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Charged Up Fatherhood Lessons


My father taught me to respect electricity. Like it was the Pope, to us Catholic boys, but a Pope who could reach out and smack you dead. Dad worked with it all the time — rare was the moment when he simply read a book, or even a magazine, or worked with tools that had no power cord attached. So it was “keep your hand in your back pocket when you touch that wire, so you can ground yourself.” Or it was “touch a wire or a power source with the back of your hand, Ronny. So you won’t clamp down on a live wire with your reflex.” Other kids thought reflexes were what your legs did when a doctor tapped a knee with a little mallet.

Whether my father learned those things that he taught about electricity at the DeVry School of Electronics in Chicago, or the Great Lakes Naval Station as a Seaman First Class while working as a projectionist, or even in Toledo at the hands of an uncle or his father, I don’t know. These rules about electricity stood as a mystery to my Mom. There must’ve been some agreed-upon gender roles in the 1960s. Guys handle the dangers of juice, the power.

My father did not teach me how to comfort a child who’s crying. Tears, maybe he only saw them as a weakness, a sign of failure and defeat. They were as mysterious to him as the electricity was to my mom, the trickle of tears as frightening as the trickle of current off a live wire. She had the knack for comfort on a boo-boo, or after a scary dream in the middle of the night. Did I ever crawl into bed after a scary one? I did.

But pulling back the covers to let me in, that was not a skill my father taught me. You can make your own photographs in a darkroom, he taught me.

Ronny, here’s how you use an enlarger, projecting that negative down onto the workbench. Here’s an armful of porcelain-lined pans we fill with chemicals, fixer and developer that we mix from powders. We time everything with that wide-faced clock that counts down to a buzzer, its face wearing a gentle painted glow of numbers that shine well under the red safe-lights.

The artistry came in creating more than the picture in the camera viewfinder. It comes in creating the print in the darkroom — the same place of magic that Ansel Adams perfected to become famous. My father never taught us about Ansel Adams. But he taught me how to begin to practice the craft that made Adams famous. You could only enlarge so much in making a print, and then it would come apart just as surely as any JPEG file when you print it too big today. The first few nights in the darkroom were more errors than trials, and the printing paper from the yellow and orange Kodak boxes was not cheap.

There was a quiet pride my father taught me to take up the stairs to Mom along with those black and white prints, the paper already dried by hanging on a clothesline and then pressed to ensure it wouldn’t curl. He taught me that when you create something in solitary, even under the safe-lights in the dark, you can expect somebody who loves you to praise that work. That she would marvel over it, and over you. But that was the thing he couldn’t teach me, and Mom did: how to praise instead of criticize, how to avoid the urge to say, “there’s always room for improvement,” how finding favor would help as much as finding any fault.