Danny Heitman’s “At Random”: Thinking of a father’s centennial

Only recently did it occur to me that my father, were he still alive, would be 100 years old this week. He was born on St. Patrick’s Day, 1914, and died in 1978, leaving few possessions behind. On my living room shelf, I still have two of his belongings — a how-to guide to carpentry and a Ford repair manual.

The Ford manual has no practical use, dealing with dated mechanics for cars that are no longer on the road. But I keep it around as a reminder of my father’s capacity to teach himself what he wanted to know. He did his own auto repairs, poring over written tutorials and exploded diagrams to fathom the mysteries of internal combustion.

Like many children, I assumed that my father was born knowing everything. The carpentry book, published the year he got married, was my first clue that my father didn’t enter the world with all the answers. I treasure the book as an example of the simple reality that knowledge doesn’t come easily. You have to work at it, as he did.

He was smart enough to get a scholarship to a good private university, but the Depression complicated his plans. He wasn’t able to complete his accounting degree, and after serving in the Navy during World War II, he eventually married my mother and, wishing to start his life in earnest, became a carpenter.

The desire to learn never left him, and I sometimes think that the Internet, with its vast reaches of information, might have suited his curiosity. What he might not have liked about online culture is its tendency toward digression, how its menu of options has a way of diffusing attention rather than focusing it.

My father had an almost maddening devotion to sequence. Rather than sampling the daily newspaper, picking and choosing from its basket of headlines, he usually read the sections in order, page by page, as if turning the chapters of a book.

He seemed to embrace the odd faith that a day could be faithfully framed within a block of narrative, as level and true as the corners he created from lumber.

It’s that reckless confidence in the ability of language to contain the world that led me into a life of writing, and only recently have I come to understand the part my father played in that journey. The way that he read shaped the way that I write, and his influence continues to connect us as firmly as a handshake.

Our connection bridged obvious differences. I didn’t inherit my father’s cleverness with tools, and he’d be quietly appalled by my carpentry. Years ago, when I managed to neatly nail four pieces of wood into a sandbox for my daughter, my wife was delightfully shocked, as if she’d seen a horse doing long division.

But when I worry a sentence onto a page, trying to get it as right as I can, I hope that I’m honoring my father’s attention to craft. It’s the only gift I can offer back to the man who gave me everything.