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Eileen Kane's Father - Trickster, An Anthropological Memoir - www.trickster.ieDear Eileen,

How's the work going? Thanks for the birthday card and the cowboy handkerchiefs. Your mother's got me a gift of some new steel-toed work boots and a fancy wrench. Not much use right now, I'm laid off, but all your aunts are here, helping, putting up enough zucchini to feed the Russian Army. I said I hope that's where it's going. They threatened to send some out to the Indians, so beware. Anyhow, we're going to be okay, because a couple of us guys got a job converting a lady's cellar, so don't worry.

Arthur L. Kane

From Trickster, a letter from my father.

 

Laid Off

 

Strikes, layoffs, work injuries-except for an annual week at Lake Erie, these were the only breaks my father had since he'd left the sound of the school bell for the shriek of the factory whistle. He was an unworldly man, a daydreamer, a brilliant inventor of odd objects, able to do anything. He ruined the lives of his daughters, who assumed that all other men were able to do anything, too.  He ruined the lives of his sons only on Saturdays, when he made them watch whatever he was working on-a raccoon-proof garbage can, a collapsible anchor for the boat he would never afford, an ignition key designed to jump out of the car window if you left it behind.

Whenever he was out of work, my mother's first problem was what to do with him. Where was she supposed to put him during the day? The garage was often jammed with his projects. After five o'clock he had his chair, or his place at the kitchen table, but during the day she needed to clean the living room or cut out a dress on the kitchen table. When my brothers got home from school, they and their friends wanted to practice their drums in the only uncluttered space in the cellar, a corner where he had rigged up a reading lamp and an old kitchen chair for himself.

So he shuffled from one room to another, sometimes carrying a small paper bag with his effects-a copy of Popular Mechanics, the Vindicator, his reading glasses, and a pen to circle any news articles that illustrated the stupidity of the fatheads and buffoons in Washington. He lived on a lonely ice floe in a household of Democrats; he was a Republican, although he really had no business being one.

Even though I'd left home, I knew all about his layoffs because my youngest brothers and my sister Patrice were fourteen, fifteen and seventeen years younger than I was, and they kept me informed. I got frequent letters about my father from Patrice:

 

June 19, 1966

Dear Eileen,

Some people across the street moved in. they have a paltic swimming pool. They have a little boy. They have a Dog. They have 2 ducks. There name is Butter and Oleo. They are all day.

Dad is lade off. I say Cheer up!

Would you write back.

Love Patrice

 

Backbreaking as his job in the mill was he missed it. Once, a particular layoff threatened to be such a long one that he locked up the battered box of tools he'd collected over forty years, brought them home and put them in the old root cellar in the basement.  I was still a teenager then, and I crept down to examine them when my father was in the garage perfecting the raccoon-thwarting device. The tools looked well tended and loved, and every one of them had his dad's initials or his own scratched or burned into it. The handles were worn to a deep walnut shine, deeper and finer than any piece of furniture. My mouth puckered at the sharp, oily blue smell of the neatly sorted metals in the box's little drawers and compartments. His long life with these tools seemed so unknown and private that I could hardly have been more surprised had he brought an unknown love child into the house.

 

May 1, 1975

Dear Eileen,

    Thanks for the birthday money. I bought some new jeans and lent the rest to Patrick [a brother] who used it to buy a uka ukulele. Let's just say a banjo. It drives Dad crazy to listen to it--he's laid off for two weeks so far. I got all A's on my report card except for a C in stupid Home Ec. I tell Dad it's because I failed French Toast, and it gives him a chance to go on about How the School System is Failing American Youth. Poor Dad-he's bored when Mom's at work and he doesn't have anything to do.

Write back,

Love Patrice

 

This time, my mother, who had not held a paying job for thirty years, went out to work as a school cook. She was a beautiful woman and could have found a job as an office receptionist or a hostess in a good restaurant, but "I can't stand the public," she said, so her options, never great in Youngstown, were limited.

While she was at work, my father tried to look after the house. He became nervous if Patrick emptied the kitchen garbage bin and opened a new box of garbage bags, or if Patrice took her sheets down to the cellar to wash them.  "Did she say you could open that?" he'd say, or "I don't think this is the day your mother washes." He didn't seem to understand what each of the rooms was for, either: one day when he'd pulled his back and was supposed to be watching a casserole in the oven he brought the one good silk armchair into the kitchen and used the dog's bed as a back support; another day he took the toaster and the coffeemaker into the living room while he was watching the game. He pushed some of the good wedding glasses in the china closet aside so he could keep all the little Hoover brush attachments in one place. I was long gone from home by this time, but Patrice kept me updated with a list of domestic lapses and from my own past experience, I could have written the letters myself.

 Mom came home from a late shift and found the carburetor of the pickup in the sink. She said You and Patrick need to keep on top of your chores. I didn't like to say that Dad won't let us do anything while she's gone. I told Dad that Patrick and I, or I, anyway, want to help with the house, but he said,  "We want to keep the place the way it was when your mother left. You know how particular she is. If she wanted us to fool with something, she would say so." 

So when my mother shuffled in at night, exhausted, he'd give her a cup of coffee while she made dinner. He was so happy to see her, Patrice said in her next letter:

 "I told Patrick it was like a second honeymoon for them, but he told me not to turn his stomach."

Write back,

Patrice


 If my father was left with a frozen meatloaf to put in the oven for dinner and the washer to empty, he'd open the ice box four or five times before noon to make sure the pan was defrosting. He'd check the pilot light on the oven. "I might as well go down cellar and read the gas meter while I'm at it," he'd mutter. Up again to flick the stove burners in case the pilot light was off and gassing everyone, and to adjust the temperature on the icebox. A couple of hours later when the lettuce was a solid frozen ball, he'd change it back.

He'd take the now rock-hard meatloaf out of the icebox; it would never thaw by dinner. The instructions my mother had taped to the meatloaf pan seemed to be lost. He'd empty the icebox, looking for them, but then give up and consult a cookbook. He thought the note said 350 degrees, but the cookbook said 375. He'd pull out more cookbooks to get an average.

This was all a pretense, though: his real interest was in the cellar. Whenever someone started the washer, he'd wait with a tense smirk until the delicious moment when a series of bangs would thunder up the stairwell: the load in the washing machine had become unbalanced. "There!" he'd beam. "How do you like that?" Our washing machine symbolized why the country was going to hell, the quality of workmanship and materials today, and what the clowns in Washington had got us into. He'd rush into the back yard and collar any of Patrick's friends who were around, luring them into the cellar to read incriminating bits from the instruction panel. "Now what do you think of Nixon (earlier Kennedy, later Ford)?" He even telephoned people (never Sears, who made it) to listen to it, dangling the phone down the kitchen laundry chute and into the cellar, the better to get the full range of sound. Sometimes he phoned my mother's workplace and had her summoned to the phone to listen. These episodes always delighted Patrice, who saw my father as having the best features of a cross between a pet spaniel and Albert Einstein.

But he also had Saturdays to look forward to. He'd force-march one of my brothers, whoever happened to be a teen-ager at the time, into the garage to Work On The Car. It might be making a strange sound: "it's like, I don't know, 'shmeee'", he'd say. "Driving me crazy." Patrick, his most frequent captive, had a nice repertoire of skits about these Saturdays, and acted out the parts for anyone who'd listen. "Don't touch them tools, Patrick. Don't touch a thing. Stand over there, outta my way," he'd mutter, pretending to be my father with an offset spanner between his teeth. And of course unless Patrick had something important to say, he was to say nothing.

They'd work together all morning, my father adjusting the engine timing and the idle speed, pouring top cleaner down the carburetor, cleaning the battery posts while he was at it. He'd take the wheels off. He'd check the differential. Patrick's job was to lean against an old bedstead, almost faint-headed with boredom.

My father would take the car for a spin to test it, but the noise might still be there, and he'd be irritated when he came back and Patrick had disappeared. He'd go into the house and complain to my mother. Patrick would re-appear.

"Stand over there," my father would say. "Don't touch nothing."

 The feeler gauge might into the works and cut his hand when he fished it out.  He'd drop the oil pan to get at the main bearings. He'd check the universal joint and repack the wheel bearings. Oil pump, rocker arms, carburetor float, belts, he'd look at everything.

Just around dark, as Patrick would tell it, when the car had basically been stripped down and reassembled, my father took him along for a final drive, more to keep an eye on him than anything else because it was now obvious to my father that he was irremediable, mechanically.  A little lazy, too, he'd tell my mother later: he hadn't done a damn thing all day long.

"Hell!" he'd say as they drove out Rt. 123. "It's still there."

 "I was you," Patrick claimed he'd said, "I'd roll that back window up tighter. You got an awful whistle coming in there."

And although Patrick laughed a lot when he told these stories, years later he was proud to be able to do the same thing for his own boy, although not as well, of course, because my father was a genius, Patrick knew that much by then.

However long the layoff or strike, even the washer and the car began to pall as psychological mainstays after he was out of work for a week. He'd begin to nap during the day and wander around at night. Some days he stayed up to see my mother off to work, and then at around 7 a.m. he'd go over to the El Dorosa Lounge to meet the few guys coming off the mill night shift, people who were only names to his children, Wilkie and Tony and Al Kemp and them, the ones who were finishing up before they, too, were laid off. Soon, though, he didn't have any money, and the worst thing of all would be if they tried to buy him a drink, so he stopped going over.

Eventually, they all went back to work, boasting about how much they'd got done while they were at home; cursing the owners and the clowns in Washington, stroking the familiar machines back to life, then re-jigging them so they would break down regularly, allowing time for a coffee break.

But on Black Monday, September 19, 1977 they were all out of work again, this time for good. The main mills closed forever. My father never knew this, never got a chance to blame the clowns or the company crooks who'd abandoned Youngstown.

He'd only gone to get his ears tested, he complained afterward. He'd decided he wanted to get more out of life, go on little excursions with my mother, take a greater interest in our affairs-galling, of course, to Patrick, the success of whose activities required the total bafflement of my father. The ear test was part of the new life; all the guys in the mill were deafened, sure, but now he wanted to mix more, get involved, not be left out.

He went out by himself and bought a new outfit, known locally as a Full Cleveland-his was a maroon polyester jacket, plaid coordinating pants, white belt and shoes. He'd been quite a dresser in his teens, apparently, an adventurous, fearless, athletic daredevil. We began to see traces of the man we'd only heard about. He sent my mother a Valentine and signed it "Old Sugar."

"Of course," he said, not a bit upset when Patrick ran outside to show it to the Eddies. "I was always called that. "Sugar Kane." Who was this man, we wondered? Clearly we knew nothing about him.

"Might as well get the full physical, too," the doctor said when he went for the ear test. "Your insurance pays for it and probably won't when you retire." The full physical showed advanced lung cancer.

He died on April 15, 1977. It was Patrice's 19th birthday.

My mother ordered masses of flowers and wreaths. She was afraid he might not get many. But for him, and men like him, the funeral home staff knew enough to open plenty of extra rooms, and for the two days' wake, they were packed. All the Eddies were there, bony boys wearing their father's big suit jackets; an old lady who said my father had come out of nowhere one day and propped up her sagging front porch for nothing; a congressman accused of stealing thousands of books from the Library of Congress; a bishop, priests to spare, considering that my father hadn't gone to church in forty years.  A middle-aged stranger walked in and stood before us, crying: "He got me through engineering night school," he said. "Eight years. Every day he helped me on our coffee break." Other mill comrades with twisted stick bodies, black fingernails and the still-hopeful eyes of children came forward, shyly: "I'm Griff"; "I'm Wilkie and this here is Dutch...."; the magical names we'd heard over supper for so many years, seen here at last.

We stood there, as one after another, they came, dozens, and told us about bits of his unknown life. My grandmother, his mother-in-law, was the only one who didn't seem surprised.

"Ní bheidh a leithéidí arís ann," she said, sweeping her arm toward a group of broken men telling stories around his coffin.  "We won't see the likes of them again."  And so far, we haven't.

Eileen Kane's Parents - Trickster, An Anthropological Memoir - www.trickster.ie
My Mother and Father, 1938 and 1977