This is a rebroadcast of the the story ‘Claw Hammer’ from season 1, episode 2. specially for father’s day
(Note: My dad died 8 years ago today. This is story I’ve written reminds me of everything my dad stood for in life, and in death. I apologize for its’ length. )
Claw Hammer by Steve Fulton
When I was 7 years old my dad gave me a claw hammer.
It was summertime, just after a particularly wet spring. So wet in fact, that the roof of our garage leaked in several places. My dad decided to fix it himself.
It was a Saturday morning. I was on the couch watching The Superfriends.
“We are going to Builder’s Emporium” my dad declared.
He was in the kitchen, going through his normal routine before he left the house.
He finished his coffee.
He opened the vitamin cupboard, and took out a handful of pills to supplement his day.
He grabbed a handful of raw pecans, a banana, and headed out the screen door.
My brother and I followed behind him.
We climbed into my dad’s white, 4-door, International pickup truck, and headed out on whatever quest he had in mind.
As we drove, my dad told us the plan.
“We need to fix the garage roof, and you two are going to help me.”
My brother and I stayed silent, listening to hear what this meant.
“Before I met your mom, I was worked on roofing job in Seattle. We can fix the entire garage roof ourselves.”
I had no idea what this plan entailed, but if my dad was into it, then I was going along with it, no questions asked.
We drove a couple of miles, down to the corner of Inglewood and Manhattan Beach Blvd, and parked in the Builder’s Emporium parking lot.
At the store, my dad filled a cart with all the things we needed for the job: rolls of roofing tile, tar paper, and a huge box of roofing nails.
As he pushed the cart towards checkout, he said “wait, one more thing.”
He took a detour down the tool aisle, and stopped in the hammer section. He looked around a bit, and then chose two identical hammers from the racks. They both had iron claws painted black, with solid wood handles. He gave one to my brother, and one to me.
“Tools of the trade” he said, “There is nothing more useful, than a good claw hammer.”
He turned the cart around, and we headed to the checkout lanes. My brother and I each carried our new claw hammers to the checkout.
“I’ll pay you each 50 cents an hour, but you have to do everything I say.” My dad told us.
My brother and I were standing in the back-back, behind the garage, next to a pile of roofing supplies, listening.
“First thing, get your hammers”
My brother and I both went for the supplies at the same time. I reached for my hammer, but my brother was sure it was his. We were 7 year old twin brothers who shared everything. Sometimes we just wanted to stake claim to something of our own.
We started to argue.
“That’s mine!” I said.
“No, it’s mine!” my brother responded.
I grabbed the handle, and my brother grabbed the claw, each pulling in the opposite direction.
“Stop!” I said.
“No!” my brother said.
My dad quietly watched this for a bit, then he spoke.
“Do you want me to get you two girls a couple purses so you can fight this one out?”
It was inappropriate.
It was not politically correct in the least.
It was totally my dad.
And It worked.
I stopped in my tracks and let go of the hammer. My brother took it, and I picked up the identical one next to it. We both stood at attention and listened to what my dad said next..
He started-up like nothing had happened.
“First, we need to remove the existing tiles from the garage. You do it like this…”
My dad climbed onto the roof of the garage. It was a very short climb, as the back-back was about 8 feet higher in elevation, than the ground the garage stood upon. This meant you could easily access the roof from there. Even 7 year old boys could do it with the help of a step stool. My dad stood up on the roof, and walked over to a row of tiles, sat down, and started pulling-up on one of the rectangular pieces. The tile gave-way just enough to pull the end of the existing nails out. He then slipped the claw of his hammer underneath them, and pulled them out. Then he grabbed the tile with a gloved hand, yanked it out, and tossed it in the brush of the back-back. He put the old nails in an empty Folger’s coffee can.
“One down, a thousand to go!” he said. “Now, get up here and get started”.
Besides a hammer, my dad supplied us both with a pair of gloves, and a pair of goggles, just in case something got near our eyes. My brother and I both climbed up on the roof using a step stool, and started working.
The first tiles were difficult, but after a few, we got the hang of it.
I jammed the claw of the hammer underneath a tile, and twisted it down, pushing the handle towards the garage roof. The tile sprang up, exposing the nails that had once held it in place. I removed the naisl with my gloved hand, and put them in the coffee can, just like my dad showed me.
What would have been impossible for a 7 year old kid without without the tool, became a simple task, repeatable task with a claw hammer.
After an hour, my dad announced “You each just earned 50 cents!”
The idea of getting 50 cents and hour was as much motivation as my brother and I needed. Even though the sun was hot and beading down on us, we kept going for at least another three hours before we stopped for lunch.
After lunch we spent the rest of the day up on the roof with my dad, pulling up tiles with the claw side of the hammer, removing the nails and putting them into the Folger’s can, and throwing the tiles into the back yard.
As we worked, my dad told my brother and I stories about his childhood.
“Your grannie and gramps sent my brother John and I to a boarding school named Manumit when we were kids. “ he started.
“Why did they send you there?” I asked.
My dad took a long pause before he answered. He pulled out the tile he was working on, and tossed it off the roof. It hit the ground a bit harder than the ones he had previously thrown.
“Umm, because it was the Great Depression and they didn’t have any money to keep us around. The school was on a farm in New York state. It was like an orphanage for kids whose parents had to work in the city. As long as we worked on the farm, we could go to the school for free.”
“What did you do there?” my brother asked?
“Well, we farmed, we camped, we fished, we even got to ride horses sometimes. There was a movie theater and a store in town where we could buy 6 pieces of candy for a penny.“
“It sounds like fun” I said.
“I hated every minute of it.” My dad said. “They sent me there when I was four years old. One day My mom, dad, John, I, and Poochie my dog were a happy family, and the next day my mom drove us out to the end of a road and dropped us off. She never told us what was happening. She just drove away and the people at the school took us in. “
“How long were you there?” my brother asked.
“Eight years. Until I went to high school. I never saw Poochie again. My parents moved to a small apartment in New York, so there was no room for us. We were allowed to come home just a couple days a year. “
I could not imagine this. I’d lived in the same house with my twin brother, two sisters. mom, dad, and two cats for 7 years. It had always been that way, and would always be that way.
“I recall, the first winter, when I realized we would not be going home for Christmas. I begged my mom to send me my ice skates, so at the very least, I could skate on the pond at the school. She never sent them. In the summer we didn’t go home either. Instead we were sent to live with family friends in Pennsylvania. My brother hated me for it.”
“Your brother hated you?” I asked. I looked over at my brother. We argued sometimes, but we never hated each other.
“Oh yeah. He was older than me. He blamed me for having to go away. He said ‘everything was fine until you came along.’ He beat the crap out of me any chance he got. “
My dad stopped pulling up nails and looked up at my brother and I. We had both stopped using our hammers so we could hear what he had to say.
“I told myself at the time” he started “ if I ever had kids of my own, I would never send them away and I would never make them go to boarding school. “
He continued his pause, and then he reached down pulled up a fresh tile, removing the nails.
That conversation was over.
My brother started back up too. We worked the rest of the afternoon. We managed to pull all the tiles off the roof by about 5:30 that evening.
“Time to knock off. “ my dad said to us.
“ Good work men. That was 10 hours today, so you each earned $5.00. Let’s get out early tomorrow so we can get up here and finish the job”
My brother and I went into the house and ate a dinner of chili and hot dogs, our usual Saturday meal. By 7:00 that night, both my brother and I were tired and sore and ready for bed. We went into our room and got out our Stat-O-Matic baseball game.
“Five dollars each!” I said as I pulled the first batter from my stack of player discs.
I layed down Babe Ruth on the spinner, and flicked the arrow.
“Yeah!” my brother said, “what should we do?”
“Hmm. Maybe we can go to Toys R’ Us? tomorrow” I said.
“Toys R US!, yeah!” My brother replied.
The spinner stopped on “Strikeout”. Babe Ruth hit a lot of home runs in his days, but struck out even more.
“Ok!” I said, “We’ll see if mom will take us tomorrow afternoon. And don’t forget, If we work hard enough, we can make even more money.”
As always, I went to sleep in my own bed that night. It was not much of bed mind you, as it it was just a ½ a piece of a foam mattress laid on-top of a piece of plywood. My brother had the same. Yet sleep felt comfortable, and nice. I was in my own house, with my brother, sisters, cats, and my parents. It was not the Great Depression and I was not at some boarding school in New York, away from everything I knew and loved.
We woke up Sunday morning, and both jumped out of bed ready for the work day.
It was still early when we went out to the kitchen to see what was going on. My mom was at her seat at the kitchen table, sipping coffee and playing solitaire. My dad was at the the counter, grinding corn to make his own corn cakes. Next to the grinder was bowl of my dad’s most infamous health concoction: grape juice, egg whites and pecans. We kids affectionately called it “Dad’s Pink Party Puke.”
“We will start working in an hour boys” my dad said.
This gave my brother and I just enough time to get dressed, eat a couple corn cakes, and watch the a ½ hour or of Tom Hatten’s Popeye show on Channel 5. My dad made corn cakes with blueberries that time, which meant I spent a lot of that time eating around them, as the texture was a bit like biting into a dead spider on piece of cardboard.
Just after an episode of Super Chicken, my dad announced that it was time get back out and finish the job.
My dad spent the first 1/2 hour preparing the tar paper for the roofing job. We watched him roll out the the tar paper to approximately the length of the roof, then then cut it. He did this several times until he had enough to cover the whole thing.
My brother and I climbed up onto the now bare roof from the back-back, and helped my dad lay down the tar paper in long strips, then nail it into place. After starting each nail with a few taps, my dad showed us how to swing the hammer down with the whole of our forearms, instead of just bending the swing at the wrist. By using the whole forearm to swing, we could knock most nails in with a single hit.
As we worked, it was hard to think of anything else, but what we might buy at Toys R Us that afternoon with the money we made from the job. What could we get? Would there be any toys from that new movie “Star Wars” everyone was talking about? What about some new dominoes so we could build an even longer trail to knock down? The possibilities seemed endless.
As we worked, my dad started his stories again, after some prompting from my brother and I.
“What was it like to live at a boarding school dad?”
“We played lots of games like hide and go seek and kick the can. I loved those games, but my brother hated them. “ He said.
“Why did he hate them?” I asked?
“I don’t know why John hated them. He just did. I always felt that if he liked those games more, and played them with us, he would not have gotten killed in World War II”
“Uncle John was killed in World War II?” My brother asked.
We were nailing the ends of the tar paper down, making sure to pull it straight so that it left no creases where rain water could slip inside.
“In Belgium” My dad said, “In 1944. He was killed by sniper. He won a Silver Star for bravery. ”
I stopped to think about think about that. I had an uncle named John. He was my dad’s brother. He died 33 years before I ever had a chance to meet him.
We finished laying down the tar paper in a couple hours, and it was time to roll out the the actual roofing tile, and nail it down. My dad rolled out the long strips of tile on the driveway, and measured them. He cut them with a large pair of shears, rolled them back up,and had my brother and I carry them up the stairs to the back back. My dad then laid them long ways across the garage roof, and we all helped nailed them down. We made sure to overlap them to so any water rolling down the roof would not fall through the cracks.
“Did you fight in World War II dad?” I asked him.
“No, no. I was in the army, but I did not fight. I was only 17, so I lied about my age to join-up. I was in the 11th Mountain Division. We were sent to Italy. Our troops were getting mowed down in the mountains, and our turn was coming. The night before they were going to send our entire unit to the front, I snuck out with some guys and we got caught. They sent us back behind the lines, and I never saw any action.”
“Oh.” I replied. It was the only thing I could get out.
My dad showed us how to line up the nails and space them out to get just enough coverage, while also making them look uniform. Since the tiles was thicker than the tar paper, hammering the nails took two or three tries with my new hammer, but after I got the hang of it, it became a two step process: start the nail with tap while holding it, let go and slam the nail in with a good wallop using the forearm approach. The feeling of the nails going through the tile, paper and and into the wood was intensely satisfying. Each one felt like little accomplishment, like real work was getting done.
As I hammered, I tried to fathom my dad’s last burst of information. This is what it sounded like to me at 7 years old:
My dad was one day away from dying in World War II, and then by some random chance, he was saved, and that’s the only reason I exist right now, up on this roof, hammering nails with him and my brother on this very day. Any slight change in what had occurred, an order that came a day late, a stray bullet, a torpedo from submarine, and my dad would have ended up dead like his brother. None of this, not the hammer, the roofing tiles, my family, nor me would be here right now.
The whole of the universe felt like it was suffocating me at that moment. The world felt fragile, yet vast and lonely. Big things were out of my control and I wanted to scream.
But before I could get out a sound, I felt the hammer in my hand. I looked at the roof we had spent the weekend fixing. The image helped me calm down. I hammered in the the nail I was holding in my hand, then reached for another.
We finished-up the roof by 4:00 in the afternoon that Sunday.
My dad did not say anything directly to us, but I could tell he was happy with our work. We put in 6 more hours that day, which meant we had worked a total of 16 hours that weekend. At $.50 an hour that meant we each made $8.00.
We put our tools in the garage, and my dad took us directly to his room, and paid my brother and I immediately. He gave us each the $8.00 in Bicentennial quarters.
“Mom is going to take us to Toy’s ‘R Us” now!” my brother told my dad in an excited voice.
My dad gave us both a concerned look.
“You worked hard for that money,” he said”, “but don’t let it burn a hole in your pocket.”
My brother and I didn’t respond, but just stood there and looked at him. After a moment, he spoke.
“I have a migraine”.
That was our cue to leave his room.
He laid down on his bed and closed his eyes.
“Turn off the light and shut the door when you leave” he instructed us.
And so I did.
Soon were in my mom’s Datsun 710 station wagon, on our way to Toys R. Us. I felt the stack of quarters in my pocket. I’d never had that much money in my entire life. It felt good and hefty. I slipped my hand between the quarters, and let them fall between the spaces in my fingers.
I’d never been to Toys R Us before with my own money to spend. I imagined all the wonderful things I could buy with my money. Money I had earned working with my dad and my brother.
When we got to Toys R Us, I was overwhelmed by all the things on the shelves,
The aisles were crammed to the ceiling with amazing looking boxes and packages. All of them made promises of the joy and fun they held inside. As I walked down each aisles, I kept my hand in my pocket, making sure the quarters were still there. Making sure it was all real.
Thoughts swirled through my head:
Did I really work all weekend and earn all this money?
Did we really just re-tile the entire garage roof?
We zig-zagged down the aisles, up one, and down the other, looking at everything. The shelves were stacked with things I’d only ever seen before in a Sear’s catalog: art kits, wood-working sets, erector sets, chemistry sets, rows and rows and rows of die-cast cars, play sets, GI Joe, plastic soldiers, stacks and stacks of board games, and too many other things to fathom. We turned down the sporting goods aisle looking at the bikes, and fiber glass skateboards. Most everything was more expensive than the $8.00 I had in my pocket, but the possibility of it all was still thrilling. Then, next to the roller skates I saw a pair of ice skates, on clearance because they were far out of season.
The ice skates reminded me of the pond at Manumit school, and how my dad probably never had $8.00 in his pocket when he was a kid, how he probably never worked all weekend with his dad and brother, and how he probably never took a trip to a store like Toys R Us with his mom.
More thoughts swirled through my head.
My dad really did live at a boarding school when he was four years old.
My uncle John really did die from a German sniper in World War II.
I found myself getting less and less enthusiastic about spending my money.
But I couldn’t leave empty handed.
In the back of Toys R Us, we found the bargain aisle. Lots of old toys, with their orange Toys R Us prices tages slashed with a red marker, and new prices scribbled on.
My dad had a love for bargains. He told us all the time to search for quality things at good prices. The bargain aisle in a toy store was his type of place.
My brother and I looked up and down that aisles until we found found a couple pretty cool toys for cheap: a cardboard Planet Of The Apes play set, and a 8” Wild Bill Hickock cowboy action action figure. Together they cost $1.50 plus tax.
They were also both things I thought my dad would like and approve of. We had watched “Planet Of The Apes” together on TV, and he loved cowboys.
We showed them to my mom and she agreed that the toys looked good for their price.
My brother and I bought one of each, and left the store.
When we got home, my dad was asleep with migraine in his room. My brother and I opened our toys on the living room floor, and played with them for the rest of Sunday until it was time to take a bath, and watch Mutual Of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.
When my dad emerged from his room, just before bedtime we showed him the action figures and playsets we had bought with the money we had earned over the weekend.
His migraine had broken, and I saw a rare smile on his face as my brother and I showed him our purchases.
“It’s from the Planet Of The Apes! and it only cost fifty cents!” My brother told him as he looked over the cardboard apes fortress.
“Not bad…” he said, nodding his head, and pushing his lower-lip out to show that he approved.
“And this is ‘Wild Bill Hickok’” I said as I raised my new action action figure in the air, “he only cost a dollar”
“Very good purchases boys” he told us, “and the best part is, you have most of your money left-over for another day”
Within a couple years those cardboard playsets and 8” actions figures were just a memory. The Planet Of The Apes fortress got mixed in with Hot Wheels, Tinker Toys, Erector Set pieces, and beams from a Girder and Panel set. The apes got lost or broken, and the cardboard snaps that held the walls together stopped connecting. Wild Bill Hickok (who was joined shortly after by “Cochise” and “Davy Crockett”, also from the bargain bin), lost his weapons, and then lost his place in my heart, which soon had room only for Star Wars, LEGO and Atari.
The Builder’s Emporium is gone now, sent to Chapter 11 many years ago by the likes of Home Depot and Lowes.
The Toy’s R’ Us is also gone, closed many years ago to make way for a mall expansion. An expansion for a mall that no now longer exists either.
The tile roof on the garage is gone too, replaced, 20 years later when the roof began leaking again.
And my dad is gone, but I still have the stories of his youth, his brother, and World War II and still find myself thinking about them every day.
But that hammer, it’s still with me.
It hangs in my garage as I write this, waiting to be used on my next project.
The same hammer my dad bought for me one summer day so we could fix the garage roof together over a long, hot, and unforgettable weekend in 1977.
The claw hammer my dad gave me when I was 7 years old.