It is winter here in the Ozarks. The mittens and wool coats are hanging ready and hula-hoops, skooters and bicycles are hibernating. In the spring, the toys will come out to play and lawnmowers will hum through the neighborhood on Saturday mornings. This is very different from where I grew up. The sun shown most days, after the fog rolled back out to sea, and lawn mowing was mostly a three and a half season chore.
The neighborhood was our social network in those days. Everyone knew everyone else. We obeyed our friends’ moms as much as we did our own. There was a magic mom hotline which could be tripped by any kid antics and wrong doings. Mom would know where we had been and what we had been doing long before we barged in the front door tired from play and ready for dinner. Life was more regular. Lunch was at noon and dinner at five. Every day.
In my memory every family had children, a pet, a mother and a father. The mothers worked sometimes, but cared for family all the time. The fathers worked. Most of the fathers worked from 8 to 5, mine worked from midnight to 8. We all lived in small square houses on small square blocks in a neatly arranged neighborhood. We walked to school and played foursquare in the intersection one block East of Eden Street where we lived in a small, square, brown house with a neatly trimmed hedge and a playhouse out back. On warm, late afternoons fathers would roll up the sleeves of their white, crisp collared shirts, loosen their narrow black ties, and risk the polish on their wing tips pushing lawn movers across and back, across and back the neat patches of grass.
My dad was different. He wore grease under his nails, white t-shirts with a pack of cigarettes rolled in the left arm sleeve and dark blue work pants. He mowed the lawn when he could, mostly in the mornings while other fathers worked. My friends’ dads were accountants, bankers, lawyers and such, my father was an aircraft electrical mechanic. He was trained in the Navy on air craft carriers then stationed in Palo Alto where he was ground support for the final fleet of dirigibles moored at Moffet Field. My parents were married in the base chapel. She wore white. He wore his Cracker-Jack blues. They were young.
After the Navy, Dad was hired by SFO helicopter. He worked there long enough to see the last of the injured arrive home from Vietnam. He would take me to work with him some nights. I would work with him until lunch time. We would go with the guys to an airport restaurant where the waitresses liked my curly blonde pigtails and treated me to hot fudge sundaes. After lunch, Dad would pull his 1967 Mustang into the hanger and I would crawl in to the back seat to sleep the early morning hours into dreams and now memories. I slept and he worked.
Eventually, the small East Bay landing strip grew into an international airport and the helicopters were no longer needed to buzz passengers across the bay from Oakland to San Francisco and back again. One morning, my father and fellow workers showed up to work to find padlocks on the gates. This is how they found out they were unemployed.
With most of the other men, my father was hired by Bay Area Rapid Transit. To us kids, BART was a magical happening in our lives. We listened to nightly news stories about the progress of the tunnel being built, under water, from Oakland to San Francisco while eating dinner and feeding vegetables to our dog, Daisy. I was nine years old. We had just gotten our first color television, which my father had built from a kit. Soon, we knew, my father would be fixing the sleek silver trains that traveled under water. Dad worked for BART for more than twenty years. As a gift to my mother on their twenty fifth wedding anniversary, he switched from working the graveyard shift to the swing shift. My father never did work like the other fathers, 8 to 5, but our family needed the small extra allowance alternative shifts offered.
My father was a fixer of all things. He always fixed things right, or fixed them until he fixed them right. He always followed the rules and respected the union. He worked hard. He never clocked out early, never took naps on the train, and never extended break times. He never snuck away to watch football up in the foreman’s office. He taught us a good work ethic by his own actions.
My father’s job changed as rapidly as technology changed. As with the work he did on helicopters, working on trains required skills that were ever evolving and skills that if not mastered could lead to equipment failure or worse. He attended all required training including many classes at Laney Community College. He was much like many of my students. He learned what he needed to learn to bring home a good paycheck, to support his family.
He was a fixer in both his personal and professional life. He was a stickler for the rules. He shared stories at the dinner table about exciting new things he had learned and sad stories about those who did not follow directions, did not follow rules. I distinctly remember three separate incidents of workers not following the protocols around the third rail of the train shop. In all three cases, rules were broken, wives were widowed and children left fatherless. He taught us, with tears in his eyes, that rules were to be followed.
My father was able to retire two years early. The union and my mother’s gift for managing money well made this happen. He was ready. He looked forward to it. He talked of long, lazy afternoons dozing in his hammock in the backyard. He was excited to know there would be time for quiet mornings on the reservoir in his custom made canoe. He had a new grand-daughter to dote on and a move across country to be closer to her. Well, that is how it was for him. He retired.
Shortly after my family arrived in Missouri, my father and I sat on the back porch and talked about his life in retirement. We sipped coffee and he smoked as he always did. His tone was full of longing, but hopeful as well. He shared with me two things that surprised him after he retired. The first was a sense of loss. He missed his work friends and missed the work, the attention to detail, and the problem solving. He struggled to find his footing in a new day without deadlines, without rules. His greatest surprise was the relief he felt upon retiring.
His relief was not related to overtime hours, long union strikes, or difficult supervisors. He expressed that when he woke on his first morning of retirement he realized that never again would thousands of lives be in his hands. He talked of following directions, double checking his work and following the rules. Every morning, when train cars rolled out of the shop and onto the third rail he knew thousands of passengers were depending on him to do his job more than well, he had to do it perfectly. It was a matter of following directions. For those thousands of people who commuted each day from one side of the bay to the other, in the tunnel under the bay, it was a matter of life or death.
Knowing why we have to do things the way we have to do things is not always obvious. We are not always privy to the why. But, the why is not always as important as the process, the journey, and the experience. Setting your margins correctly, documenting your sources perfectly and controlling the urge to randomly sprinkle commas onto essays like bakers add sprinkles to cupcakes will pay off later when you are asked to follow direction. This why is obvious. This why teaches you to follow directions so when you don’t know the why or what you are required to do, you are not surprised that things work out well in the long run because you knew enough to do things right.