep, rocky slope while carrying me on his back. He stops for a moment to pee. Looking over his shoulder, I’m amazed at the force of his stream: a yellow, steaming length of rope. I’d never seen anything like it and the fact that we were outside made the experience more exciting.
In the second memory, I wander around the camp before dinner, a bored four-year-old, looking for something to do. Passing a large trailer hooked to the back of the scoutmaster’s truck, I see the legs of two boys on the other side. Curious, I walk around the trailer, surprising them. I don’t remember what they were doing, but I remember one of them pleading, “Don’t tell your father!”
“I won’t,” I say and run away.
Why did I walk around the trailer? Did I suspect something unusual was happening, something secret, something which had to be kept out of sight? Whatever it was, those seconds of curiosity were etched forever in my subconscious. I learned long ago that a truth, a sensation, a secret is waiting if one has the courage to look around the corner of a trailer.
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