I could still feel in the back of my head, the smell of 70-year-old grease and oil. Even though the garage door was closed and I was good ways off the pungent odor had a way of finding me, magically warming and repulsing me at the same time.
I’d spent the better part of 2 months with my hands stuck deep in the dark muck of a 1946 Willys Jeep, the rebirthing of which was to be a gift for my father upon his retirement. It seemed a fitting gift, dad was born in ’41 and this was born in ’46. He drove one on his first job (that I was old enough to recall), now he can drive one on his last job – the one that I’ll never forget.
Transmission, transfer case, steering knuckles and axles all were field dressed; disemboweled, reviewed, fiddled with, cleaned and reassembled with amazement and reverence. She’d been a “field find” which means that my heart ran way ahead of my brain, seeing in that fallow field a vehicle that offered only a vision of finished beauty and not the gnarly and unlikely road between the two. I became a lover who saw only beauty and was incapable of seeing fault, I fell for her like Sampson falling for Delilah; and now I find myself shorn of golden locks, shackled to a temple wall.
With that image in my mind I began to rummage around my “temple” for a place to “shackle” myself. It’s an old garage filled with interesting histories; partially filled boxes with bolts, nuts, and nails; numerous paint cans many with lids rusted solid on the top of wall colors that were applied no less than 3 colors ago. Dusty piles of lumber, tools of every description – all, coming to life under an array of ceiling lights of which no two are the same. The music wafting through the garage is a mix of country and western and seems to help justify the search for an aluminum lawn chair and the inevitable cold beer that was soon-to-be-grabbed from the fridge.
In a matter of minutes, the image of Sampson fades from my memory and I once again stare lovingly at the task before me. Her broad and rusted carcass lies belly-up on the floor while her skeleton stands nearby naked and at the ready, like a model waiting for the artist to begin drawing. The rough slices from the cutting torch have now yielded to more surgically precise incisions from a small cutting wheel as bits and pieces of body are matched and patched back onto the vehicle. Each weld, each tack, each tap of the hammer is an event that for me seems to turn back the hands of the clock – just a little bit.
Getting back to work, I listen to the sizzle of the welder as it stiches old and new together, yet slowly that sound changes. It goes from a pleasing flow state to a bit of a stutter, making me think for a moment that the welding tank must be empty. Slowly that threshold of sound changes into the unmistakable wail of Bethany from inside the house and in a moment my joy plummets. It’s not unlike a rollercoaster ride, one big loop where the adrenaline makes you scream for a moment and then you feel it fade as the ride slows down and the last turn reveals the station; the end of the ride.
I cut the weld short and lift my hood giving a big blow on the red-hot weld (as if my breath would actually cool hot steel) and admire how rust has turned into something useful again. “It’s not pride or arrogance” I think to myself as I pull my sweaty gloves off. “It’s more like preservation of historic artifact” as I stand, hearing again the full volume scream from the house. I reach over and shut the valve off on the tank with the full knowledge that it may be hours before I come back out here. I brush off my filthy clothes, look at the tiny weld burns on my arms, jeans and shoes and head for the back door. Her screams now have begun to acoustically match the physical gyrations that she’s accompanying them with - more drama. “What’s the issue?” I ask the helper as I walk in the back door. “She’s upset about her jeans again” she replies. My heart sinks a little further because I now this a 90 minute issue at best, at worst it can go on for days. Suddenly the same pants she’s been wearing night and day for 3 consecutive days are clearly not the same ones that she recalls and the endless search for the “right ones” is on. No level of patience or understanding will suffice – no trickery will work, no logic will soothe. It’s just a matter of following her around as she screams, punches and throws everything in sight. My patience is thin, hers; non-existent.
It’s easy to start feeling sorry for yourself at this point. You’ve not had a vacation in years and even that one you did take was only 4 days long. You’ve been at this for better than 17 years; you’re tired of diapers, tired of arguments, tired of getting punched. Your idea of a "day off" is that you stay home and work because you have 3 hours where she’ll be gone. Your wife is spent and your relationship with her is like the rust outline of what used to be a floor brace on the old Willys, offering only the memory of what was once support. The fact that you’ve not fallen through the floor is proof that God is the only thing supporting you.
Inwardly, you allow yourself that grief because it’s the most real thing you have in your life. You can share it with precious few (lest they quickly abandon you) and you find yourself "bottling it up" or “bottling it out” more and more. Somehow you manage to compassionately find a smile for your workmates as they return from time away and complain that their vacation was difficult because it rained, or they didn’t get the campsite they’d hoped for, or worse still, their kids were bored. Inwardly, you go home and head back out into that same odor-filled garage to continue working on that old Jeep, patching one rust hole at a time. It too reflects the same dual qualities as the sword of Damocles does at home with your special daughter, hanging above your head offering you the richest and most horrifying experience at the same time. You keep coming back to that throne largely because you know it’s your mission, your purpose, the very reason God put you here and keeps you here on this earth. Doesn’t mean you understand it and it certainly doesn't mean you like or appreciate it or think its unfair; it just means that you’re doing what you’re supposed to do.
I pray that the single horsehair holding the sword continues to hold fast. That the simple fragment of rust that holds the floor together (like our marriage), continues to defy physics. I pray that this old Jeep soon carries my father on many a joyful trip in this “next job” of his, and I pray that my mind and heart hold steady for just this day.