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Oregon Family Magazine

Dad's Eye View

01/31/2014 ● By Sandy Kauten
The sharp reek of nail polish emanated from Wendy’s room and I looked in to find my 11-year-old sitting on her new carpet painting a design on a jewelry box with purple sparkle nail polish. She looked up and smiled.

 I wanted to say: “Don’t do that on the carpet! And get some ventilation in here before you get brain damage!” But what could toxic fumes do to her mind that isn’t already being done by massive overdoses of television and computer games? Wendy is one of those kids whose every leisure moment is powered by electricity. When she’s not looking at a video screen, she’s jabbering on the phone or listening to her iPod – sometimes doing all three at once. (I never said she’s lazy.) So I smiled at her messy interaction with Real Stuff and went downstairs to interact with the mountain of laundry that was frightening the mice in the cellar.

A few minutes later she joined me down there to ask, “Dad, do we have any paint? Mom says I can paint my bookcase.”

“You can paint something, but not that bookcase. It’s a valuable antique. It was made out of old packing cases a hundred years ago by hoboes,” I said.

“Really?” asked Wendy.

“Well, that’s what the guy said when he sold it to me. He said it’s an example of Hobo Art and I like to believe it,” I said. “Mom doesn’t have a proper appreciation for hoboes. Hey, why don’t you paint the little wooden step-stool that’s in the pantry?”

She liked the idea, and I pulled some old pint cans of oil paint off a shelf. Wendy selected forest green and found a brush. Not wanting her to get discouraged by the details, I spread newspapers on the kitchen floor while she went up and changed out of clothes she’d stolen from her sisters. I gave her one of my old shirts for a smock. (It’s fraying, but I’d keep wearing it to the office unless somebody stops me by splattering it with paint.)

The step-stool in question is the last surviving relic of my dad’s short-lived woodworking spree. Original Ted Epstein pieces are rarer than Hobo Art. He only made three items: the step-stool, a window box and a 4-foot-long aircraft carrier. Dad made the ship to amuse my brother and me when we were 8 and 6. It consisted of three rectangular boards of different sizes. Sawing may have been involved. It probably was. In those days, Dad had a saw and wasn’t afraid to use it. He nailed the boards together and he let us paint it Navy gray. Then Dad got white paint and put a big “62” on it because that was our house number. I was amazed that my father had made a Navy ship and was delighted when he assured me that, if given the opportunity, it would actually float. In my mind that made it a real boat.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one intrigued by the ship. The paint was barely dry when it was stolen right out of our back yard by two 10-year-old pirates, Georgie Wood and one of the Harrison boys. (I’m using their real names; let the whole world know of their villainy.) To disguise their prize, these criminal geniuses repainted the ship white. I don’t remember if we ever got it back. But I do know that the ship was the last thing Dad ever made because it inspired us to take up woodworking and it only took us a couple of weeks to lose most of his tools.  

Maybe it’s just as well that Dad didn’t make any more step-stools. The one he did make has a design flaw that causes it to flip over if you step anywhere on it except in the exact center. Every time it throws me, I think, “That’s what I get for losing Dad’s tools.” My wife calls the stool Grandpa’s Revenge.

I left Wendy stirring the paint with a chopstick and went back to washing and folding clothes. An hour later, Wendy called out, “Dad! What’s with this paint?” Her hands were forest green to the wrist, the kitchen sink was splotched with paint, as were all the dishes and utensils that the family had used in the past five hours.

“It’s oil paint,” I said, “and water won’t wash it off. C’mon outside and we’ll use gasoline on it.” So she got a little science lesson about what is soluble in what.

The step-stool gleamed on the green-spotted newspaper and I praised the painter. “Wendy, Grandpa’s Revenge hasn’t looked this good since the day it claimed its first victim more than 40 years ago.” Pleased with her achievement and smelling faintly of gasoline, she went off to Skype her friends about her low-tech adventure.

I collected the paint-smeared dishes and flatware and took them outside for gasoline-cleaning. I should’ve made Wendy do it, but I didn’t want to discourage her from someday making another visit to the realm of stuff that doesn’t run on electricity. 

                                                            * * *    Rick can be reached at [email protected]