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Christmas, 1956. I was a bit of a friend and my seeing the Tonka Hi-Way series exhibited in the W.T. Grant had caught my attention months earlier.
In my letter to Santa Claus, I asked for the Tonka set. What I didn’t know was that my people had already staged the set on Grant.
After settling in a bit with my bright orange Tonkas, I noticed a red oak box with brass hinges and a snap closure on the front.
The aroma of Daddy’s shop and red oak filled my nose when I opened the box. And inside that box, three tools for dad’s little apprentice: a level, a plumb line and a square. Just like dad, except for my little hands.
I remember simply keeping them, as if they were precious metals or jewels, so much so that I was hesitant to touch them. Dad explained each tool and what each means and how they were used.
April 1973. My father died. He was only 55 years old. A master shipbuilder for the United States Navy and a master builder of furniture have no longer honored this world.
I was a college boy at the time and my journey was leading me to a career in healthcare; what some might think is far from working with wood.
When I arrived home on April 5th, after spending time with my mother, I went to “our” shop. I turned on the light – dad had been there late on April 4, fixing something for mom, and I thought maybe, just maybe, there was something dad left.
A fresh rain fell outside and I realized that the shop also looked different. Maybe I felt lost until I went to dad’s bench.
On the counter were the large versions of the instruments I had received on Christmas day in 1956, plus another – the compass. I completely lost my temper and cried.
And then, I heard Dad’s voice through time, as he had said many years before, the true meaning and use of these tools: “Use these tools to help the less fortunate”.
It reminded me of “measuring three times and cutting once” and “paying attention to everything”, it was as clear as when he said this for the first time.
All these years later, making tools every day in my shop is my reminder of what I have been taught about concentration, commitment and desire – and about the Tonka trucks (which I still have).
My shop is dripping with the history of tools, including my father’s “Navy Gray apprenticeship” toolbox, which he made in the summer of 1941 as a carpenter of the apprentice ship for the United States Navy and inside, all the tools he used.
While I was photographing Dad’s chest for this essay, I found a small compass at the bottom – a Starrett compass no. 85, with a pencil attached by my father decades ago. A little cleaning revealed his initials: “J.A.D.”
I never found the little toolbox I received in 1956. But the real gifts that dad gave me were not in that little box. Those little tools only represented the true sacred nature of things and I think that’s exactly what my father wanted me to know. And after serving the sick and broken, and having taught things like that for 40 years, I did two things: 1) I had used the tools to serve the less fortunate; and 2) are now able to create such tools.
The thing is, however, inheritance isn’t just the tools I have that belonged to my father. It is much deeper. It’s about those skills that I learned and developed on my journey. As my father often said: “Instruments don’t make a master; skill, heart strength and concentration do. “
Joe, who lives in Lebanon, Virginia, is the owner of DiPietro Toolworks and is the former director of
Cardiopulmonary sciences at Southwest Virginia Community College.
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