Saturday, June 28, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 4

My father entered the hospital in early December 1973, for what he optimistically hoped would be a short stay. Unfortunately, his prostate cancer had metastasized, and radiation treatment failed to stop the aggressive progress of the disease. Even this distressing state of affairs did not dampen his optimism. My sister Anne gave him a blank book and suggested he keep a journal. It was an inspired idea, and for the next ten weeks Dad kept meticulous records of his symptoms and treatments, an exhaustive recording of every pill and pain, every bowel movement and letting of water, every twist and turn of his body, a mass of quantitative data from which he imagined would emerge a remedy for his misfortune. Eventually, he filled five notebooks with numbers, drawings, analysis, and theories of disease. For most of his adult life he had worked as a quality control engineer for the American Lava Corporation, a manufacturer of ceramic insulators in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He had been something of a pioneer in applying statistical methods to the maintenance of a quality product. Now, in the hospital, it was the quality of his body that he sought to insure. In the end, the data he kept and analyzed with such indefatigable diligence proved ineffectual. His cancer was no respecter of numbers. The rampaging cells outraced the upward-tending trends he sought in his measurements and graphs.
Chester T. Raymo Sr. at the American Lava Corporation, Chattanooga, Tennessee—ca. 1950s.
I am now older than my father was when he died, by more than a decade. When he passed away I was just beginning my career as a writer, mostly writing about science and nature, and I regret that he did not live long enough to enjoy my success. I am not sure why it occurred to me at this late date to retrieve the journals that I had seen briefly in the days after his death. Perhaps it was some premonition of my own approaching mortality. I wanted to read them again, and learn from them whatever I could about his calculus of dying. He seems to have anticipated my interest. In the final journal, as the cancer wrapped its ugly tentacles around the last undefiled bits of his flesh, he wrote: “It is very difficult to wake up in the morning and face ‘nothing’ to do. Writing this diary has been a ‘life’ saver to me. If I live long enough and manage to develop a degree of ‘balance’, I think all the important, valuable, impressions, and sensations that I have experienced can be made available to the public—if I can’t do it maybe CHET will be good enough to do it for me.” I take this as an instruction from beyond the grave, and this little memoir is my attempt to honor his wish.

It was not as a literary document my father wished to share his journals, but as science. He thought the value of the journals lay in the record of his illness, that the exhaustively tabulated data might be of use to medical science. In this he was certainly mistaken; no doctor would be likely to find a cure in his mass of numbers, graphs and diagrams. Yet there is something in the journals worth sharing, worth putting into the context of a life, something that will be recognized as brave and true by anyone who has ever had a mechanical or quantitative bent. If you have ever used a hand plane on a piece of timber, replaced a tube in a radio, gapped a spark plug, computed with a slide rule, or taken a course in statistics or algebra, my father would have recognized you as a kindred soul. If you have ever had motor oil under your fingernails or sawdust on the basement floor, if you have ever smelled burning rosin as you soldered an electric iron or ran your hand lovingly over a piece of tissue-thin graph paper, you will recognize something of yourself in him. If you have ever taken something apart just to see how it works, you will understand what motivated my father when faced with the malfunction of his own biological machine.

As I look back on my father’s life, certain themes loom large: family, community service, church—ordinary things, things he shared with so many of his contemporaries. But what makes his story worth recounting was his conviction that there are defining patterns in all things—cycles, rhythms, repetitions—that lend themselves to quantitative analysis. He was never happier than when he had a fistful of razor-sharp colored pencils and a piece of Keuffel & Esser graph paper spread flat on the dining room table. He might be plotting business cycles, the weather, family finances, moods, or dreams; if there was a pattern he would find it, and finding it, he would understand a little bit more of how the world works. Behind the apparent chaos of things was an order that an engineer was particularly trained to grasp; it was an axiom of his engineer’s faith that God too was an engineer. With slide rule, three-sided architect’s rule, micrometer and vernier calipers he had the tools he needed to do his job as chief of quality control at the American Lava Corporation; these tools served him equally well as an observer, recorder and quality-maintainer on the everyday, everywhere assembly line which (in his view) is God’s ongoing Creation.

I have told parts of his story before, in essays and books, and always the response of readers has been positive, not because there is anything heroic or particularly poignant about my father’s life, but because his life encapsulates what is heroic and poignant in the lives of every handyman and engineer. Chester Theodore Raymo Sr. loved the world. He loved the “thingness” of the world, the bits and pieces and the way they fit together. He loved the world especially when it was running smoothly, like the engine of the family Ford when he had finished a tune-up, and when the world did not run smoothly, as when sickness or violence or natural tragedy intruded, he aspired to be Mr. Fix-it, God’s local repairman. Find the cycle, figure out where synchronicity has gone astray, twiddle, fiddle, adjust and jiggle—then, when the metaphorical spark-plug spacings and carburetor settings were optimized, whatever knocks and backfires this poor world experienced would go away.