The Red Toolbox is now mine. An open wooden rectangle, cobbled together from leftover scraps of previous projects, it’s not too big. Made for use, it has a round dowel handle, easy to grab and go.
That old box has been a part of my world for so long that I have no idea when my dad made it. The red paint’s worn a bit chippy from decades of projects and repairs, a disconcerting number of those at our house. “Go get my hammer out of the toolbox.” “Put the toolbox in the truck.” “Leave that tape measure in the toolbox.” The thing was ever present. I grew up and grew older with it.
Oh, sure, there was a bigger toolbox, also handmade, but The Red Toolbox was the go-to box with the dependable basics: Daddy’s favorite hammer, nails and screws, heavy duty tape measure, a couple of crescent wrenches, several screwdrivers, nail set, small chisel, pliers, scissors, those flat carpenters’ pencils that intrigued me as a child, and a couple of last-minute items that got tossed in.
Daddy always kept a few tools in his vehicles, a set of wrenches and a screwdriver. But if he was going out of town, The Red Toolbox rode in the back. Just in case….
His toolbox and his workshop were basic to my image of him and the foundation of how I knew the man. I called on him to fix everything because I thought he could. As a son of the Depression and sharecropping parents, keeping tools and machinery in repair was a way of life that stayed with him.
Giving care to what he had was a ritual of appreciation for the use of what God had given Daddy. He attended to what he used. Keeping things in good shape was his giving back; fixing what was broken was his creativity. Leaving things in better shape than he found them was his “Thank you.” He was a simple man and it was simply the right thing to do.
In my own life, attending to brokenness took a different form. I became a counselor, an attendant to the pain of being human.
Caring for brokenness calls upon a common wisdom, whether it’s a human spirit grown dry or a hinge, un-oiled and rusting. Both creak for attention, habitually and loudly. Wisdom doesn’t rush the process of caring.
Daddy brought to his projects what he brought to his life: practicality, confidence that he could figure out a solution to whatever was awry, and a worrisome stubbornness that left me thinking he was determined to get hurt rather than get help. The man would look at a problem inside out and upside down with a dogged determination that could my impatience threadbare.
It was exactly that tenacity that had him putting a motor in a car when he was eighty-one because he’d never done that before but he thought he could, if he took his time.
Clearly, when it comes to a model for dealing with whatever is broken in this experience of being human, I don’t have to look far.
Daddy never jotted down a list of rules. Like so many of his generation, he didn’t need to.
These tenets were simply how he lived:
1. Be sure your foundation is solid. Fix it if it’s not.
2. Get familiar with the problem you’re tackling. Look closely. Look at problems from every angle. Get down on your hands and knees
3. If small repairs need to be done before the big job, DO them. There are no shortcuts. It’s time well spent.
4. In painting or staining, do the prep work. Prepare the surface to be receptive. You’ll regret it if you don’t.
5. Keep The Red Toolbox handy. You never know which tools you might need. Put the tools back in it when finished.
6. Buy the best quality materials you can afford.
7. Seeing a job as a puzzle of small pieces makes it manageable. Oh, and lay the pieces out in the order you removed them so you know where they go. Every piece has its place.
8. When a job isn’t coming together, take a break. Go work on something else awhile, even a little task. It’s good to accomplish something, even if it’s not what you intended.
9. If that still doesn’t help, do the best thing you can come up with at the moment. If it doesn’t work, you can rule one thing out.
10. Have good resources: make friends of the guys at the local hardware store and garage. The folks at Biggers’s Hardware and the Gilmore boys are your friends.
11. Good tools make the job easier. Keep them sharp and dry. Never put tools away dirty. Absolutely never!
12. Fixing one board saves a whole wall later. Do the job while it’s small.
13. There are times, when in spite of your best efforts, repairs won’t hold. The original is simply too worn to work with. That’s when it’s time to let it go and start fresh.
14. ALWAYS clean up after yourself. The job’s not finished until the floor is swept.
No, Daddy, you had no need to jot them down. You were living them.
I was watching.
Happy Father’s Day,
July 11, 1923—May 9, 2009
This column was published in the Daily Corinthian newspaper, Sunday, June 15. 2014. I am happy to share it with you here.