A 25-Cent Screwdriver
Bonding a son and his father.
Posted Jan 11, 2021
When I was a boy we lived in an old, dilapidated house that cried out for attention and repair, and from the age of 11, I worked on the house with my dad. We put on a new roof, shingled the exterior, added central heating, dug out the crawlspace, and made it into a cellar, and much more. Neither of us had any training or experience to prepare us for these complex tasks. We talked about how to approach each job. If we could not agree we went to the local hardware store and asked Bob, the owner. He always had the answer, and often he was correct.
New York City was shut down by a massive blizzard when I was 14. We lived on City Island, a sliver of land in the bay between the north edge of the Bronx and the south edge of Westchester County. We, along with the rest of the island's 3,000 inhabitants, had to cross three bridges and miles of open parkland to reach the main populated area of the Bronx. For nearly a week Dad and I were on the island, cut off by snowdrifts that cars and buses could not traverse. My mother and older brother were stuck on the mainland.
All the businesses on City Island ground to a halt that week. Dad shut down his dry cleaning and tailoring shop, the public school closed, and the two of us were left to amuse ourselves. So, we walked.
City Island is shaped like a cigar, about a mile long and less than half a mile wide at its widest point. The first day we walked up and down City Island Avenue from end to end. Then we got more adventurous, striking out through the parkland’s snowdrifts to Pelham Bay station. At the end of our 4-mile trek, we rewarded ourselves with hot chocolate at a candy store. We repeated that adventure until the snow was cleared, our family was reunited, and people returned to their routines.
After life returned to normal, Dad and I kept walking. We liked the easy conversation—the long silences, ended by a casual thought. Bit by bit I learned more about Dad's life. Born in Poland, he left his dirt-poor village at 13 and walked to Berlin to seek his fortune. Things went well until 1914 when Germany began preparing for the First World War. Before he could be arrested and deported as an immigrant and a Jew, Dad fled to England, where he was granted political asylum. He lived in London until the 1920s, when he came to the United States, met my mother, and started our family.
Despite the fact that English was his fourth language, Dad spoke American English without an accent. He sounded like a radio announcer from the Midwest. His speech was totally different than the rest of his immigrant family; they retained their European accents. On one of our walks, I asked him about it, and he explained: He had not been welcome in Poland, the country of his birth. Germany had kicked him out. England had grudgingly accepted him as a refugee, but never let him feel at home. America, he said, accepted him for who he was and what he could do. He became a citizen as soon as he could and visited every state in the U.S. But he never went back to Europe: “Why would I go there? They didn’t want me, and there is nothing there that I want of them. I am an American!
On another of our walks, we found an abandoned six-drawer dresser at the side of the road. We wanted the twelve handsome solid brass drawer pulls, two per drawer. A screwdriver could liberate them in a few minutes. But we didn’t have a screwdriver. So, we walked home, got the tool, returned, and went home with a pound of brass. That walk probably inspired my love of screwdrivers and other hand tools.
The next day I went to Bob at the hardware store and asked for his smallest screwdriver. He reached to the top of a tool display and pulled down a blue steel screwdriver the size of a key. It was designed to go on a keyring. Twenty-five cents. I bought two, one for Dad and one for me.
Dad died 30 years later, at the ripe old age of 80. When I went through his things I found, with his keys, the 25-cent screwdriver.