I have a cousin with an electrical engineering degree. He came to live at my mom’s house for a time after graduating, looking for a job in the city. When it came to practical tasks with electronics, he’d make the distinction that having the degree didn’t mean he knew how do hands-on electrical work. It didn’t jive with my understanding of this species, because my model of an electrical engineer was my dad. As a kid and still today, when I think of those words in connection with him, “electrical engineer” sounds a lot like “wizard.”
My dad would do engineering stuff, like designing and building systems for an automated bakery in Mexico, microwave ovens, and in “retirement” today, some kind of industrial generation systems. But in my childhood he was also a great fixer of all things that used electricity. There was no separation between theory and practice, in my mind.
He had a large inventory of broken things from our home and from neighbors, waiting to be fixed. Sometimes he’d have an old tube TV opened up on a bench, with an oscilloscope sitting nearby. He could repair anything repairable, but many of these projects sat idle in his shop while he retreated to the couch, reading science fiction and smoking cigarettes.
He also wired up houses: An addition to our house, and a neighbor’s cabin. I thought he was a superhero with his electrical tool belt, as powerful as any of Batman’s accessories.
He wasn’t limited to electrical feats. When I was a Cub Scout, he conceived of an aerodynamic design for my Pinewood Derby car that won the event one year. He helped me rebuild a Briggs & Stratton lawnmower engine for a small engine shop class in junior high. Mine was one of the few engines that started up in class and ran for a time. I was so proud of myself and my dad.
I had a constant stream of questions for him, on all subjects, and he always had knowledgeable and reasonable sounding answers. Even if I sometimes didn’t understand the answers, I appreciated that there were answers, and that my dad had them. He was my Google before the Web.
We don’t get together or talk that much these days. I wonder if it’s partly due to so much hero worship when I was young, followed by periods of disappointment later, when he turned out to be human and flawed. But I’m mostly past that, I think, and we’re on good terms. Having a child of my own has made me more forgiving of any perceived shortcomings in my parents. We all do the best we can.
Yet people still grow apart.
Resistance increases and signals weaken.
But I can always shine a spotlight into the sky to call on Electric Man.
We sold a popup camper last year and couldn’t get the running lights working with the buyer’s car. I called Dad and he came right over with his superhero tools and began hooking up ohmmeters and drawing schematic diagrams. It was just like old times. I’m all grown up now, supposedly, but I haven’t developed a well-grounded understanding of electricity and its ways. I mostly watched, impressed and proud and grateful, and in the end we got the lights working and the buyer drove away with the camper. It was another successful rescue by a true hero.
I wrote the first draft of this post over a month ago, and by chance, planned it for posting today, before remembering that today is my dad’s birthday.
Happy birthday, Dad. Thank you for being there all these years, and for all you’ve given me.