Saturday, July 19, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 7

Somehow, during his first year at university, while working part-time in Chattanooga, my father found the time to construct a three-foot model of a Spanish galleon. As I was growing up it sat on a shelf above his basement workbench. A thousand tiny knots in the rigging. Shellacked billowing sails, painted with the symbols of Christian empire. Rows of gun ports with upswung covers and the mouths of cannons sticking out. And on the deck, tiny cannons on their carriages with ceramic wheels. Ladders to the forecastle and aft upper decks. A golden bear inscribed on the stern. It seemed to me a thing of preternatural accomplishment.

Chester T. Raymo—Chattanooga, 1927.

Why did he keep it in the basement? Why not in a place of honor, on the bookcase in the living room, for example. I never asked. I would never have dared to ask. But I had an intuition that it had something to do with my mother, perhaps her claim of priority in matters of domestic decoration.

They were married in September 1935, almost exactly a year before I was born. She was the girl from across the street in Chattanooga, the oldest of nine children, eight girls in a row, then a boy. She too had recently lost her father, to pneumonia. Of the Dietzen siblings, my mother was something of the intellectual prodigy, the only one of the girls to go to university, where she majored in English literature and graduated in three years. Her intellect and her independence were formidable, and it appears she had some difficulty adjusting to the sometimes dreary plod of wifery and motherhood. Perhaps banishing Dad’s model ship to the basement of our new house in the Chattanooga suburbs established a bit of territory she could claim as her own.

Their honeymoon photograph shows a handsome smiling couple. They went off to Schenectady, New York, where my father took a job as an X-ray technician with General Electric, and was most proud, he later told me, of inventing a new kind of versatile mount for the X-ray machine. The stay in New York did not last long. Was it the cold weather or homesickness that send the newlyweds scurrying south? I suspect it was the latter, on my mother’s part.

The best record I have of this part of their lives is a little account book kept by Dad’s mother. On the inside cover is written: “Chester, as you know, our rule was, one family fund for all income and all expenses, until each child reached his or her 21st birthday. Here you will find a strict account of all loans made to you, and all credits due you, from your 21st birthday to date. I have kept a similar account for Arthur, Roger and Charlotte. Love, Mum.” Most of the early entries are outgoing expenses to my father, mostly “Cash for school” and small regular amounts for life insurance. There’s $25 for Tau Beta Phi, the engineering honor society, and other advances for suits, shirts and shoe repair. In December 1932 his mother writes, “Finished school, Thank God!” Still, there follow four months of advances while my father was out of work due to the Great Depression. In June, 1933, he starts working again for American Lava Corporation and regular monthly payments of $5 or $10 start flowing back into the family account. Then, more advances as the wedding approaches in September of 1935, including $25 to Father Sullivan of Saint Peter’s and Paul’s Catholic Church in Chattanooga for performing the ceremony. The ledger is blank for the next three years, as the young married couple struggles to survive on their own, but in 1938, two years after I was born, Dad’s “Mum” is still paying her son’s laundry bills and advancing 50 cents for a blue shirt and $1.53 for a lost library book. The Second World War and the industrial needs of the military seems to have at last conferred financial independence on my engineer father. The account book records that he was advanced $960.19 more than he paid back.

In 1941, on the eve of the war, my parents moved into a spanking new house in the suburbs of Chattanooga, Tennessee, the quintessential American dream house of the 1940s. A half-acre lot on a quiet street with a bus stop on the corner, white asbestos shingles, blue shutters, dormer windows upstairs, detached garage—what every middle-class American aspired to. In 1948, RKO released a popular comedy called Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, with Cary Grant and Myrna Loy; our house was a more modest version of what Hollywood in the 1940s imagined to be ideal. My father even had a little room upstairs for his photography hobby (which would soon be taken over as a bedroom for his growing family). I dare say he would have liked to have built the house himself if he had had the time, which he didn’t. But he did have the big backyard that he could improve at his leisure.
The Raymo house—Chattanooga, 1941.

The backyard would also be the American dream. A white picket fence around the whole thing. A badminton court. Rose bushes. A barbecue pit. Brick pathways. A Victory garden. I remember the tools. A manual lawnmower (was there any other kind?). A roller for the badminton court that you filled with water. A hand-pushed plow for the garden. There were lots of odd bits of wood too, leftovers from the picket fence, from which I could bang together toy boats and airplanes. The backyard was, for the duration of the war at least, a handyman’s heaven, for father and son, with lots of projects going on at once. I’m puzzled at this late date how he managed to get the wood he needed for the picket fence. Wouldn’t that have been hard to come by during the war? The bricks for the paths were no problem; on the vacant property next door was “The Brick Pile.”

A rather substantial home once stood where building lots were now being sold by the family that had once owned all the land thereabouts. The house had been demolished before my parents’ arrival on the scene, and the materials stacked and stored in “The Brick Pile,” “The Wood Pile,” and “The Shed”—all of which lay just beyond our picket fence. There was no end of things to do with the bricks, but most of what I built with my neighborhood pals had to do with the war—pill boxes, forts, gun emplacements. “The Wood Pile” became a battleship or PT-boat. “The Shed” was supposed to be off-limits, but we found our way in, and snitched ex-banister posts to use as machine guns. If my father wanted to pass on to me his handyman skills, he could not have chosen a better place to build his house.

As a promotion for the film Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, RKO built seventy-three full-scale replicas of the eponymous house in cities around the country and raffled them off. One of the replicas was just a few blocks from our home in Chattanooga. It was quite the hit when it opened, with half the city driving by to see. It was classy, all right, but it didn’t have a “Brick Pile” or a “Wood Pile” or a “Shed”. Or a workbench in the basement made from a dismantled coal bin. It’s hard for me to imagine Cary Grant as a handyman, although I’m sure he could have played one if the role required. He was just a bit too suave to do for himself what he could hire professional craftsmen to do. By the time the landscapers had finished with the Hollywood dream house around the corner, our backyard was already starting to show the first signs of a genteel decrepitude, a slight fraying of the American dream, but everything there—the brick paths, the picket fence, the badminton court, the Victory garden—was the product of a handyman’s hand.