Lessons in life and auto repair learned from an East L.A. dad

Jun 16, 2013

Photo by Wonderlane/Flickr

By C.J. Salgado

When I was a little boy growing up in East L.A. my father was perfect. They even had a special day for him, Father’s Day. Or, so I thought.

You see, he had an amazing strength. I mean, he had to be like Superman, working so much. He’d get up early in the morning and go to bed long after I did. Even on weekends, he’d work much of the time. I remember him always in his work clothes, dirty and smelling of sweat, gasoline, and oil. Sometimes, though, he’d stop and play with me, to lift me up with his arms or swing me around like I was on a Merry-Go-Round.

And he was so smart, too. He worked for Ford but could fix any car. People were always coming around, wanting him to work on their cars. I would watch him for hours sometimes, pulling out entire engines, tearing apart break or transmission assemblies with many parts, or looking through thick books full of car parts, schematics, and numbers. How was he able to put these things back together again so quickly? I always wondered.

I learned a lot from him, watching him and just being around him, even when he was working side jobs at home. I didn’t want to disturb him, but inevitably, I’d roam over to him and sit, fascinated by his power to make cars run right. Then, just as surely, he’d call me over with a slight wave of his hand and begin to show me how to do simpler tasks, maybe to hold a flashlight, scrape off an old gasket, or check the electrodes with a spark plug gapping tool.

So, I learned not only how to do those things but also about numbers, machines, heat transfer, chemicals, and how systems worked. Although, it was not lost on me, too, that often it was just plain hard work that got the job finished. It was his hands that taught me that because they were always dirty, scratched, nicked and bruised.

Yet, it’s ironic that my father didn’t really say much. He wasn’t that much of a talker. Luckily, I was a good listener. So when he did, talk that is, his words struck me just as squarely as the ball- peen hammer did that I’d hear him banging so many times in my childhood. So, although he didn’t talk to me much, we were constantly communicating across many other levels by doing and seeing and being together.

Dad’s Craftsman tool chest/Courtesy C.J. Salgado

That on Sundays we could be together longer, I learned that, too. That’s when he’d take the family out to the park, the beach, or, one of my favorite places, the museums. Once in a great while he’d have enough money to take us to a place like Disneyland, but, you know, looking back, it was the simplest of outings that forged in me my most enduring fond memories of us together.

Me, I’d always be asking questions about the new things I’d see on our outings and my father would give me an answer. One day I was shocked to hear him respond that he “didn’t know” the answer to my question. Still today, I vividly recall that moment. How could that be? He knew everything.

Now, I realize that he did have an answer for me. It was just that his answer was couched to me in a different, deeper, and more lasting way. I suppose he figured out eventually that I wasn’t going to stop questioning. So, he showed me a set of Encyclopædia Britannica (Spanish) he’d gotten. “Wow!” I reacted at the sight of so many words, pictures, diagrams, and explanations. I began to open each volume and hungrily delve into them, lost in the wonders of a brand new world being discovered by a child through his father’s sage foresight.

The years passed and as I grew up, I came to understand that my father was not perfect. His name is “Jose” like so many others in East L.A. Father’s Day was not made up just for him. And his body was not forever strong. He is now a frail old man, though with a mind still as sharp as ever.

Me, I did all right, no doubt due thanks to my father’s critical engagement and support during my early years. I went on to learn to read, write, and speak English quite well, despite starting my school years as a “non-English speaking student.” I even studied physics in college and went on to pursue graduate degrees. So as surely as his imperfectness came to surface with the passing years, so, too, his early teachings came to bloom in my life.

This Father’s Day I honor my father for those simple blessing he bestowed upon me long ago. One needs not a lot of money or even a lot of time to forever enrich a child’s life. Children feel and absorb the new world they are immersed in and trying so hard to engage. Through deeds of love and learning from a caring father, though sometimes seemingly small and insignificant, a child steps firmly onto bridges to the future.

A verse from the poem, “Little Things” by E. C. Brewer goes,

Thus the little minutes,

Humble though they be,

Make the mighty ages,

Of eternity.

Yes, I will tell you, the little things do matter to a child. Did my father know that back then? I think he did … because he was perfect.

C.J. Salgado lives and writes in East Los Angeles

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