The Necessity of Maintenance and Repair

By Fred Setterberg

“What’s that I smell?” demanded my father, cracking open the kitchen door, his face materializing in the jamb, his wide eyes ravenous, lordly, insatiable.

Mom glanced up from the countertop, her right hand clenching an enormous blue sponge coated with Ajax. Already the butter yellow tiles were gleaming in tribute to her labors, the hacksaw motion of her elbow and shoulders.

“You know,” my mother whispered, momentarily the coquette.

“Cake,” said Dad, sticking out half in the kitchen, half in the garage, sniffing the air, growling like a rapacious household bear. He pounded his chest with one hand, a grease‑pocked socket wrench dangling from the other. “Me want cake!” Tarzan of the Suburbs: He was kidding around for my benefit, I figured. Mom swayed back and forth on the linoleum floor giggling, actually giggling.

Cake because it was late Saturday afternoon. Cake because he loved it. Cake because he had come to expect it, even though he still could not quite believe his good fortune – this cake so variously prepared, so readily available and exclusively his own.

At forty-two, my mother looked at least ten years younger, her olive oil complexion bathed in the pale overhead light of the kitchen’s single milk-glass fixture. She wore her thick ebony hair drawn back and bracketed by a pair of North African ivory combs that had belonged to her Calabrese mother. Dad towered over her by nearly a foot. He was trim and bald, like an ancient Greek athlete or philosopher – his remaining fringe of curly brown hair cropped close to his skull cannonball fashion. His cyan eyes radiated reckless hope, along with the usual doubts.

“Do I get just a sliver?” he asked dreamily.

“You clean up in the basin outside,” ordered Mom, “and be sure to wipe your shoes.” She glanced down at me as I stamped the floor, feet switching. “I suppose you want some, too?”

“Yes, yes, yes, yes!”

“Then you wash in the bathroom, and take care to sponge up your mess.”

My mother hadn’t been a baker until her marriage, the most surprising event of her life. Jolted into new habits of domesticity, she now luxuriated over the oven, conceiving every imaginable shape, flavor, and decorative variation of the basic American cake.

Take two eggs, water, a stick of margarine, one box of Betty Crocker’s instant cake mix and another of her frosting. Then consider the hidden possibilities, and select judiciously from your rack of Schilling’s spices, your Heinz food colorings. Employ your imagination.

Mom baked ginger cakes, spice cakes, angel food and devil’s‑food cakes. Cakes with creamy egg whites whipped into frothy Swiss mountain peaks, cakes dyed scarlet for St. Valentine’s Day. As her confidence grew, she deviated from the pathways of Betty Crocker to fashion from scratch the delicious black licorice and bubble gum cakes that marked my birthdays once I turned eight and could be trusted to chew and not swallow the embedded morsels. My mother baked cakes that relied on the juices and the zest of lemons and tangerines. Still others from the pairing of peaches and pineapples, apples and raisins, apples and oranges.

On Saturday mornings at the grocery store, my mother and I wandered the produce aisles while she sang to herself about her own good fortune, this limitless abundance, the miracle of California. Life was so easy now. I pushed the shopping cart and together we discussed her bright ideas for new creations – an Independence Day sheet cake in the form of a frosted white flag with fifty red stars fit into the upper left corner: When you cut the first slice, the inside was colored patriotic blue. Mom mulled over the possibilities as she stroked the stalks of asparagus and polished the softball-sized grapefruit in her palms.

“So moist,” said my father, shoveling into his mouth this Saturday afternoon’s first slice. His gaping maw was filled with an undercooked, liquescent chrome‑yellow cake pitted with tart wells of gelatinous goo that caused his lips to stick and smack with each bite. He eyed my mother rapturously.

“What’s this green stuff?” I wondered. To me, a cake was just a cake and I could not hide my doubts about some of her improvements.

“Lime Jell‑O. Do you like it?”

“I guess.”

Another bite, my tongue dabbing uncertainly at the metallic taste of chemical innovation.

“What’s this stuff on top?”

“That’s imitation citrus Dream Fluff frosting, dear. Don’t let it bother you.”

“So light and refreshing,” observed my father, endorsing her latest masterpiece. He wiggled a dollop of sweet plasticene concoction on the prong of his fork. “With that sharp little after‑bite on the tip of the tongue.”

“I’m glad you like it, honey.”

“It’s all so creamy, I don’t know if I can stop myself from having more, I can’t seem to get enough.”

“You go right ahead, dear.”

“Makes me want to take a little mid‑day lie‑down with my wife.”

Mom cut him a second sumptuous slice. The cake supplely yielded, coating the knife blade with a moist smear of vegetable oil. “We could do that,” she agreed, her voice fluttering a provocative half‑tone higher. My father regarded me out of the corner of his eye, wondering if his good fortune would hold for another precious thirty minutes, and then he scooted me out into the front yard and firmly closed the door.

* * * * *

Mom wrote to Betty Crocker.

Dear Betty Crocker,

My husband enjoys all your cake mixes, and what I do with them, but he sometimes wonders if they couldn’t be even richer. I’ve wondered too, and I think I’ve solved the problem. I now substitute half the water in your recipes on the back of the box for two cups of sour cream. The sour cream makes the cake even creamier and moister, the way my husband prefers. I know that not every person would want sour cream in large helpings with their cake, but my husband is still very thin from a serious illness of some years past, and his appetite is remarkable. I hope you will feel free to share my suggestion with other housewives.

Yours Very Truly,

Betty Crocker – who was really forty‑eight different women working in the home service department at the corporate headquarters in Minneapolis – wrote back and thanked Mom. But General Mills did not acknowledge my mother’s recipe in their newsletters or apply her helpful hint to the back of their cake boxes. Nevertheless, we continued to be a Betty Crocker family, dabbling with both Pillsbury and Duncan Hines, but ultimately rejecting them in the same way that the men of our town might trifle with a Pontiac or Rambler, but finally had to come down on the side of either Ford or Chevy.

Aunt Tina did not bake, but she had her own tricks in the kitchen that astonished us all. She molded patties of ground round into the shape of T‑bone steaks, coated them with Wheaties, and inserted a sliced carrot length‑ways to impersonate the bone. She mashed potatoes for Christmas and sculpted them into the form of a squatting chicken or a snowy alpine peak sprinkled with a forest of parsley. Her Jell‑O molds were constructed in layers, a jiggling ensemble of pineapple, grape, and strawberry riveted together with a dozen maraschino cherries.

In the new world, everything seemed possible, the ingenuity that won the war now lavishing its innovations on the homefront.

Uncle Win purchased vinyl flooring, wood paneling, and a portable phone. On alternating pay days, he set money aside against a new washer/dryer, electric blankets, electric floor polisher, electric can opener, and matching electric toothbrushes. Win bought Aunt Tina a new refrigerator the size of two linebackers, but colored pink; later, they acquired a tan freezer for the garage. The door to their new stove featured a glass window: You could watch the food cook. Perhaps due to all this time‑saving technology and convenience in the kitchen – not to mention the end of his own cooking once he married Tina – Win put on an extra twenty pounds; then ten more.

Dad called him weak, fatso, incapable of self‑discipline. But with so much of everything now available, Dad put on fifteen pounds, too. That year in the Christmas photographs, the two brothers crowded the dinner table turkey like rival snow men.

“Franklin,” asked my mother one Saturday afternoon, serving him an oversized slice of raspberry‑fig cake. “Franklin, dear,” she repeated rather stiffly, allowing all this new possession tempt her into forgetting the basic nature of my father. “When do you think we might be able to buy a dishwasher?”

At first, Dad really did not understand the question. How did you “buy” a dishwasher? His mother Clara had been a dish washer, as well as a cook – but no, of course, that was not what she meant. Dad first pretended that he hadn’t heard the question, and later, following numerous repetitions and clarifications, he simply uttered with momentous conviction: “Never!”

But along with our household’s Kenwood automatic food mixer, the Westinghouse portable steam iron, a RCA AM/FM radio alarm clock with snooze control, and the Ronson cordless electric shaver (used for one week, and then Dad returned to his Gilette injectable safety razor), we soon added to our own collection of luxuries a fully‑automatic, front‑loading, roll‑away dishwasher on sale for ten days only at Wards.

We were not competing with Uncle Win and Aunt Tina: Dad said so repeatedly, with exasperation and hints of savagery. Nevertheless, our dishwasher was bigger than their dishwasher, newer, too, and we should never forget that it cost less. (“I recognize a bargain when I see one,” crowed my father, hinting that my uncle could be bamboozled by those sharpies on the appliance floor at Sears.) America offered so much more than anybody needed of everything, he rhapsodized. Dad spoke passionately of Nylon, Dacron, Rayon, Zylon. His eyes bulged like pies, his heart beat faster with the utterance of each improvement. We were becoming new people in the new nation without even trying. The dangers were immense.

* * * *

You have tested positive for tuberculosis, the doctor informed my father. It was 1938, and he was twenty‑four years old. For three months, he had been losing weight, down to 145 pounds, though he stood nearly six‑feet tall. The doctor explained that he would have to go to a sanatorium until he recovered; or not.

The California state legislature had passed a statute pertaining to all individuals infected with the tubercle bacillus. If citizens did not adhere to a system of laws, my father reasoned, anarchy might prevail. In Madrid, Mussolini’s Fiat fighter planes were strafing civilians. In Baton Rouge, they had gunned down Huey Long on the courthouse steps, proving that even the Kingfish could not survive by his own lights. Still, Franklin knew he could not submit without a struggle.

He had arrived in San Francisco looking for work, aiming to enlist with Harry Bridges on the docks, or join the Seaman’s Union with Lundberg, Larsen, and the rest of the Swedes. Anybody could see that a war was coming in Europe. Everybody would be working soon, shifts around the clock, more sweat and good pay than you could hope for. But some days all he could do was sleep.

His joints pained throughout the mornings, and at night he broke into fever sweats. Then came the cough: his blood spit up suddenly, tattooing the sidewalk. His voice echoed and rasped, like somebody blowing through a long hollow reed, and the growl deep in the center of his chest, with its subsequent frantic gasping for breath, startled him awake every night.

At his rooming house in the Mission district, Franklin planned to lie low for a spell, get better somehow. For the landlady, he invented a kidney ailment. He bought his own plate, bowl, glass, and silverware, determined not to infect anybody else. For weeks, he thumbed through old copies of Life, never leaving his bed, howling up blood into pages of newsprint that he threw out the window on mornings before the street sweeper arrived.

The landlady told her husband that she suspected he was a “lunger.” Franklin paid his second month’s rent and a few days later, the county public health nurse showed up at his door, insisting that he turn himself into the sanatorium.

But I don’t have any money, he argued. I’ve spent every red cent I’ve saved over the past six months.

Then the County will have to pay for you to get better, she said, stressing his added contribution to the common burden. She was a sharp, pointed stick of a woman, pink‑faced and squint‑eyed, furious at my father’s debility.

Franklin checked into the county hospital, where they X‑rayed him repeatedly. A brawny male orderly with a boxer’s flat face and broken nose inspected him for lice and then scrubbed him down with lye soap in the huge porcelain basin that served as the institution’s bath tub. He clipped Franklin’s hair short enough to suit the army and issued him a barracks‑green bathrobe, baby‑blue pajamas with a pocket stitched at the belly like a marsupial’s pouch, and a pair of surprisingly well‑made slippers with sewn leather soles – meant to last the life of several patients.

On his first day, Franklin padded down the zigzag corridor that served as a feeding tube into the TB ward. The walls were painted flat‑white and the rails of overhead lighting hummed softly, allied in the unnatural pursuit of perpetual, indeterminate day. He would not make the return trip for nearly four years.

Between noon and four, the supervising nurse permitted no talking, whispering, walking through the grounds or loitering in corridors, no visiting other patients, reading, or writing letters. Crying was strictly forbidden at any time. The head clerk ordered Franklin to sign a statement declaring that he understood all the regulations and agreed to obey them. He stored the rule book in his locker stamped with his patient number: 01789.

In the public hospital’s TB ward, Franklin met men who had also vanished from the world, captives of illness neglecting to inform their families and friends of their descent into public charity. Everybody had a story to tell about how they had contracted the disease, with the point always being that it had not really been their fault. Patients grasped that the world outside regarded their infection as proof of a moral lapse, the fevered mark of negligence, ignorance, indolence. In truth, tuberculosis was most frequently a disease of the underfed and the exhausted. No longer perceived to be a malady of the oversensitive, the poet’s disease, TB had more realistically established itself among unemployed bricklayers and overworked stevedores; tramps, migrants, and job‑seekers – ordinary people, such as my father; the dispossessed.

At first, Franklin believed like all the young men and young women who took up temporary residence in the public TB ward that he would eventually recover and return to the world. But he quickly learned to stop talking and even stop thinking about one word in particular: Tomorrow. Tomorrow was no longer part of his vocabulary. The present absorbed my father’s future like a sandy beach soaking up each recurrent wave. He rose, walked, slept, ate, read, slept a great deal more; always in the endless, tedious, endless present.

At the conclusion of his first month, my father wrote a letter to Clara, then working as a house cook for a wealthy family in Portland.

Now, Ma, don’t you worry about me, just take care of yourself, and I will be just fine. Always have been, always will.

Your loving son,

Franklin

The effort wore him out for another day. Had he even slightly more energy, he might have been tempted to tell his mother about how he had accidentally contracted the disease. How he had picked up a hitch‑hiker outside of Klamath Falls, some ordinary Joe scratching around for a job like everybody else. How the man had coughed all the way to San Francisco. How it had not actually been his own fault that he was now almost certain to die.

* * * * *

“You choose your tools like you choose your friends,” my father first told me when I was ten years old. “For their worth and their weight. You understand what I mean?”

“No.”

Dad glanced down at me to see if I was smarting‑off; and then, with a deliberate flick of his head, he returned to the task of wiping out his sockets with a dry, clean cloth, figuring: No, not just yet.

“A house is like a machine,” Dad lectured, knowing my mother couldn’t bear to hear another word on this subject. His voice climbed and then stiffened, indicating that we were embarking upon a truth I should take pains to absorb. “A house looks like it’s just standing there, sure, that’s a fact. But deep inside, beyond those corners you can’t see your way around, far up in the nooks and crannies, there’s a secret life taking place that you can’t hardly imagine.”

Everything outside and inside our house, my father explained, from the furnace, pipes, and plumbing to the exterior woodwork, wiring, and paint job, all required constant vigilance, repair, and general maintenance.

“General maintenance,” he proclaimed, “is one of the secrets of life.”

I nodded and ran a whisk broom lightly over the work bench; then I sorted through the contents of my father’s toolbox, his treasure chest.

A hammer and a rubber mallet. Screwdrivers, wrenches, and sockets. Hand drill and bits. Several grips, awls, picks, and gouges. An auto‑roll metal measuring tape, spirit level, and miniature T‑square. A vice and a clamp. Plumb bob, soldering iron, tin shears, pliers, file, wire snippers, rubber cement, razor blade. I allowed the claw end of a hammer to cleave my palm and then dangle from my fingers, getting a feel for its heft, speculating on its usefulness. I liked the way the nails and bolts and washers rattled around in their ancient mayonnaise jars as I plucked them down from the wall of cabinet shelves – each container segregated by size and purpose, labeled with an ink‑pen scrawl across a strip of tan masking tape.

My father had always wielded tools to make a living, although he did not actually possess an aptitude for machinery. But Dad could no more imagine hiring another man to plumb the toilet, rewire the fuse box, or patch the roof and refasten the aluminum gutters than he could picture himself taking a taxi each morning to work or investing his paycheck in pork belly futures instead of U.S. Government Savings Bonds. People did these things, it was true. Just not our people.

“You ready, boy?” Dad returned the fresh‑swiped sockets to their steel case.

I nodded, and then I strapped on my leather tool belt, that Christmas’ best present. It included a child’s‑size hammer, screw driver, and measuring tape. I wore the tool belt all year, thinking it much finer than a gun and holster.

As he closed the garage door, Dad warned: “You keep every one of those tools where they belong and out of mischief.”

“Sure, sure,” I said. “But let’s get going.”

We launched ourselves down the sidewalk, the morning breeze stiffened by the fragrance of spring. Slender young plum and cherry trees in pink feathery bloom, trellised jasmine, Saturday’s fresh‑mowed grass, one yard after another after another, down the street and around the block, property lines dissolving and then binding together our neighborhood into a emerald stream of uninterrupted lawn. Working men on their day off labored in their T‑shirts, watering their rhododendrons, clipping their privet hedges. A pitcher of iced lemonade set out by the wife perspired in the shade of the juniper bush as the Giant’s game blared from a transistor radio the size of a pack of Camels.

Everybody in Washington Manor puttered. Uncle Win had built a slatted redwood fence for the wisteria in his backyard and planted tea roses in redwood boxes running up the front walkway. Dad forged master plans: rows of Mexican mock‑orange to blot out the neighbors’ view into our living room, puddles of concrete to serve as steps across the muddied yard in winter, a hummingbird feeder suspended from the fiberglass awning come spring.

The first generation of suburban pioneers: They replaced the tar roof with wooden shingles, added‑on a rumpus room, and built a red‑brick fireplace out back with the handprints of both parents and each small child impressed into the wet cement.

We had plenty to lose, Dad often told me, meaning to frighten and instruct – but merely baffling me as a child.

Work hard, he warned, stay lucky.

We were all lucky as hell.

Things couldn’t possibly stay this good – because they never did.

We walked in silence until we reached Chestnut family’s house, on the corner of Pond Street and Princeton Avenue. My father wanted to study their hole in the ground, the source from which an additional bedroom would rise by the end of summer. By dint of the time and labor invested, this hole now belonged to Mr. Chestnut; the hole was something he had made and he had done a fine job of it, too. He could feel proud of that hole, said Dad, and he offered Mr. Chestnut help with framing and then pouring the concrete. They shook hands on it.

After we got home, I asked Dad: “Aren’t we ever going build a bomb shelter?”

He was scrambling around on his hands and knees in the side yard, placing the final touches on the four‑foot squiggle of a fish pond carved into the clay outside our living room.

“Of course not.”

He scoured the fiberglass bottom with a Brillo pad, refining it to peach‑skin perfection. Then he draped a hose over the edge and filled the pool two inches higher than normal to test for cracks.

“Phil Barnes said his dad is going to build a bomb shelter in their backyard because of the Russians.”

Dad glanced up from his fish pond, giving his arm a rest. “Don’t forget,” he reminded me, “old man Barnes is an idiot.” More scrubbing and polishing, smoothing the ultramarine glaze. And then Dad’s head whipped back up: “Now don’t go telling your mother I said so.”

Over time, Dad dotted the perimeter of the pond with ferns and grasses, cultivating a wild, tropical skyline that resembled King Kong’s island. At the far end, he installed a two‑foot‑high pumice mountain and a motorized pump to power the waterfall. A half‑dozen goldfish purchased for a dime apiece from the big tank at Rexall’s swam in rotation.

My father enjoyed watching his dime store goldfish pass their lazy days in the pond he had constructed, nibbling at their ruffled carpet of green algae and then rising suddenly to swallow a mosquito skimming the surface. When one fish was perceived to be pursuing another in tireless, moralizing circles, day after day, Dad took to calling the pair Jean Valjean and Javert.

“Who are they?” I asked.

“Prisoner 24601,” he answered, “and his nemesis, who might as well be in prison himself.”

* * * * *

Win visited Franklin once during the three and a half years he spent in the TB ward, and then only to borrow his tools.

Man, this is the life of Riley, Win told my father. You got nothing to do but sit back and relax. There are some pretty nurses around here too, Slick. When you start noticing, you’ll know you’re getting better.

In the tuberculosis wing at San Francisco General, many of the nurses and doctors turned out to be former TB‑ers themselves. None admitted it directly to the patients, but word circulated since they were usually the stricter, more demanding staff. “It’s your job to get well,” one of the nurses lectured my father and the other three men who shared his dormitory alcove. She was one of the old lungers, bulky and wide‑bottomed in her recuperated good health, intolerant of malingering and weakness.

“This is my brother,” Dad explained to the nurse on the day of Win’s visit. Win was grinning like crazy, determined to impress.

“Well,” she admitted with a scowl, “it would be” – and Franklin had to agree.

Franklin didn’t believe his brother was suited to survive tuberculosis. Bumming around the country, getting into trouble, that was more Win’s speed. My father never resisted orders, as Win would have. He slept dreamlessly for fifteen hours at a stretch, erased from the world, sufficiently disciplined to remain immobile and mute. Win couldn’t have done that either, not even for two weeks.

In his third month, Franklin started to wander more extensively around the TB wing, meeting his fellow patients. Some of them were interesting people, he now told his brother, characters outside his previous realm of acquaintance. Before getting sick, several could claim distinction, even titles: Professor, Police Sergeant, Chef.

On Franklin’s floor resided both a FBI agent and a counterfeiter; they had each met Al Capone on Alcatraz. Franklin talked for hours with a professional jockey who had served with the Abraham Lincoln Battalion in the debacle at Ebro. They discussed the Catholic church, Spanish wine, and Uncle Joe Stalin’s betrayal of the Republican forces. He made friends with a pickpocket who spent two months wising up his fellow patients to all the tricks of his trade before he died.

“It takes a backbone to get out of here,” Franklin told Win, “you got to be determined, you got to sweat. And you better plan to take care of yourself, you understand, because they can’t cure you here, they really can’t. You do it yourself, or it don’t get done, right?”

Franklin acted as though Win was the patient, a suggestion Win abominated. Win was younger than Franklin, always the healthy one. Stronger than a horse. He wasn’t the fellow who had picked up tuberculosis.

As the months passed, Franklin began to read, distinguishing himself from his brother who never read anything before the war except the racing form and then later maybe a Zane Grey or Mickey Spillaine that he might have found aboard ship. The hospital maintained a library of two thousand volumes. Once a week, Franklin made his way down the winding, flat‑white corridor, up a flight of stairs, and into the anteroom that housed a collection reserved exclusively for the residents of the tuberculosis ward. Franklin vowed to read every book in that room if he did not get better soon or die first. During his three and a half years of removal from the world, Franklin read most of Mark Twain’s books, Superman comics, copies of The Daily Worker smuggled into the hospital by members of the maintenance staff who were eventually dismissed for their enterprise. For the first time in his life, my father couldn’t work. Doctor’s orders; he could only rest. He could read.

He read Charles Dickens’ ghost stories and Our Mutual Friend; and then Francis Parkman, the Old Testament, Sinclair Lewis, Lewis Carroll, and Les Miserables.

My father read omnivorously, ferociously, indiscriminately. In the country of the white death – the phrase that the jockey had taken from the Spaniards to describe the fluttering bed sheet finality of tuberculosis (and that he invoked repeatedly in conversation to suggest some distinction from his fellow patients, up until the morning he died) – in this waiting room for the worst to come, Franklin’s incapacity meant opportunity. There were always books in his hands now, rather than dirty old tools.

Franklin sped through Darwin’s account of the voyage of the Beagle, he absorbed H.G. Wells and Jules Verne and occasionally pondered what the future would look like tomorrow after tomorrow after tomorrow.

He introduced himself to the contrasting visions of our Republic as propounded by Thomas Jefferson and James Thurber. He read the illustrated biographies of Tecumseh, Crazy Horse, and Geronimo.

He pursued the lurching, pot‑hole trail of the self‑taught, never quite confident about what he should master. Years later, he would quote Richard III and recite long passages from Edmund Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac to the mailman, mocking the neighbors who had never heard of Baku or Samarkand.

Franklin figured he might as well loan Win his tools when his brother asked for them. Win declared that he had a chance to join the merchant marine – a job that never did pan out, though it propelled him into the navy. “Take them,” said Franklin, “but take good care of them, too. I might need them myself someday.” Both Win and Franklin knew the odds of that happening.

*****

My father devoted his two-week summer vacation to driving us around Oregon’s back country, touring what seemed like a thousand miles of mountain loops and zigzag shortcuts to bear witness to what he had accomplished during the Depression.

Dad had joined the Civilian Conservation Corps several years before contracting TB, and in the riotous good health of his youth, he cut terraces into hillsides, strung telephone lines, and helped his crew run roads like needles through the backwoods, patching together the state’s small counties. The CCC planted thousands of trees, carved hundreds of hard‑clay drainage ditches, bushwhacked acres of forest shrub to cut firebreaks for the smoke‑jump crews training at Skagit and Mt. Hood.

On our last day in Oregon, my father got lost for a couple of hours in the mountains and swore up a blue streak – at himself mainly, for being so damn forgetful. Finally, he negotiated the most circuitous route possible to our destination, his New Deal stone bridge.

Our Chevy eased into a fat turnabout and Dad flicked off the ignition with a rough snap of his wrist. Then he opened the door, stepped outside, and strode silently toward the river bank. I caught up with him and we walked together. We mounted the bridge. I could feel the platform wobble from the rush of waters below.

“Smell the sockeye?” he asked, turning his face to the wind off the river. I nodded vigorously though I had no idea what he meant.

Dad leaned over the faded whitewash rail, straining to wet his face with spray. He ran his hands over the pillars, observing the smoothness of each stone. If I listened carefully, he said, I could hear the roar pitched back from two hundred miles downstream where the river hitched up with larger waters and turned all this rushing into practical power. He was talking about progress. Progress and FDR had brought electricity to the dark corners of Oregon. For farmers and loggers – “families like ours,” he said, though I understood he wasn’t talking about my mother and me – this intervention by the government had resulted in a spider web alliance of electric lights, the front room blare of the radio, an aperture to the rest of the world. It had been the start of everything getting better and better in this country, the dawn of promises that maybe promised too much.

“You got any idea how many of us there was in the CCC?”

I pressed my back flat against the guard rail and squinted out the answer.

“You told me more than two million yesterday.”

“Two and a half‑million,” Dad said, his voice dwelling on each syllable to suggest that my own answer lacked precision.

Two and a half‑million: I found the figure meaningless. But Dad continued to spout his precious numbers, a preoccupation with quantity, size, and proportion streaming through his speech. His company of 181 young recruits, aged eighteen to twenty‑five, had during a single month in 1935 devoted some 17,000 man hours to planting 25,000 pine and black locust seedlings. His voice grated against each number, notifying me to pay attention: Never forget the two hundred cubic yards of earth they had moved to flatten the mountain; the six hundred small dams his crew had erected; the innumerable hillsides they sloped, inserting Bermuda grass sod along a dark line of endless ditch banks. Dad had committed his entire eighteen months to memory; he still relished reciting the details to anybody who would listen.

I tried to let it all soak in. But I just couldn’t. At my age, I saw no point in the past, everything exhausted by duty and resignation. His splintering oak and stone relic seemed like a burden, a gimmick. If I had had the words, I would have called it sheer vanity.

We studied the waters and failed to speak.

At last, my father turned to me, settled the hard calluses of his hand on my soft shoulder, and pressed his fingers into my flesh. “You got to be something, you see? You got to learn everything you can or otherwise you’re just going to be a prisoner, like we were.”

“You’re not a prisoner,” I informed him, weary of his history, his fears. A station wagon stalled at the foot of the bridge. The driver honked and waved, and my father signaled back for him and his family to forge ahead. My father, captain of his bridge.

“I was a prisoner,” he said, “and you’ll be one too, if you don’t learn enough to make you different from every other son of a bitch out there scratching around for a job.”

I shrugged. I wasn’t worried about anything I couldn’t see. I certainly didn’t worry about the future and a life of regrets.

“There’s just not a lot of room for mistakes,” Dad said. “Not for people like us.”

Was he thinking about our family now, was he speaking about me? Too little time had elapsed between Dad last laying his hands upon his New Deal stone bridge in triumph and this present moment of prosperous uncertainty. Tomorrow would arrive because there was no holding back tomorrow. But tomorrow could bring eviction, trouble, and despair just as easily as another chance.

The station wagon sputtered along, the waters roared beneath us. I could hear him, but I didn’t understand yet. We eased away from each other, leaned against the railing, and let our eyes follow the leaves skimming downstream.

*****

Half-way into his fourth year, Franklin stumbled into the most important book of his long stay in the TB ward.

The Star Rover by Jack London chronicled the exploits of a Swede from Minnesota, presently a San Quentin convict. In the novel, the Swede learned through rigorous self‑discipline to induce a trance that could send his mind sprawling from the lockdown of solitary confinement into an universe of previous incarnations. In the privacy of his cell, the prisoner relived past lifetimes as a medieval court jester, monk, Elizabethan soldier, ship‑wrecked sailor, Viking mercenary, law giver and judge.

My father read the book as simple truth. He had himself experienced a sudden transportation from his own cell of sickness into the realm of other lives, this new world of books.

Franklin thought about Achilles. He had encountered the ancient Greek hero in an illustrated volume by Bullfinch; then stumbled upon him again, nearly two years later, in Homer’s Odyssey. Achilles was dead and reigning over Hades, a shade of his previous existence. If he only were alive today, he told a visitor to the underworld, he would happily forego all his past glories. There is nothing like life, Achilles proclaimed, prisoner to the grey light of the dead.

Achilles made my father think of simple things: wet grass mashed under bare feet – he could feel its knife‑edges, prickly and cool, even though he hadn’t run across a lawn or walked through a field in three years. The sound of rain on a river. A cold beer drawn from the tap in a smoky tavern with the jukebox blaring and people dancing. He knew he was going to die. After three years, almost nobody got better. The doctors agreed that he showed no signs of improvement. Some weeks, the cough grew worse, his joints pained again; all he could do was sleep. Still – remember Achilles – even this was better than death. The thing was to be alive; then something was possible. Achilles was nothing, air and reputation. Franklin wanted to live.

In his third year, my father began to imagine himself getting better every day. He didn’t daydream about a miraculous recovery, but like the prisoner in the Jack London novel, he applied the possibility of a new life to himself, a regimen of maintenance and repair. He invented in these moments of absolute, fabulous concentration an existence beyond his cell. He ordered his mind’s eye to envision his lungs clearing, his body growing stronger. He had been right all along: They could not cure you here, they really couldn’t. You had to do it yourself. Some days Franklin could only work up the energy for five or ten minutes of will power. He did whatever he could. There is nothing like life.

In three months – performing on cue for the nurse – Franklin could expand his lungs like rubber bags and they didn’t hurt, he didn’t cough. The doctor told him that he was very surprised, very pleased: Franklin now tested negative. There are no miracles, my father decided, but there is the miraculous triumph of a man determined to survive – which he can do, if he’s willing to make an instrument of his own mind and commit himself to the job. Without self‑discipline a man didn’t have a chance. You worked hard all day, and then the next day, you got up and did it again.

When Franklin was released from the hospital, Win had already shipped out for the Pacific. He left Franklin’s tools with Clara and she sent them promptly to Franklin. A hammer was missing. Franklin asked Clara to write Win, find out where the hammer went to. Did Win gamble it away or sell it, did he simply lose it somehow? Clara wrote to her younger son; but in his letters home, Win never mentioned the hammer.

Franklin heard the news about Pearl Harbor while driving over the Bay Bridge, hurrying home from weekend overtime at the Alameda Naval Air Station to his studio apartment in the Mission District. Franklin had been back in the world four months, fully employed for almost three. He couldn’t believe the Japanese would attack Pearl Harbor. Win’s ship was stationed at Pearl; he had told Clara that he loved Hawaii. The Japanese must be crazy, thought Dad, foolish beyond belief. They couldn’t hope to win the war. Everything my father had read about the Far East, the history of naval conflict, the physics and chemistry of munitions manufacture and the economics of industrial capacity told him so.

Franklin’s car approached the magnificent arc of the Bay Bridge, traffic running either direction on the top span in those days. Some cars pulled over after hearing the news on their own radios, the drivers compelled to alert their fellow citizens. They flagged down other motorists, screaming nonsense into the deafening wind. Franklin’s blue Hudson reached the cantilever’s peak, the bridge swaying above the water, the city revealed. He drove slowly enough to inspect the ferry building and the ships docked at the port, and he imagined them shrouded in flame with Jap Zeroes flush in the skies. He thought about Pearl, his brother, the inconceivable stupidity of it all, and he wondered whatever happened to that hammer.

*****

At the end of our two-week vacation, we drove out to the Alameda Naval Air Base to pick up Dad’s paycheck. Every summer, I accompanied my father and afterwards we toured the hangars, visiting the airplanes scheduled for repair. Already I knew that I would not come again.

At the main gate, the Marine guard grimly inspected Dad’s pass and then allowed one eye to roll up suspiciously to settle upon me.

“That’s my boy,” my father grumbled, annoyed by the red tape and military idiocy. Still, I felt proud: There was no question in his mind: I was his boy.

Aircraft were stationed along the runways, navy planes lifting off and roaring above as we trod from the parking lot along a series of flat‑gray hangars. The exertions of the air base, the F‑11s screaming overhead, the rumble of Jeeps, personnel carriers, and armored caravans, reminded me that at any moment terrible things might happen anywhere in the world and we must always be ready. I could feel the heat of the blacktop radiating up through the soles of my white high-top Keds and I knew that someday I would also take my place in the perilous world.

In the distance, Marines drilled parade routines on the pavement between a set of antique cannons, and crews of workmen in blue coveralls dashed across the tarmac to inspect a Phantom jet flickering down from its test flight. We strolled into Dad’s hangar, and I surveyed the damaged machinery scattered across the work benches and suspended from the rafters. A fuselage from a downed Convair, the partial wing of the latest McDonnell fighter jet, a dozen Wright engines waiting to be rebored and fitted.

They were flying F‑104s that year, the Starfighters later shipped to Taiwan. One plane stood tail‑up, its needle‑nose pricking the tarmac. Several armored slats were missing from the side. Dad strode decisively towards the nine‑step metal ladder propped against its frame and fit into the hole. He shook the ladder once to establish its balance and gripped its sides with both hands.

“Climb on up,” he invited. Dad had filled out the papers in the office and received his check. His mood was buoyant and unbelieving: He had just picked up two weeks’ wages without working.

“Up the ladder?”

“That’s right.”

We clambered into the airplane, sliding through a crawl space that seemed too small even for me. My father maneuvered instinctively, shifting his weight, easing into each vacancy like a droplet of mercury. He balanced on the balls of his feet and burrowed through the fuselage with the speed of a ground hog, leading our way into the cockpit. Numbers adorned a thousand dials radiating from the pilot’s control board.

“Should we take her up?” Dad asked.

My smile hung crooked across my face. “You mean in the air?”

“Yeah, you want me to fly us back to Washington Manor? Once we get a few thousand feet up in the clouds, I can radio one of the guys in my shop to drive our car home.”

His eyes settled upon my own with deliberate stillness, his hands effortlessly capping his bended knees.

Of course, I knew he was kidding. “When did you learn how to fly?” I kidded back.

“Oh, hell, I bet I can figure it out. What do you say?”

I said: No.

I knew that he was fooling with me. Just the same, I should have said: Yes, Yes, Yes, Let’s Go, Let’s Fly Right Home. Then Dad would have needed to say something else, something sharp and funny that would have got us both laughing, our spirits lifted by the prospect that one day after tomorrow or tomorrow anything might be possible – if not for him, then more probably for me. But I had understood for some time now that my father would not have been allowed to fly the plane home or even remain inside the cockpit for much longer without the good excuse of fixing something. Dad’s suggestion of flight only pointed out what he could not do, what he certainly did not know – the limits of even workmanship and diligence. I felt the sudden closeness of the cockpit, the slope of the shell rounding so low over the control panel and nearly touching my shoulders that I could not stand for more than a few more moments. I turned towards the hole, wanting to scramble down the nine steps of the ladder to gasp in the sweat and oil-sweet air of the hangar, ashamed and elated to leave the confines of my father’s cell.

“Next time,” I said, my back turned against Dad, whispering over one shoulder, lying to us both.

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About Fred Setterberg

Fred Setterberg's most recent book is Under the Dragon: California's New Culture, written with Lonny Shavelson and published by Heyday Books (http://www.underthedragon.com/). He is also the author of The Roads Taken: Travels Through America's Literary Landscapes, winner of the AWP prize in creative nonfiction. His essays and stories have appeared in The Southern Review, The Iowa Review, The Georgia Review, and many others. He is a recipient of a NEA fellowship in creative writing, the William Faulkner-William Wisdom essay prize, and numerous journalism awards. This story is part of a new book-in-progress about the rise and fall of a blue collar suburb.

5 Comments

  1. Tim Caulfield
    Posted December 2008 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    A wonderfully poignant piece. I could easily see Fred, the child, eyes wide listening to his father. Well done.

  2. Linda Morse
    Posted December 2008 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    Wonderfully evokes another era through concise and rich detail of everyday objects and places. Great story of a man using his idle time to grow and enrich his mind and life through reading and his determination to heal his body. Terrific!

  3. Tracey Seltzer
    Posted January 2009 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    This piece, with its treasure trove of details, is a pleasure to read aloud. Everything from cakes to tools to a walk through a springtime neighborhood to the slow-motion shuffle of a TB ward is rendered with such immediacy. These scenes are so fresh they seem to describe what happened yesterday instead events from decades long gone. No dust on these people and places; they’re right here. I’m looking forward to the book!

  4. Rick Neal
    Posted January 2009 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    Absolutely wonderful! I enjoyed the depth with which you developed the characters and shared their experiences.

  5. Stanley K.
    Posted June 2012 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    The author is wrong on the facts that lend credence to the story. Just in the first few pages he credits Heinz with making food colorings in the same sentence he mentions Schillings, the actual manufacturer. He writes of a Kenwood mixer when he mist have meant Kenmore, and that his dad used a Gillette injector razor, which wasn’t made until 1973 instead of the vastly more common Schick injector.
    Sorry, but I can read no further without doubting the author’s recollections.

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