One of our grandchildren, Megan, had a school assignment in April to make a toy from items that could be found around the house. She made a little truck that was pulled by a string. It reminded me of such things from my childhood. The toys I had in the 1950s mostly came from the store, but I learned about a few homemade gadgets from my father. There’s a lot to be said for simplicity.
When I was small Daddy made a tractor for me from a wooden sewing spool. Mama had used all the thread, probably to put knee patches on my blue jeans. Daddy cut notches on the two raised sides to give the wheels more traction, then ran a rubber band through the middle. He attached the rubber band on one end with a short stick held in place by a thumb tack.
On the other end he used a kitchen match to twist the rubber band and give it tension. With twenty or so turns the tractor was ready for the lower forty. A little soap on the side of the spool reduced friction to help it run faster. I broke several matches and rubber bands in a quest for more horsepower. As Detective Harry Callahan said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”
I can’t claim that tractor was an exceptional toy. It paled in comparison to a cap pistol with a fresh roll of ammo. The tractor was special though because Daddy spent time with me as he made it. When it dropped out of sight while I was plowing a soggy bottom, he handed me his pocket knife and helped me make another one. Sometimes the journey is more important than the destination.
There were marbles, yo-yos, and tops during my childhood, the same simple toys that Daddy had played with in the 1920s and 30s. Paddle balls, sling shots, and light weight airplanes were always a hit. Mrs. Lillian Lewis had a variety store in downtown Unadilla stocked with items that were perfect for a child’s budget. I never bought toys on credit there, but I’ve been told that you could. Miss Lillian was a kind-hearted lady who helped make life a little sweeter for her young patrons.
Strings were an occasional source of entertainment. In the spring Daddy’s pickup would often be loaded with bags of peanut or cotton seed. The tops of each bag were sewn together. He showed me how to pull the string so it would easily unravel. Daddy would make a seesaw, boxing ring, or crow’s foot, while patiently teaching me how to make my own.
I was thrilled when I mastered the crow’s foot. I made my share of them over the years, but I’m not sure that I still can. I’m a little reluctant to try, unsure whether I prefer to know or to wonder. With knowing there is certainty and with wondering there is possibility. There are times when it’s not clear which is the better choice.
My first bicycle was a used one. I don’t know where Daddy found it, but he spruced it up by brushing on a coat of red paint. I didn’t need the training wheels very long and I quickly outgrew the little bike. I barely remember riding it, but I realized at some point that red paint was Daddy’s way of saying he loved me. He sometimes painted memories that took me a while to appreciate.
We’d go to the beach for two nights every summer, first to Jacksonville then later to Panama City. Daddy would float on his back and talk about the training he had as a young man in the Navy. He showed me how to relax with my face above water, and how to trap air with clothing for an improvised float. He said that currents hidden beneath a smooth surface can take us where the water is over our head. In the safety of the shallows he taught me to prepare for deeper places.
Daddy bought some nice things through the years that made life easier and more fun for our family. But it’s the simple things I value most, those times that still remind me he always cared.
June 16th is Father’s Day. It’s a good time for fathers to reflect on how our children will remember us. Instead of adding to my collection of shirts, I think I’ll ask Erin, Seth, and Carrie to each give me a piece of string. I’d like to teach them to make a crow’s foot if it’s not too late. There’s a lot to be said for simplicity.