Climate, Engineers and Dad

“Climate Best by Government Test” is what they say about the town where I was raised. At some point Redwood City had a weather station. Based on a pre-WWI study the claim was its weather was similar to the Canary Islands and tied for best in the world.

It’s pretty good weather, I’ll admit, but the sign should say, “Climate Mostly Best…”.

When weary winter morphs into spring’s mid-90s temps, it feels pretty danged hot but a welcome respite from rain and drear. The heat sets fruit on budding trees, swimming pools beckon, and students revel in the knowledge that the year’s final school bell isn’t far away. But in September and October when the kids of summer have been shoved back into their stuffy classrooms and temps again reach the century mark, climate doesn’t feel best by anyone’s test. It’s a mostly situation.

I’ll come back to the weather in a moment.

Growing up an engineer’s daughter was a mostly proposition as well. Mostly great when a hair dryer blew for the last time before blowing up, or a toaster wouldn’t toast. Especially if one’s old Karmann Ghia suddenly went kaput when heading out for school or work. Being an engineer’s daughter was a downright blessing on those occasions.

4cbdc5fbf25f9d63ead5ef8d01491593--chatty-cathy-doll-toysNot so much on Christmas morning though when at eight years old my new Chatty Cathy was requisitioned for scientific observation. How does she talk?

I don’t know, Dad, but please give her back!

Three things called to my dad’s engineering spirit – curiosity, necessity and whimsy. Chatty Cathy? Curiosity. A two-sided jack-o’-lantern affixed to a BBQ rotisserie motor, rotating fright and fierce on one side, glee and gladness on the other? Novel whimsy! Even better. Hero to neighborhood kids as well as his own. SCORE!  

 It was a long time before we had a new car. My parents waxed poetic about their brand spankin’ new 1950 Plymouth purchased soon after marriage. I found photos in Mom’s albums, Betsy the green Plymouth all shined up with young Dad standing proudly at her side. But after I was born and two boys followed, used cars in varying condition became the norm. The old Plymouth, no longer reliable transportation, was sold to make way for a station wagon, good for carpooling.

In 1964 Dad bought Mom the car of her fancy, the first new one since Betsy. It was ordered in a special color and she impatiently awaited its delivery. A 1965 Pontiac Le Mans coupe in “Iris Mist. ” For the unfamiliar, that’s metallic lavender. She asked for white interior. A real lady’s car, or maybe a lady of the night? Never mind…  We kids perfected a contortion act to first fold ourselves into the back seat and then stay put, fighting about whose turn it was to sit the middle with no room for legs.

This is actually a GTO, same year, same color, same body except for the air scoop

Mom’s pride. Our torture.

Why Dad chose to go rogue with engineering creativity in her car I have no idea, but he did – to the delight of his kids, the annoyance of his wife, and a red light and siren pull-over by law enforcement.

Silly Putty came in different containers, most frequently the Silly Putty egg. At holidays there was novelty packaging. For instance, a skeleton head at Halloween.

A little drilling was all it took to add small red bulbs as eyes and a bit of wiring to connect the plastic head to the brake and turn lights of Mom’s fantastic machine. The skull sat happily on the back deck behind the seat, its luminous eyes beaming, blinking, and braking the driver’s intentions.

1960s-monster-print-putty-loose_1_cbf5ddad86b916cafb46cb65ce3f572fTexas State Police weren’t impressed by Dad’s automotive innovation, but we were ecstatic.  Rear seat crowding was overlooked in order to be closer to his invention.

Did Mom alert law enforcement? A mystery. Also an effective take-down notice.

Definitely Dad whimsy.

Back to the dog days of Redwood City’s long summer turned autumn. I think of scratchy, itchy pleated wool uniform skirts that rubbed against my perspiring, sticky legs while seated at my desk. A hot September school day.

After a roasting afternoon of classes my brothers and I arrived at home (in the city with Climate Mostly Best by Government Test) to find a wooden painting ladder standing in the entry hall. Atop the ladder was the huge aluminum pot my mother and grandmother used for boiling gnocchi. Inside the pot was a block of ice sitting in water. Hanging from the ceiling above the pot was a kitchen tea towel just long enough to touch the icy slurry. The ladder was placed in front of the cold air return of our forced air furnace. The heat was off but the fan was on, sucking cool moist air from the towel into the return and out vents throughout the house. Dad swamp cooled the place with his ladder, ice, a towel and a pasta pot. A bit of whimsy. Mostly necessity.

I live a couple of towns away now, slightly cooler and nearer to the beach. There aren’t as many sweltering days but when they arrive as they did this week, they seem all the warmer because of their rarity. It’s then I remember again the ladder, the towel, the icy pasta pot, and my dad. The man who could fix anything, or violate it depending on point of view.

Climate Best by Government Test? Today there’s some dispute except by those who were raised there like Dad and me, or live there still where the original sign proudly announces your arrival to downtown.

Some would argue, mostly.

But there’s no arguing about Dad, our mostly perfect engineer, whom I miss mostly every day. I miss the usefulness and the whimsy, the imagination and innovation of his engineering mind, his dad jokes and his dad laughs. His dad engineering evaluations of purchases large and small, from can openers to cars.

I mostly miss his dad smiles, and dad smell when collecting dad hugs. There was no mostly about how he loved us, especially Mom. That he did completely.

Thinking of you today, Dad. Happy Father’s Day. I miss everything about you.

Donald Dee Hester 1928 – 2013

 

 

 

 

Just Me

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Our grandson, Grady, spent time with us recently. Sitting on the living room floor next to windows overlooking a lush canyon below, he was engrossed in his toy cars. They talked, he talked back, jet planes landed in their midst and the Elmo phone babbled. As I padded silently barefoot behind him I said. “It’s just me, Grady,” so I wouldn’t startle him.

It was then I remembered a similar interaction with my dad toward the end of his life. I saw the episode play out in the rearview mirror.

After brain radiation there were numerous undesirable side effects. One was evident in Dad’s startle reflex; it became very sensitive. I could startle him even if he were looking right at me as I walked in a room. The knob turning, the sound of the door opening, the whoosh of air as one walked through might cause him to jump. Lost in his own world, emerging was sometimes a fright.

So I would say, “It’s just me, Dad,” in my most reassuring voice and settle my hands on his shoulders, trying to soften his landing into our world.

On this day, his voice strong and emphatic, he replied, “It’s never just you. Just as though it’s not someone special walking in. It’s you!” His crooked grin wide and satisfied. He’d made his point.

I knew as it happened I’d been given a gift. One that would last long after I lost him. An invaluable treasure I carefully wrapped and tucked in my heart.

From time to time I take it out and admire and touch it again, melt into my dad’s memory, and secret it back in its resting place, remembering it’s never just me. I’m special and so was he. Mostly we were special together.

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Dedicated to my dad, and Meghan McCain’s dad, too.

Handshake Theory

One night after a new boyfriend offered my father a floppy handshake, Dad had a talk with me about his handshake theory.

“Always offer a firm grip. Not a tight one. You aren’t arm wrestling. Just a firm one.” Then he demonstrated what he meant with a resolute clasp.

“You’re a female so men are apt to offer a softer hand. But you still grip firmly so they know you aren’t a pushover.”

In the rearview mirror this was a pretty enlightened stance for someone of his generation. Then again, his one daughter and two sons all took turns in the household rotation of dishes and lawn mowing. No one spared or given a gender specific task.

But I know he thought I’d be an English teacher, my first brother an engineer and my little brother a professional athlete.

Par for the 1950s course.

After we practiced a couple of solid handshakes Dad sealed his deal.

“A handshake is about character, not gender. Don’t offer a fish-hand even as a woman. Show ‘em what you’re made of.”

And that’s exactly what I do.

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“If a man’s handshake is no good all the [legal] paper in the world won’t make it good.” ~ Mayor Richard J. Daley