Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Tool and Die

           My father was a mold maker.  He spent his life making molds.  Molds for plastic toy airplane propellers and child-safe medicine bottle caps.  Molds for disposable picnic lunch plates.  Molds for combs, bands, and barrettes.  Molds for train, boat, and space ship model kits, and sometimes car model kits, too.  Sometimes, my father brought the things he made home, and sometimes I could play with them.  Sometimes, my father made the parts of greater designs, so he never knew what the whole would be.  Most of the time, my father’s shop got contracts from local plastic companies, but a few times, his shop landed big government contracts, and then he might never know what he was making, only that he was making more money.
            My father was a mold maker and my mother was his wife and together they made six children, and when they made me, he said, they broke the mold.  He said this and laughed.  Sometimes he said this and did not laugh.

            Thanksgiving.  Seated around the dining room table.  My father carving.  My mother telling a story about a fair, an autumn craft fair in the western part of the state.  Me remembering something else.
            A school.  Brick and ivy.  None of the buildings higher than three stories.  And it sat like a fat Buddha on a hill as we drove through the town, which could have been my town – there was a Woolworth’s, a few churches, a common – until you ascended the hill, and then it could not have been my town because of this school, which on that day blazed red and orange and yellow, with girls in plaid skirts or plain skirts, sweaters or turtle necks, girls walking side by side, carrying big books, girls whispering.  They walked slowly, as if they had no place to go, as if the walking was the place itself – the walking and the books and the trees and whatever they were whispering to each other. 
            We drove past the school, up a shady hill, to a big field that cradled the craft fair in high grass.  We parked the car and got out, stretched and admired what was left of the foliage on the hills beyond the field. 
            Cider hot and cold; apples and pumpkins; woven shawls of deep purple and blood red, some wool, some a soft, nubby material that was not cotton and not wool.  Soft and regal, my mother said, stopping only briefly at each booth.  She touched the material lightly and stepped back when the weaver or quilter came around to answer questions or offer a price. 
            My father walked ahead to the woodworking section.  I followed, touched the pine letter holders and polished birch spoons and bird’s eye maple jewelry boxes, like touching warm ice, the wood oily and smooth.
            People strolled along the rows of booths and tables.  Mothers and daughters walked arm in arm.  Fathers sported tweed blazers; mothers shouldered shawls like those from the weaver’s booth.  Easy-going chatter wove in and out of an aged folk singer’s song coming from a small stage under a giant, yawning elm.
            We did not buy anything.  We drove back down the hill when we had seen everything there was to see, back down the hill and through the town which was not my town, back down the hill and through the town, and I twisted in the back seat, strained to get a last look at the brick buildings and paths with whispering girls, paths that cut through the center of the college square, paths glowing in foliage and globed lamps.  What was this place?  They must have told me; my parents must have said where we were going, but it meant nothing.  It was just a word.
            Smith College, my mother said and added that Smith College was where Linda-Bird Johnson went to school, at least she thought so. 
            What was this place, this Smith College, where girls walked together carrying big books, and everything for sale at the fair was new material, like nothing I had touched before?  What was this place my mother recalled for us while scooping mashed potatoes onto plates, telling us to pass them down?  Telling my grandmother about that fine place we drove to three Sundays before, and all of the lovely crafts for sale that no one could afford.  The place I announced at the table that I was going to, this Smith College, going as soon as I graduate from high school, as soon as I get out of this town, I am gone.
            This is what I said, but no one paid attention.  No one even heard, except my father.  He dropped his fork and looked at me.  Do you think, he began, more slowly than he usually spoke and also more hushed, that a daughter of a tool and die maker can go to the same school as the daughter of the President of the United States?
            Everyone laughed, except my father and me.  We stared at each other and kept staring as the table turned to ranting about this president of ours, and the job he was doing or not doing, why we needed someone else – as if that made any difference.  What did it matter who was president, who was running the country, if there was no way back to that place I went to three Sundays before?

            My father was a mold maker, but he did not want to make molds.  When he came back from Germany in 1946, he wanted to work the railroad.  He wanted to go places.  He wanted movement, to be outside, to breathe in.  But there was money to be made in making molds, at least more money than the railroad could pay.  Money to be made in a town that still made things.

            Seventh grade.  I was sent home from school with a form.  My parents were to complete and sign this form.  It asked where we lived, how many children were in the family, where my parents had gone to school, what my father did for a living.
            I sat at the kitchen table and filled out the form, reading aloud the questions and writing in the answers my mother gave me from the place where she stood ironing.  If I thought I knew an answer, I would begin to write while speaking aloud the words.  I knew my address.  How many brothers and sisters I had.  How old we were.
            “Molder.”  I said and started to write.  M O L D—
            “Your father is not a molder,” my mother said, the iron not leaving the board, her hands spreading out the material, making it smoother as she spoke.  “He’s a mold maker.”
            “What’s the difference?”  I didn’t care, but I did not want to have to erase and start over.
            “A molder runs a molding machine.  Anyone can run a molding machine.”  Steam softened the material that she pressed her iron down.  “Your father makes the molds that go into the machines.  Your father has a trade.”
            The way my mother said “trade,” I knew it was something to have.  A trade.  To be someone with a trade was a very good thing.  It meant that not just anyone could do what you did.  It made you better.
            “Put Tool and Die Maker.  That’s the real word.”
            Tool and Die.  My father was a Tool and Die Maker.  Tool.  Die.  The words sounded familiar, but I did not know what they meant.  Tool and Die. 
            Mold Maker.  I wrote Mold Maker.

            My father was a mold maker, and he was good at making molds.  The engineers who blueprinted the molds would come to the shop and inspect the making of their designs.  They talked with each other while my father stood a few steps back, finished product on his workbench.  Sometimes my father would explain, in words less precise than those used by the engineers, the exact shape of a curve, each ridge and indentation in the cavities of the mold.  What my father talked about was precise, even if the words he used were not, and the engineers respected his opinions, his boss would tell him later, were greatly impressed with his knowledge of molds.
            My father had a great knowledge of molds.  He could make a mold for just about anything.  If a tiny piece fell off, say, a lawn mower, and the lawn mower did not work, well, most people would have to write the company for a replacement part and maybe never get the replacement part and have to throw the whole thing away.  But not my father.  He could take a broken thing and fix it, make an exact copy of the damaged part and fix the whole.  My father could fix anything.
            When he was not making molds, my father made small wooden boxes.  He made them for his buddies to use as toolboxes, but when my mother saw them, she wanted one for flowers.  Because the flower pots would leak water onto the wood and rot the bottom of the box, my father made a tin box a few centimeters smaller than the wooden box that slipped right in to protect the wood from rot.
            The molds my father made at work produced plastic because that is the kind of town we were, but when my father made things for himself and the people he loved, he made them out of wood, and he made them one at a time.

            My father was a mold maker, but the molds my father made were designed by other men because my father gave form to molds, he did not create them – mold maker, tool and die maker.  He was the one who took the design from hands much cleaner than his, stared at the blueprint larger than a map, thought through the process needed to make the mold the engineers wanted.  Then he worked and did not stop working until the job was done and the mold was perfect.
            My father was a perfect mold maker.  He died making molds.  Sometimes I dream about him.  We are always in the same place.  The place is soft-walled and warm.  I hear noise, a rhythmic wheezing, never deep and fluid, but choppy and paced by intervals of silence.
            I usually see my father in the distance, or I should say I see someone in the distance, and it does not matter how many times I have this dream, I never recognize my father at first.
            He is walking toward me, or I should say someone is walking toward me: thin, clean-shaven, wearing a white t-shirt and blue workpants freshly washed and ironed.  He walks with one hand behind his back, and with the other he is waving – a pink, clean-scrubbed hand.  In his sleeve a pack of cigarettes tucked into the cuff like teenage boys in the 1950’s wore, but my father was not a boy in the 1950’s, and was never thin except in very old photographs from before the war, when he smiled like a movie star and held my mother tightly around the waist.  And his hands were never clean, nails never pink.  Like most of the men I knew growing up, my father’s hands were dyed dark blue.
            “Surprised to see me?”
            I nod and step back from his thin embrace.  I am surprised, though I have dreamed this dream before.  I have heard the noises before, the same wheezing in and out, the same sharp, choppy rhythms coming from the walls around us.
            “You’re dead.”
            “I am.”
            “I was with you when you died.  Saw your last breath.  We all did, and the nurse said, he is gone, and you were.  And I saw your coffin lowered to the ground, and your flag.  I threw dirt like everyone else and heard it crumble on the wood.”
            I follow my father through rooms like cavities, no defined lines between wall and ceiling, a cave covered in mossy minerals, the coating tissue-thin and filmy.  I follow my father who leads me down tunnels and arteries and into more of the same puffy rooms.  I follow my father because he knows the way, and I do not.  I only know that the noise is getting louder.
            Sometimes I lose my father.  He rounds a corner, and I have to walk faster to catch up.  There is always something I want to tell him, but I can never remember what I want to say, or if I do remember, I can never find the words, or if I find the words, my father is too far ahead.  He has disappeared, and I am left with the noise beating from the walls that are moving in and out – contracting, expanding.

            My father was a mold maker.  He spent his life making molds and never let go of a mold until it was perfect, until it followed the engineer’s design exactly.  My father was a man of deliberate movement, even if that movement was confined to the walls of a machine shop.  My father was precise.  The molds he made, after he let them go, were shipped to factories, put inside machines, injected with fluid plastic molding material, and then cooled until the shapes hardened into forms.
            The molds my father made produced thousands of shapes, but molds do not last longer than the plastic they produce because plastic lasts forever.  The molds are used longer, though.  Long after the combs and cups, key chains and lawn ornaments are thrown away, long after the plastic is lying discarded in landfills, the molds will be filled and heated and cooled and filled again.  Some of the molds my father made are still used today.
            This is what I want to tell him.

 (this piece originally appeared in the print journal Fourth Genre)