Filed In: Stories
Friday, August 17, 2018 | Chris Blandford
I’ve visited this place countless times—once or twice a year for as long as I can remember. Almost always with my mother, his daughter. Almost always in the summer, when the Midwest air is as warm and sickly as overstored syrup.
My mom drives us up the cemetery’s western edge and parks deliberately at the end of one of its rows of unassuming headstones. She turns off the car’s engine, looks out the driver’s side window, and reaches down to open her door.
“Give me just a minute. I won’t be long,” she says.
There’s little about this cemetery that stands out, other than the person who happens to be buried here. The graveyard consists of three or four acres of land—an imperfect rectangle at the far edge of this forgotten, Iowa farm town. Bashful homes border one side; cornfields border the other three. The site is situated on a hill. At the top of the hill rests the town’s water tower, looking out over the dead and back towards a lightly traveled highway.
We climb out of the car and walk thirty-yards-or-so east. I follow closely behind my mom, placing my feet exactly where hers have already fallen. I can’t ever remember which direction the graves in this place are oriented, but I do remember that one isn’t supposed to just tread willy-nilly in here. There’s some unintelligible respect that has to be shown to the layout of a graveyard. These types of things confuse me. Best to not upset its residents, I suppose.
On our way into town we’d stopped at the florist and purchased a bouquet of local flowers. The woman behind the counter had called my mom by her maiden name; she was a grade-school classmate of hers. It seems everyone in town was at one point or another. She’d noted the weather and asked how long we’d be in town, this time.
As my mom places the purchased flowers beside her father’s headstone I look out over the endless cornfields. It’s only 10am or so, but already the sun and humidity are causing a stir amongst the cicadas. In the distance, a tractor creates a contrail of dust along an invisible country road. Straining my eyes, I can just make out the roof of our family’s factory at the opposing corner of town. A few quiet moments pass.
“Thanks for coming with me.” My mom leans down and gives me a one-armed hug. She kisses my hairline. “I’m done. We can go.”
A few minutes later—after we’ve made the mile-long trip down from the cemetery—we arrive at the plant. The factory’s parking lot is lined with pickup trucks—maybe fifty of them in total. An empty bicycle rack sits near the office’s front doors. I doubt it’s ever been used, even once. As we park the car and walk towards the entrance, I can hear the distant hum of heavy machinery making its way outside from within the metal buildings.
Once inside, we’re greeted by the office employees. Each one makes a point to note the weather and ask how long we’re staying, this time.
“Should we go walk the floor?” my mom asks.
The production manager gives us the traditional tour. He introduces my mom to the new additions—both man and machine. He explains the changes that have been made since our last visit. Shows off an improved process or two. Seeks out the chief engineer to demonstrate our latest product or products.
Most of the workers look up briefly as we walk by and give us the customary, half-smile nod. Some of them make a point to pause in their task, note the weather, and ask us how long we’ll be staying, this time. A handful give my mom a hug. Her grade-school classmates, I’d bet.
After we’ve walked through each building, my mom asks me if there’s anything else that I’d like to see.
“Can I go look at his workbench?”
The oldest portion of the factory is near the center of its current footprint. At one time it housed the entire operation, but today it serves as just one of five or six similarly sized structures that make up this facility. Computer-controlled milling and press machines dot the perimeter of the floorplan and a massive, twenty-foot-long lathe sits at its center. In one corner, a laser cutter buzzes busily, dropping parts from four-by-eight sheets of quarter-inch-thick sheet steel into its collection tray.
My grandfather’s workbench stands in obvious contrast to these high-tech appliances. The bench is nestled up in a small, concealed spot next to the factory’s original, one-room interior office. Every time we visit this place, I have to look at the bench. It’s the one object in the entire world that never changes, I’m convinced. For whatever reason, nobody ever touches it. Or, if anyone does, they make sure to leave it exactly as they find it. My grandfather died in the early 1970’s; a quarter-century later, the bench looks like he’s merely left for the night.
Without turning back to my mom and the manager, I start walking toward the workbench.
“Give me just a minute. I won’t be long.”
I approach the stout wooden table and rest my hands upon its top. I’m not sure what type of wood the bench is made from, but I have no doubts about who made it. The corners are rounded over—evidence of its years in service. The top is stained, dark, and full of pock marks. Patina. Grease. Sweat. Blood, probably. From a distance, the top almost appears to be made of leather. This object drips with a character and quality unlike anything I ever come across back home in Arizona.
Tools hang from the workbench’s upright back: an assortment of wrenches and pliers; a large set of metalworking files with worn-shiny, wooden handles; a couple mallets; clamps of various size and shape. Rules. Squares. Scribes. All of it neatly in its place. I don’t dare move any of it. There’s some well-reasoned respect that’s commanded by the layout of a worn workbench. These things are obvious. Best not to upset it’s former resident, that’s for certain.
My mom’s father was an inventor, machinist, and master fabricator. The objects and reputation he left behind are impressive. I’ve heard the stories a million times: fifth-grade education; self-taught welder; musician; pilot; gambler; tireless maker of useful stuff; small-town mayor; caring father. Even today, the engineers in this place marvel at and still use many of the tools and forms and dies that he conjured up decades ago.
Though I never met him, I love my grandfather all the same. I love what he and this workbench represent. The sole-proprietor. The analog man. The producer of things. Something long lost—I have a feeling—except in these, the unmoving workbenches.
But while my grandfather’s tools are inspiring, I also find them increasingly frustrating. I’m nearly in high-school. I don’t know how to use any of them. How is that possible? How could it be that I could have so much respect for someone who knew how to build things and yet not know the first thing about doing so myself? When I visit this place, all I can think about is my own incompetence. I dwell on it. It's defeating—my own mechanical shortcoming. I don’t have the faintest idea how to join two pieces of metal together. Where would I go to learn such a thing? When will I get a chance to do that? When will I get a chance to do this?
I lift my hands off of the wooden work surface and draw a finger along the chilled, ghostly metal of a hammer hanging from its edge. I turn back towards my mom.
“I’m done. We can go.”
Flowers wouldn’t be quite right, but I wish I had brought something to leave behind.
Author's note: I wrote this story while working on a mixte-style bicycle frame for my wife. You can see the completed bicycle, here.