socket set

Light/Socket

Last weekend, my family went camping. This involved a flashlight hunt; the kids have the usual interest in them and they end up everywhere. We were particularly looking for one from our last camping trip, which prompted digging through the minivan to see if it had gotten stashed somewhere in there.

The flashlight we were looking for never did turn up. Instead we found this:

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It’s a flashlight, obviously, by Eddie Bauer. It is also, though:

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A socket-and-screwdriver set. Flashlights and socket sets, two things that go together like chocolate and tuna fish…

…unless you were my dad. Since my spouse and I beat my younger brother to having kids, we ended up with the minivan when my dad died. My mom had gotten a thorough mechanical review of it, and cleaned out most of the stuff that my dad had left in there. Most.

My dad was always putting things in the van. It was not only his commuting vehicle, it was the catering vehicle and the barbecue puller (we had a trailer-sized gas-and-lava-rock grill). It was where he kept his stuff. I still remember when he got a car phone, how it sat between the seats in its leather box, hardly ever used. He also filled the van up with flashlights, because apparently you could never have enough of them. By the time I got the van, it still had a couple of the big Maglites, the kind that for some reason I will always associate with Richard Grieco breaking cantaloupes on 21 Jump Street (something about proving to gangers that a crowbar, not a cop flashlight, killed their buddy). There were matchbooks. There were a couple of sponges. A first aid kit. A fire extinguisher. A pair of my dad’s sunglasses that I wore until they broke.

And, under the passenger seat, this flashlight-socket set that had remained out of both sight and mind for years. It is such a dad thing. You never know when you might need to shed some light on some…emergency auto repairs? That would have made more sense if my dad had been the sort who did his own automotive work. His level of expertise, like mine, ended mostly at checking fluids.

It’s such a goofy thing. Why would anybody make it? You can still get them, apparently, so you can “never be caught unprepared for household emergencies or repairs.” The reviews mention that keeping charged batteries in it is a challenge, and most of the praise is that it’s a convenient package for the small socket set, or that the flashlight was handy during a power outage, not that there have been times when having a flashlight and socket wrenches saved the day.

But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? Saving the day, I mean. That’s what dads want to do. We get sold, sometimes, on the fantasy of the perfect tool for the job. My dad was hardly immune to this, even in the kitchen, where a good paring knife and a good chef’s knife and your hands can accomplish at least 80% of what you need. Despite this, we had a few kitchen tools that we only used once or twice. I’m sure there were a few that never made it out of the cupboard.

Being a dad is the same way—as much as we might want to have the perfect, day-saving tool, the real work is the stuff you do every day with basic knife skills. In doing the dishes. In paying attention to your ingredients. In knowing the people you’re feeding. I can’t help slipping into kitchen metaphors because that’s where my dad lived. That’s where it was easiest for me to get along with him, to understand him. That’s where he taught me so much of what, like all sons, it took me a long time to understand: we want to save the day. We want gadgets that are perfectly suited to the problems. We want to have a magic wand to fix things for the people we care about…

…but we don’t. We have work to do, everyday work, and every day. If we really want to be good at the fatherhood thing, that’s the work we must do. There are no magic wands, and rarely do we have a perfect tool for the job.

Still, the flashlight/socket set has gone back into the van. Who knows? It might save a day.