We called my father “Baba”. This being amusing to the other kids we grew up with, some of them took to calling him “Baba” since that was easier than “Mr. Chakmakjian”. I remember, he called his own father “Baba” also.
In some ways, my father was “Baba” to all of whom he crossed paths. He was always fixing something, trying to sort out the mechanical hindrances of the American lifestyle he adopted. He spent a lot of time in flannel shirts. But there was something else he talked about infrequently. A lifestyle he gave up years before in order to pursue the American Dream. Whenever I see that picture, I crack up. He had this “David Niven” thing going. He told me that the Arabs he worked with in Palestine and Jordan when he was growing up said he was like the British, cool as a cucumber. It wasn’t that he was passive, he just smiled and tried not to lose his cool. This was an obvious contrast to the in-your-face bravado of the desert/city culture he grew up in. The juxtaposition of the steelworker in his shop uniform or his plaid flannel shirts and jeans and these, dare I say it, Hollywood promo photos was stark. He lived two different lives in one life.
My father was the type of guy who did not intimidate. He wasn’t huge, and he wasn’t loud. He was serious and smiling at the same time. He was extremely intelligent and could express himself in 6 languages, fluently and idiomatically. He loved to teach people things. He loved to fix things. Whenever he was working on a project, he’d sit and think about it a bit (with the inevitable cigarette in his hand), and then try something. He only did things in one or two shots and got it to work by the second. He’d build his own scaffolding so that he could paint the house. I’d be scared to get up on it, and I’m not afraid of heights…
One of the things he was most proud of was his mathematical ability. He didn’t know calculus or differential equations. He never got that far in school given his situation. But he used to show his calculations to figure out how much steel he passed through his grinding machine and he had this way of doing subtraction by doing addition. Blank plus 3 yields 8, therefore 5 (as opposed to the way I was taught, 8 minus 3 gets you 5). His way, he didn’t have to worry about borrowing from the next column. He tried to teach me that way and said it was faster…which it was, but then calculators became ubiquitous. He was proud of his math because he saw the guys in his shop round down by dropping the decimal places. This drove him batty. They’d get their math done, and he’d look at them and say, “you’re throwing away money on every bar of steel.” They didn’t believe him, but it was tough being smarter than the average “Joe”.
When it came to kids, he’d get right down on the floor and start investigating what they were doing, and another teaching session would occur. Building things was something he could really get into.
He took every correspondence course that was available. Build your own stereo, upholstery, start a business making rubber stamps, Charles Atlas (yes it wasn’t just an ad in comic books). Nothing ever became of these attempts at the time, but years later, when I’d pick through these boxes in the attic I’d find things and start experimenting with them. The stamp press was my favorite. You took printsetting letters, built up a form and pressed it out in the rubber in a heating machine. I was the only kid in grammar school with a stamp with my name on it.
The stereo and speakers eventually became my first tube amplifier for my electric guitar. We took these pretty cool woofer with inline tweeter speakers, built them into a plywood box and I’d drag this around to events. The cool thing was that it was stereo, so I could do interesting things like voice in one speaker and guitar in the other…or distortion in one speaker, flanger in the other. You could get some cool effects. The effects of uncovering these experiments in the attic probably led me to a career in engineering…but he never ever told me “you should do this or that.” The funny thing about building that amplifier was that all day long he kept sipping at this coffee. He was on his 3rd cup when my mother came down into the basement. “What are you doing”
“We’re building an amplifier for my guitar.”
“Oh.” She called him Hovsep, for Joseph in Armenian. “Hovsep, where did you get this coffee?”
“OOF, that’s not coffee, IT’S COFFEE CLEANER”
“Really? I was wondering why it seemed a bit weak.”
I burst out laughing. Cast iron stomach.
Anyway, another funny thing about my father is he always had to be fixing something. On one visit to us one summer, oh about 5:30 in the morning, we get woken up to this loud metal clanging in our backyard. My wife and I look out our bedroom window and can’t see anyone out there, but the clanging is getting intense. Then I look down at the lower part of our yard which we call “the pit” and I see the inevitable smoke from his cigarette through the bushes that obscure the dropoff into the pit. I run downstairs, through the door into the backyard, across the patio, down the stone steps into the pit. “Baba, what are you doing? it’s 5:30am!”
“I’m building a rock wall, your soil is going to run off.”
I shook my head. “Well can you do it without banging metal against the rocks? You’ll wake up the neighbors.”
He snorted, smiled and nodded his head and continued to work less noisily. Always fixing something with a smile.