He gave it to me when I was seven. I know, because I remember bringing it to 2nd grade show-and-tell. It was shinier then – looked more like the treasure I thought it was when he first gave it to me. I suppose I thought at the time that it might be worth something some day. Mostly though, I coveted it because it looked cool and because he had given it to me.
In those days, it was common for Dad to bring home fashioned hunks of metal from work. His job was to make tools that were used for building airplanes. If you’ve ever flown aboard a Boeing aircraft and thought to yourself, Gee, it’s so wonderful the way this plane flies and doesn’t crash, then you might give my late father a nickel of gratitude. A big part of his job was making things out of metal. Sometimes he’d have a little fun and make something other than a tool for making sure your airplane doesn’t crash.
I don’t know enough about metal working to tell you how it was made – I figure it was spun and filed somehow – but I know it dazzled me the first time I saw it.
“Look what I made today.” he said, pulling the odd thing from his pocket.
“What is it?” I asked, mesmerized.
“It’s a whatzit!” he said.
“Wow! A whatzit! Can I have it?”
“Ok, you can have it…if you promise to never ever lose it.”
With delight, I snatched the shiny treasure from his calloused hand. I knew straight away where I could stash it so it never became lost: my underwear drawer. To a seven-year-old boy, the underwear drawer is more secure than the vault beneath the Bellagio. Other secure locations exist, to be sure – under the bed, in a shoe box within the bedroom closet, or the hiding place most favored by pubescent teenage boys – between mattress and box spring. But nothing compares to the underwear drawer. Depositing the whatzit into that sacred tomb of underoos, easing the drawer shut, I could have been sealing the spinning lock of the most impenetrable of steel vaults. No way was I losing that whatzit. No way.
Looking back to that time, I wonder if there is any object I’ve held longer in my possession. I don’t believe there is. Since that day, now more than thirty years ago, I’ve graduated high school, traveled across the world and back, attended college, dropped out of college, gotten married, and moved five times – twice across state lines – and all along, the whatzit has remained with me – safe in my underwear drawer. Nearing thirteen years since the passing of its maker, the whatzit remains – weighty, imperishable – the only of its kind in all the world. I’m not sure why I never lost it. I did promise to keep it, but I’ve broken tons of promises, and I doubt whether my dad ever remembered giving it to me in the first place. I guess there’s a part of me, as there is in each of us, that never grows up, and the whatzit represents that part of me – the part still fascinated by symbols and strange looking objects, the part still convinced that a father holds superhuman creative powers.
Today, I am father of two boys. Samuel, my oldest, is a sweet child – sentimental to the bones. He loves to initiate deep conversations just prior to (and after) bedtime. It’s annoying, and I often respond poorly when he does this, but several nights ago, I decided to accommodate him. He asked me about his grandfather; he wanted to know if I had any pictures of him. Truth be told, I have few. I’m not sentimental like Samuel is; at least, I don’t act as though I am. But then, there is that odd, metallic thing I’ve carried for three decades in my underwear drawer.
Retrieving the whatzit, I held it out to him. “This is a picture of my dad – your grandpa. He made amazing things with metal. This is called a whatzit. He made it and gave it to me, and he made me promise never to lose it. Now, I am giving it to you. Never lose it.”
There are those who believe that our loved ones in heaven are capable of seeing what happens upon the earth. Personally, I don’t understand why they’d want to, but it does make me think sometimes. Did Dad see me with Samuel? Did he see me give away the whatzit? If so, I hope he knows I didn’t break my promise; I just bent it a little. His gift has never been in better hands.