The house I grew up in was built by my dad and Papa. When the land was purchased in the 80s, it was called “The Promise Land” by my Nana. When she and Papa left Florida in the 70s, he promised her that this would be their home for the rest of their lives. “If he was taking me away from my lovely home in Florida, he knew he had to promise me something big and worth leaving where I loved.”
My dad and grandpa started by building a small apartment on the acres and acres of farmland in the countryside of Georgia. The apartment had a tiny living room, kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom. It was around 600 square feet…tiny. Papa and Dad lived in that apartment while they built the homes they would live in for the next twenty-five years. Attached to the apartment would come a giant garage, large enough to hold multiple cars, motorcycles, boats, and even a plane that had wings that folded back to fit. My dad’s tools lined the walls of this huge garage. There was an eagle ornament fixed to the front of the garage with its wings spread wide. Papa had filled the opening between its head and the garage wall with golf balls to prevent birds from making nests in it.
Between the garage and the apartment was a dark room full of towering bookshelves filled with Papa’s book collections on theology and war. That room smelled of old books and dirt, and everything was covered with cobwebs and dust. I was always nervous in that room as I scampered from the garage to the apartment to help Nana make jelly or to plink my fingers on the out of tune piano that sat cramped in the living room also covered in dust.
Dad and Papa finished building two houses on this property in the early eighties: one two story house with wood slats for siding for Dad’s second wife and family and one single story house for Nana and Papa. These houses didn’t face the road, they faced each other. The garage/apartment building faced the road in between the two family homes. The gravel driveway went down from the gate on the road to the center of these three buildings. This compound and surrounding fields and farm would be where I would spend the majority of my childhood as part of my dad’s third family.
I would spend countless hours of my childhood in the garage watching Dad work on his various mechanical projects. Sometimes he would even let me help, with lots of cursing and yelling about how I was such a “dumb fucking kid.” Dad was supposed to be a dentist; that was what Papa and Nana wanted: a nice sensible and respectable career for their only son. Dad even started college sometime in the late 60s to pursue this path but dropped out within a semester or two. Dad didn’t need school and he certainly never wanted to be a dentist. He was brilliant, capable of building and repairing anything with a motor, any mode of transportation, any man-made creation. Throughout my childhood his various projects would take over the garage, with meticulous schematics hanging everything full of mathematical equations to build everything from a motorized bicycle in the early 90s to a working three-wheeled car (built from scratch!) that was registered to drive on Georgia roads. There was nothing Dad couldn’t create.
When I was six, Dad gave me a giant magnet to play with while he worked. I tied it to a string and walked around the driveway in front of the garage to see what I could pick up. There were tons of screws and bolts and nuts everywhere on the gravel, lost when a project had gone awry. I strode back and forth between the giant fig tree to the left of the garage full of swarming hornets crawling over the hot sticky fruit all the way to the wood-covered well in front of the apartment. Back and forth I picked up dozens of extra parts. When I handed these handfuls of hardware to my dad, he exclaimed, “damn, kid, you did good!”
A few weeks later I went to the Ace Hardware store in the next town over with my mom and sister. Ace was a fantastical place full of stuffed game hanging all over the walls: boars with giant husks, tons of deer with glassy eyes, and even a giant standing bear whose claws were longer than my hand. The store was full of things that went whirr and click and I couldn’t take it all in no matter how much I strained my neck round to see everything. The floors were red brick and the walls a beautiful solid wood.
The best part of Ace was a Coke machine that you could load up with a quarter and pull the giant silver handle to release a freezing cold green glass bottle of refreshing Coke. Rose and I begged mom to let us have a quarter and we shared the bottle between us.
When we went to check out at the store, Rose stood in front of Mom. I wandered off on my own, bored by discussions of something called “prices not known” and noticed rows and rows of the same nuts and bolts that Dad was so excited to have me find in the yard at home! I loaded my pockets up with every size nut and bolt I could find before shuffling off to find my mom. Once I got home, I proudly leapt from the car and ran to the garage where my dad was working on his newest project: an electric lawn mower that ran on its own.
“Dad, look what I got you!”
I pulled nuts and bolts from every pocket I had, complete with pocket fuzz. He looked at me in surprise as I even pulled nails from my shoes, stuffed between the socks and the sides of my sneakers.
“Where did you get these from?”
I was so proud of myself. Dad needed these and I knew he would be happy I had gotten them for him. I was helping!
He marched me right back to Ace Hardware and turned me into the manager. I had to return this supposedly “stolen merchandise.” As I handed over every bit of hardware to the manager, ashamed and confused as to why I was in trouble, the manager sternly told me that stealing was against the Lord’s will. My dad nodded along with him. The manager disappeared for a few seconds, then returned with a wooden yard stick from Ace. He gave it to me and thanked me for having the courage to come admit to such wrong doings.
That yardstick would stay in the same place as our walking sticks and umbrellas in our home’s foyer for the rest of my childhood. Every time I left the house it would catch my eye.
“Only you could steal and be rewarded,” my mom said incredulously.