Sunday, October 23, 2011

My Father Could Do Anything

My father was a do-it-himself-er.  I don't mean that in sense that he did some handyman hobby projects - he did everything himself.  Whatever it was he wanted to do, he did it, himself.  I grew up thinking he could do pretty much anything.  I still think so.  There wasn't much he put his mind to that he couldn't figure out on his own.

He died sometime Friday.  He was 93, going on 94, still driving, still working around the house, still trying to keep up the house and yard, still resisting help to the end.  He had been diagnosed by a surgeon with multiple aortic aneurysms recently, but that merely confirmed the diagnosis he himself had made some years before. The doctor needed a CAT scan to verify what my dad had deduced on his own.   He resisted going to the doctor because "they would just want to operate, put me in the hospital, and I'd die there."  I actually respected his opinion on that. He was such an independent person I just could not see him enduring the indignity and surrender of independence involved in going into the hospital and probably subsequent nursing home.  He did finally go to the doctor only because of the pain he was in.

Although he had only a community college two year education, about the time I was in the expensive University my dad had saved to send me to, he decided he should get an engineering license and started studying at home on his own.  Before I graduated, he had passed the state exams and was a registered mechanical engineer.  A lot of university graduates have trouble passing those exams.

Until recently when he was in such poor health that he just physically couldn't do it any more, he did all of his own auto repair work.  I  even remember him doing automatic transmission repair.

When I was young, he got into radio and television repair, back when it was vacuum tubes and stuff like that.  He had a bunch of antique radios he had fixed.

He built his own grand piano.  Well, not a whole piano, just one octave of it.  It was a class project in a community college course he took.  But it's a full size working, playable piano octave, complete with all the parts, strings, keyboard, case, the works.  That octave is sitting in his living room (what on earth are we going to do with it?).  I think he got into that to learn to tune pianos because ours needed tuning.

He grafted camellias and other plants.  If I recall correctly, he had a lemon tree that grew half oranges or something of the sort by grafting one onto the other.

At one point, he took up oil painting.  I don't think he had what you would call great talent at it, but he did some pretty good paintings.  Wouldn't have won an art contest, but could have entered one without being laughed at.

He developed and printed his own photographs.  Mostly black and white, but even did a little color.  He had some old, old cameras, probably still there actually, an enlarger, full darkroom equipment.  He would tape up the door and window in the bathroom to keep the light out when he wanted to do darkroom work.

I never went to a barber until I got married and left home.  Daddy cut our hair (yes, his own too, using two mirrors to see the back of his head).  Probably wouldn't win any awards in Hollywood, but I never had anyone say anything to indicate my hair cuts were crude or amatuerish. I don't think he ever got a professional haircut in his life.

He added a bedroom and bathroom onto our house.  Did everything from drawing the plans, surveying the plot, digging the foundations, framing, drywall, electrical, plumbing (back in the day when that meant pounding molten lead into cast iron plumbing), glazing, and cabinetry.  He even stuccoed the exterior to match the rest of the house.  At this point, honesty compels me to admit that he sort of ran out of steam on that project after he got the permits signed off and never totally finished the interior.  That was his Achilles heal - trying to do so many things that he left a lot of projects unfinished.  Then he re-roofed the whole house.  That roof is now 40 some years old, and about at the end of its life, but it was a good roof. He was up on a ladder checking it out two weeks ago, thinking it, like he himself, was pretty near the end of life.

He played the violin.  Not anything close to professionally, but well enough to be enjoyable to listen to.

Of course he was a Christadelphian, which is pretty much the ultimate in do-it-yourself Christianity, with no clergy and members doing everything themselves.  He wrote a magazine column on Bible prophecy, entitled Signs of the Times, for our national church magazine for a number years.   I would read the magazine and think:  "That's pretty good - who wrote it?  Really, my dad ?"  It amazed me.

He got into computers later in life than most people, because he was of a pre-computer generation, but he adapted and learned that too.  He took a class in programming and wrote a program for playing Black Jack.  He did adapt to Windows when that came along, but he had some "antique" PC's he kept going for years, because they still ran the DOS software he had set things up in.

He was church treasurer and board member for decades. Yep, he computerized that too, of course. His integrity and confidentiality were absolutely unquestionable.  The real problem I have now is that he was executor for the estates of several of the members of our church, taking care of their finances toward the ends of the lives and afterwards.  Why is that a problem for me?  Because now, we need to do what we always depended on him to do.  The complexity is so daunting.  I sure wish he was around to help me with it.

If my dad couldn't fix something, then it just couldn't be fixed.  Of course, even if he couldn't fix it, it's almost certainly still lying around his house somewhere, waiting for him to find a way to fix it after all, or at least to cannibalize the parts.  Some things he fixed that he shouldn't have, like that old refrigerator that uses 7 times as much electricity as a new one (yes, we metered it to prove that).

Oh, yes, he also found time to actually work for a living, as a mechanical engineer, designing controls for the Gas Company's long distance gas transmission lines.

Of course, he was far from perfect.  In many ways, his inability to let anyone help him was as much curse as blesssing.  Doing everything is humanly impossible.  He left way too many things unfinished: A house full of clutter of things that need doing that he couldn't let anyone do for him.  Because no one else would do it "right."  Being the stereotypical Scot that he was, Frugal MacDougall just refused to pay someone else to do something he could do himself (i.e. anything).  It would have been a sinful waste of money.  I think too that his independent ways were also driven by being shy and socially uncomfortable.  His biggest problem was that, although he could do anything, that didn't mean he could do everything.  There was only so much one man could get done.  So there were lots of unfinished projects all over the place that he just couldn't get to.

He was  kind of a hard act to follow, in many ways.  I am what I am in large part because of what he taught me about what a man can do if he sets his mind to it.  I have had to learn from others not to try to do quite everything by myself, but it's a struggle.

But in the end, for all that he could do, the thing I will remember most is that he loved me and he was proud of me.  He happily sacrificed for his family.  He did what he did to provide for his family - to give us the luxuries that he wouldn't buy for himself.  He was always there for me, and for my family, no matter what.  I guess it must be obvious I was pretty proud of him, too.


  1. Dad, thanks for writing this. There were I a lot of things I knew, but didnt really remember until I read this. It also reminded me of how blessed I am to have this family and a dad, who sounds a lot like his dad...

  2. A tribute filled with love. I am so sorry for your loss.

  3. Beautiful tribute to your dad. As shy as he was socially, he was always cheerful and made himself available. He certainly had a brilliant mind! We send our love and sympathy to you.