“The Building” Bethel, Connecticut, 1970
On the way home from the teacher’s cottage that day you stopped at the Building, the converted barn structure that was your father’s laboratory. During World War II, it had been a black market farm and bookie joint. Nesting boxes for chickens, industrial incubators, and piles of dusty old-fashioned telephones had filled its abandoned rooms. The man your father hired to renovate it, an Italo-Frenchman named Serge, did a (terrible) job. Within months the new floors rotted. Gaping holes appeared where chair legs and people’s shoes broke through it. The roof leaked. Snakes, rodents, birds, and other forms of wildlife built nests between the wall joists. You could see daylight through the cracks in the stucco. Your father had trouble insuring the place, it was in such bad shape.
This was where your father conceived, designed, and built his inventions, his Color Coders, his Thickness Gauges, his Rotary Motors and Mercury Switches, his Shoe Sole and Blue Jean Machine. He didn’t mind the leaky roof, the rotten floors, the spider webs. He liked sharing his workspace with all kinds of creatures, the lowlier the better. One day, the president of a big manufacturing firm drove up from New York in his Cadillac to talk with your father about an idea for an invention. At the time a five-foot black snake was living in the vestibule, so your father made the executive and his three-piece suit climb through a side window. Later that day, the businessman watched in horror as your doting Saint Francis of a father fed the snake a whole loaf of Wonder Bread.
Your father worked from dawn till dusk. He’d rise in the morning gloom, shave in the downstairs bathroom (the one with plum-colored fixtures), make and eat his breakfast of two soft-boiled eggs with toast and tea, then walk down the hill to the Building, where he’d work until eight-thirty, when the post office opened. If the weather was good he’d pedal his rusty Raleigh there and back, then work on until noon, when he’d walk back up to the house for a lunch of leftovers or canned soup.
Occasionally, feeling the urge for humanity, he’d walk into town and sit on a stool at the Doughboy Diner, joining truck drivers and factory workers there. But despite his protests (Don’t spend your life among machines, Peter, my boy. Annoying though they can be, you’re better off with people. At least with people you can kick them and get a response.), he preferred his solitude and his inventions. If he had other errands to run, your father would typically run them in the afternoon, setting off by car to Danbury or Newtown to see the tool and die man, the sheet metal worker, the welding expert, the anodization man. Sometimes you’d go with him and watch, with uneasy fascination, him interacting with these grimy artisans in their loud, cavernous, dingy lairs. The other men were taller than your papa, who stood five-foot-seven, their faces tough and leathery, eyes bloodshot, skin dark with grunge. Compared to them your father looked timid and slight, as out of place amid the clamor and grime of their work places as a rose in a coalscuttle.
To read the entire excerpt, go to the Connecticut Post