We saw fathers everywhere, my brother and I. We preferred men who drove large vehicles, but any man with a tool belt would do. We read Richard Scarry’s “Cars and Trucks and Things that Go” obsessively, until we had assigned to each vehicle a distinct personality: the indomitable backhoe; the fun-loving forklift; the sensitive, visionary crane.
I am looking right now at a photo of my brother when he was four years old. The photo, like most of my mother’s Early Vivitar works, contains her signature thumb in the upper right corner. It is summer. In the background lurks the Village Green Apartments Pool, a body of water famous for having the highest urine content on the eastern seaboard. The apartments were equally filthy, but we had no choice: they were the only place that took us.
Dan squats on the asphalt in swim trunks that expose his sturdy little legs and pot belly. His cornsilk hair – long since changed to brown - glows in the Pennsylvania sunshine. Beside him, a maintenance man points down into a grate, explaining some piece of pool-cleaning arcana.
But my brother is not looking at the grate. He is looking at the man, the Man With Tools, and his blue eyes are wide with adoration.
I am not in the photo. I would have been six years old then, and I imagine I was off skulking somewhere, furious that my brother was getting so much attention.
This was Dan’s lucky day, for such men would not always engage. And it was the engagement that was our goal. We wanted their attention, like a boat wants a lighthouse. If the train man blew his whistle, if the plumber showed us his plumber’s snake, if the man in the hardhat winked – we were shot through with joy.
This scared some men. We got Dan a Big Brother, a man named Ralph who had a large forehead and belonged to an obscure Christian sect called Swedenborgianism. A few months in, Ralph quit, complaining of stress. I think this was a mean trick to play on a fatherless boy, but I suppose it’s understandable. Dan needed too hard.
As adults, he and I have learned to dissemble, but as children we pulled out our hearts and set them bloody on the table: “Take your tools and fix it!” we cried, to every man we saw. “Lift me onto your backhoe and show me what the buttons do and drive around this lousy town for everyone to see.”