Sons of mechanics; Sons of writers- guest blogger Aaron J. Brown

 


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It was the 1980s. We lived in a neon green and white trailer house set amid the tamaracks of northern Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range. This was a blue collar place where most kids’ dads worked for the mines. My dad ran a junkyard with my grandpa in the middle of a swamp 10 miles outside town. I was probably reading a book in my tiny bedroom or tormenting my sisters, the two things I did at that age, when dad called me out to the kitchen and invited me to go back to the shop with him.
Going to the shop was a big deal because it meant grandpa would creak his old office chair over to the cash box and pull out the quarter, nickel and dime I would need to extract a Coke from the pop machine. I could drink the pop on the walk back to the house, tossing the can into the aluminum pile along the way. But that’s not how it went this particular day. Dad sat me down in the shop, gave me a screwdriver -- the tool, not the drink (though one could find both on the junkyard) -- and a strange metal box, an old car radio salvaged from some wreck that had a date with the crusher.
“Take it apart. Put it back together,” dad said.
“OK.”
Seemed like something I could try, and I did. It came apart well enough, but there were so many little pieces I didn’t dare touch for fear of breaking them. Some things had screws, others were fastened by some kind of magic force that required tremendous hand strength and the kind of calluses my dad had sported since he was 8. I pinched my fingers two or three times and eventually just spent several minutes poking at the mess with the screwdriver.
Aaron J. Brown: From what I understand this picture was taken by a Swedish newspaper reporter for a big Sunday story about Hibbing, MN that was published in SWEDEN. Have you been in the Swedish press yet? Me nether. Well, it'll happen to us both. Someday. I'm sure.
“When I was your age I took one of those apart and put it back together in an afternoon,” dad declared. It felt like it had already been an afternoon and despite all the things I’d pulled off it, the radio was still shaped like a radio. It had probably been an hour. There was a silence between us. Eventually I wandered off, the few pieces I had managed to pry off likely replaced by my dad in a few moments later that night. His experiment had failed. I would not become a mechanic. I would, however, become a public radio producer and a college instructor who teaches people how to take apart messages.
I remember how we wouldn’t see or talk to my dad for a couple days when he and his brothers had to overhaul a transmission. Now I spend days writing a radio show, just as emotionally unavailable to my own children. Dad could patch together an aging car for years; I do the same thing with websites and curriculum.
My sons are about the age I was when dad took me back to the junkyard that day. They wonder what it is I do all day, sitting at a computer or teaching classes at a school for grown-ups -- grown-ups who often have cars and, thus, shouldn’t need to go to school anymore. Sometimes I have to fight the urge to show them how their LEGO people could be formed into a functional federal government the way I did with dinosaur erasers when I was their age. I do give them books, the way my mom gave me books. Looking back she was probably trying to pave a different path for me, one that ultimately led away from the junkyard. I don’t know where the books will bring my boys. At least one of them would probably rather be on a junkyard right now, wrist deep in machinery. So it goes for fathers. The work of their sons often seems to contradict their lives. The funny thing is that it usually doesn’t.
  
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Aaron J. Brown is an author, college instructor and radio producer from the Mesabi Iron Range of northern Minnesota. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com, a weekly column for the Hibbing Daily Tribune and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on independent public stations
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