When I was a boy, the men who lived on our street just outside of Pittsburgh thought Democrats were men who couldn’t change the oil in their cars. My uncle, who lived farther from the city, thought Democrats were men who couldn’t do home repairs. My father did neither, but he thought Democrats were men who believed everyone doing a job, despite how well they did it, should be equally paid, and worse, took sick days from the jobs they performed, whether in coats and ties or overalls.
For every one of those men, voting took seconds—straight Republican. One look at Adlai Stevenson explained to them that he couldn’t fix a car or a faulty furnace. And the way Stevenson talked made my father sure he’d never made a thing in his life except speeches.
Stevenson ran again in 1956, but even Eisenhower with a heart attack and a recent operation for ileitis was more of a man to my father. By now, at eleven, I was expected to work with my hands. Across the street where we’d moved since Eisenhower was first elected, one of our new neighbors cut his lawn one evening still wearing the white shirt and tie he put on each weekday morning to work, my father said, “with numbers somewhere.”
I was helping my father wrestle weeds from among rows of tomato plants. “The Senator,” my father said in a voice that made me glad I was wearing a ratty t-shirt as I knelt beside him.
A few days later, when our closest neighbor opened the hood of his green Ford to reveal the engine to me and his son, he began to speak a foreign language about what it was we saw. He owned tools that were hung along one wall of his garage and so did my uncle, who had a workbench as well because he did plumbing and wiring. Though we now had a garage for the first time, there were no tools in ours except a saw and a hammer, a wrench and a few screwdrivers of various sizes. My father was useless about repairs. He couldn’t afford for anything to go wrong with the electricity or the plumbing or the car, but he could will his body to work as if he were a master mechanic for anatomy.
My father owned a bakery that was open five days a week, Tuesday through Saturday. He took off Christmas, New Year’s, and Thanksgiving. He closed on Independence Day and Memorial Day when those holidays weren’t necessarily on a Monday, and he shut his doors for three hours from noon to three p.m. every Good Friday because he believed those were the hours that Jesus spent dying on the cross.
The rest of the days the bakery was open to sell bread and rolls and coffee cakes made fresh during the night. His customers could count on it. Monday through Thursday evenings he went to work at eleven o’clock and came home around nine in the morning. On Fridays he went to work at seven and came home around eight the following day. From the time I started school until he closed that bakery when I was in college, he never missed a day. Fifteen years times 250 days—3750 consecutive business days, a sort of Cal Ripken, Jr. record for a baker’s endurance.
For several hundred of those Friday evenings, I worked beside him, ...