Even though we are outside, in the carport, the smell of sawdust hangs all around us—the smell of my childhood. My father, in his construction worker dark blue pants and shirt, bends over the bandsaw, shaping a block of pine into a paddle that I will take back to college with me the next day.
I stand and watch. Self-conscious in my pastel polo shirt and matching belt, I shuffle my feet in their knockoff boat shoes. I don’t know how to operate the saw, so I’ve made this rare trip back home for the weekend and asked my father to make the paddle for me.
“Tell me about this thing that you’re doing—this fraternity you’re joining.” His head remains bowed over the saw, as if in prayer.
I wish I knew how to use the saw. Then I wouldn’t need to have this conversation.
“It’s just a fraternity. A sort of club, you know, except that we all live together. The other guys are called your ‘brothers.’ So, it’s like a brotherhood.”
I have two brothers of my own, seven and eight years older. The teachers at Fred T. Foard High couldn’t believe that I was the little brother of the big football heroes. I was on the debate team and in the senior play. I am a freshman at the University of North Carolina. My oldest brother joined the Army right after high school. Both my brothers work with our father in construction now. They would know how to operate the saw.
My father takes the now-shaped paddle off the saw and begins to sand its rough edges. He also has two older brothers. My father followed one of them into the Navy during World War II, serving on Guam.
“I know what a fraternity is,” he tells me. “I don’t know why you’re joining one.”
I don’t really know either. I just want desperately to be part of something, but I don’t know how to tell him about my feelings of loneliness, of never seeming to fit in at school. Or at home. I’m afraid to tell him about Rick, the guy I dated in high school. I’m certain that he won’t understand, or, worse, that he might even throw me out of the house and college, like a friend’s father did.
I had thought he might be happy about my decision to join a fraternity, though. I let myself hope that he might even be proud of me. But, his comment tells me otherwise.
He holds the paddle up for me to see. His hands are calloused and rough. I look at my own hands, their palms smooth, and fold them behind my back.
“Can you put my name on it?” I ask, wishing this was over.
My father tilts his head, his brow wrinkled, and I know I have to explain. “I have to get all the brothers to sign it with their names during pledge week.”
I don’t tell him that some of the brothers will only sign after they use the paddle on me. What would he think? What do I think? I don’t know.
“I can burn it in or carve it in,” he says flatly, resigned to finishing the project.
“Burn it, I think. Yes. Burn it in.”
He takes a fat carpenter’s pencil out of his shirt pocket and writes my name in cursive across one side of the paddle. His script is elegant, with clear lines and little slant. He holds it up for my approval before burning my name into the wood with another tool I don’t know how to use.
Concentrating on his craft, he doesn’t speak again until he has finished the job. The sweet smell of the burnt pine hangs in the air between us, mixing with the sawdust, as he hands me the paddle.
“You know you don’t have to do this.”
I take the paddle and mumble ‘Thank you’ as I turn and walk into the house.
I leave the next morning, anxious to return to Chapel Hill. I turn the paddle in to the pledge master, who takes it and turns it over in his hands. He seems appreciative of the craftsmanship and asks me about it. I look at it as if for the first time and tell him my father made it. The pledge master looks at me oddly, and I can feel myself blushing.
The paddle was never used. No other names were added to it. I got a call on Thursday of that week, from an older cousin: My father had died from a sudden heart attack earlier that day. I returned home and missed pledge week.
At my father’s funeral, men who worked with him told me over and over how proud my father was of me for being a good student in high school and going to college. I returned to his gravesite a few days after the funeral, and I noticed the marker provided by the Navy has his date of birth wrong: 1925. But he was born in 1927, I thought. Back at the house, I asked my mother about the mistake. She told me, “His father lied about his age so that he could join the Navy.” My father was only 15-years-old when he enlisted, three years younger than I was when he made the paddle for me.
When I returned to Chapel Hill, I no longer cared about the fraternity.
While I never saw the paddle again, Daddy’s final words have stayed with me, burnt into my mind—“You don’t have to do this.”
He was right, I didn’t have to do it—or anything—to fit in. I don’t have to fit in at all.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Kevin Gessner