childhood heroes, part 1, mickey mantle
July 4th: Re-Discovering America Through Immigrant Eyes


my father used to be a carpenter

a master craftsman

a cabinet maker extraordinaire

he’d turn these perfect round cherry wood salad bowls on his lathe

dove tail smooth fitting mahogany joints on his meticulous router

pull his whining De Walt table saw over huge planes of wood that   would magically become

with his love and care and endlessly detailed patience

kitchen tables with white inlaid formica tops

custom built wall units complete with knotty pine bookshelves for the World Book Encyclopedia

and antique scrolled top desks with french wire netted doors that were sanded smooth as a baby’s cheek and stained the tawny color of sandalwood


his wood working shop was downstairs in the basement

the only place my mother would allow it

sort of off limits to the rest of us mere mortals

existing in a chaos all its own

full of the smell of sawdust

and the sounds of powerful metal machines groaning together like dinosaurs in his archaic man made sanctuary

amongst piles of wood scraps, nails, blueprints, and half-completed projects


each of the dinosaurs had a personality all its own

there was the drill press

the stately straight backed worker who stood head and heels above the others

who with as little effort as possible bore through the lumber in the precise places where my father wished

whose only danger was in removing the spinning bit after the incision

for if you weren’t careful in holding the wood down, it would fly around in a circular rage and knock your knuckles off


there was the simple jig saw

who even a small fry like me could enlist

to cut the simple shapes of stars, and squares, and keys

that i stained and finished and then tried to peddle door to door in the neighborhood

whose jagged blade rode furiously up and down up and down

like teeth

only to belie the feeling that it was cutting through the wood like butter


then there was the bigger band saw

a glorified version of the jig that wasn’t quite as housebroken and could really get nasty sometimes

like the time my mother was attempting to lose her mechanical blind spot

but instead sawed off the end of her index finger

and came running upstairs with it in her fist

and vowed never to come down to the shop ever again

a vow that was easier said than kept

mom & dad


there were lots of other mechanical monsters

whose names i can’t remember

but whose images i see just as clearly in my mind today as i did  55 years ago

when they were all sacred to me

each in their own spot along the narrow green pastel walls

but whose mastery always eluded me

no matter how much i’d practice

or wish i had my father’s dexterity or inventiveness


you see i always identified with my mother

in this division of the sexes

she was the articulate one

the one who used words

as tools

as creators

instead of machines

the one who encouraged my liberal education

my interest in books, and Broadway shows, and how things

went together


what did i learn from my father?

if not his scientific bent and his ability to fix anything anywhere anytime

i think i learned his curiosity and imagination and

his ability to see

his sixth sense that could look at an object

smell it

or hear it

and tell you

exactly what was wrong with it


he was like a magnet in this regard

he was drawn to thing’s imperfection

its critical flaw

like a leech to blood

like a finger to a sore


it was his genius and his achilles heel

for the more he cared about something

the more he loved it

the better he saw

the more precisely he heard

the more exactly he noticed

what was wrong with it


the scuff on the shoe

the furrow in the brow

the crackle in the recording

the pimple on the nose

the thinness of the legs


 the well from which this gift sprung was never revealed

perhaps it fed upon its own dark and troubled source

but it always reflected outward

never inward

and what it saw

it saw flawed

and then tried to fix


sometimes my father would really surprise me

when out of the blue and for no apparent reason

he’d ask helter skelter

“what’s wrong?”


and i’d suddenly be frozen by his scalpel

caught by his glance

and just have to stop

i’d say to  myself

“i don’t know

is there something wrong?”


but when nothing presented itself

i’d just say “nothing”

“nothing’s wrong, dad”

but then he’d tell me

“what about this?

how about that?

you don’t look right

you look unhappy

there must be something wrong”


and pretty soon

i learned

i anticipated

i figured out

what was wrong

with me


i got to be one of the bowls

one of the records

one of the masterpieces he owned

or was creating

or needed to have


i got to see

in no uncertain terms

what was imperfect about me

what i couldn’t win

how i couldn’t compete

how nothing ever was

how i never was

good enough


so that now

i’ve incorporated his voice

made it my own

“the critic”

for whom nothing’s ever good enough

who cripples me before i walk

who folds at the point of conflict

who can’t stop picking his own finger nails

even at age 66


oh dad, poor dad

you’ve locked me in the closet and made me so sad

i know you didn’t mean it

but how do i get out?

how do i let you go?


maybe i’ll take a course in woodworking 101

to learn the skills i left behind

how to wield a mighty, but more beneficent, hammer

how to carve with a precise, but more lovong, chisel

how to build the walls i never was able to construct

between you and me

between me and myself

between me and…

the rest of the world


 maybe woodworking 101

would teach me how to work with flaws

how to sand over rough edges

accept imperfections

how to live more comfortably with life’s lack of guarantees

my home, my job, my marriage, my retirement

my ageing, my health


i still love the smell of sawdust

and the line of a graceful bowl

i look down at my hands and see the fingers of a carpenter

his hands

the swollen cuticles

scarred and bloody not from the work itself

but from the endless picking




and on



i forgive you, dad

i’m an orphan now

you loved me as you could

they’re my fingers now

i’ve built my own life

taken my own wife

taken my own risks

fought my own battles

won some, lost more


but if i ever do get the opportunity to raise a boy

maybe i’ll just try it a little differently

i’ll let him find his own tools

develop his own skills

fight his own battles

find his own voice

write his own words


i’ll love him

like you did me

and plant the seeds

for him to grow

my tools will be the watering can

and my own hands

instead of chisel and the saw


i’ll be a gardener

and make the soil rich

and the water pure

and the light good

and i’ll watch him grow  

into his own


self reliant


little tree


for some woodsman to cut down and give to a carpenter

and the cycle will start again

for Dad, 1989; updated 6/13/2014, your would be 97th birthday

childhood heroes, part 1, mickey mantle
July 4th: Re-Discovering America Through Immigrant Eyes