Let's build SOMETHING!

Father and son reignite a stalled project before childhood slips away.

While growing up in New Jersey in the 1960s, I always seemed to be building things. Sometimes it was small-scale stuff: those Revell plastic models you put together with real glue, wooden boat kits, Erector Sets. Outside, the scale was larger. I built a clubhouse, more than one igloo, and a number of forts (I was always building forts).

One summer I built a go-kart with my father. It was a simple affair, and as a capable 12-year-old, I could have easily done it alone. But my father had the time and interest, and before I knew it we were both out in the garage, working away. The heart of the thing was a length of two-by-four and a wooden crate. But it gave my father the opportunity to show me the difference between a crosscut saw and a ripsaw.

Once we had the crate mounted on the front of the two-by-four, I took an old metal roller skate and separated the two sections. Then I nailed one to the front of the kart and the other to the rear. Essentially done, everything else was ornamentation: the "steering" handles, the streamers, the spray painting (gloss enamel black with red lightning bolts). Then I was ready to roll.

I tell this story because it seems frozen in amber – the image of a father and young son working, quietly, with their hands, one holding a piece of wood in place while the other saws; my steadying the crate and asking, "Is it centered, Dad?" and my father waving me ever so slightly to the left, a little more, a little more, until, "There. That's it, bud."

I wish I had thought longer and harder about this when I was raising my first son, now an adult, because I have a confession to make: We never built anything together. Oh, we had a lot of fun, for sure. We traveled, played catch, went to the movies, enjoyed quiet evenings at home, hiked in the Maine woods. But we never undertook a common work of our hands. I regret this.

A few years ago, when my second son was 10, he asked if we could build a treehouse in the big silver maple that leans out over the river behind our house. His suggestion immediately elicited the memory I have already recounted. Yes, I thought. Of course. My second chance. And so, one day while Anton was in school and I had some free time, I bought some wood. But one thing led to another and we got only as far as the ladder and a simple platform. His vision for the treehouse was not fulfilled that summer, and the three subsequent summers saw us involved with other things.

I look at Anton. Tall, gangly, inclined at the waist, bearing the stoop of the rapidly growing teen. He doesn't know this yet, but I do: He is on his way out the door. A freshman now, I will one day regard his four years of high school as a moment in time.

And so, in the middle of our quiet supper last night, I pitched it to him, do or die: "Anton, are you still interested in finishing the treehouse?"

He looked at me as if that question were the silliest in the world. "Sure, Dad," he said, and within that "sure" was contained, perhaps, his own self-awareness of a childhood to which he was still tethered, but barely.

Once the snows cleared, we resumed where we had left off. I was surprised at how good a worker Anton had become. Where four years ago all he could really do with confidence was hammer nails, now he was measuring, cutting, bracing, and making materials conform to his vision. In one moment that took my breath away, he attempted to center a vertical support beam while looking to me for direction. "Is it centered, Dad?" I waved him a little to the right. Then a little more. "There you go, bud," I said. "Perfect."

And it was perfect. As was this second chance, the one in which I finally realized that my father didn't have to help me build that go-kart in 1966. He wanted to. And that made all the difference.

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