Sometimes, a "thank you" is about as good as it gets, even if it’s decades late and the intended recipients are long gone and buried. At least I hope that’s so, and especially since Father’s Day is Sunday.
However, this is not about my late father. His leadership in my life has been told and extolled. Our loving yet sometimes complicated relationship has been the fodder of past writings.
In many communities, there are men that command attention and provide leadership much like fathers would. Nowadays there are community programs where men mentor boys and young men. They are basketball and football coaches. They are first-responders who decide to take time with boys. They are the guys down the street who just want to offer some direction.
There were men like that in my first neighborhood on Howard Street between Braddock and now Thomas H. Delpit in old South Baton Rouge. Chief among them was Mr. King, or as I and everyone called him “Mr. Mane Kang.” I still don’t know his whole name.
He lived two doors down from me, and he operated a car repair shop behind his house. I often picked and sold pecans to his wife. He had a couple of men who occasionally helped him work on cars.
His dark shop smelled of oil and gasoline. Combine that with the smell of cigarette smoke, pecan candy baking in the kitchen, the sound of wrenches turning steel, radio noise and occasional grunts; I was in heaven.
Even before I entered elementary school, I would walk over and sit on a stool or crate and listen to the men talk about baseball, football, fishing, hunting, boxing, the weather and other people I don’t think they liked very much.
Mr. King sometimes would roll out from under a car, show me a tool, then point nearby and tell me to get him one that looked like it, only smaller or larger. Sometimes I was lucky and found the right size. He and the other men were very patient with me until I got the hang of what they wanted.
Sometimes I would drift away from my house when my grandmother was taking her daily nap.
If I went too far, one of the men would look up and call me to come back. Ignoring them never crossed my mind because they had the green light to spank me. Mr. King and Mr. George had really big hands, and I wanted no part of a spanking from them.
At the end of their working day, they would talk and listen to a baseball game on the radio. They loved the Dodgers. I understood later that it was because the Dodgers welcomed Jackie Robinson, the first African-American, into major league baseball. To this day, the Dodgers are my favorite baseball team.
Every day, I got to see men working hard, often as a team, to get a job done. They were disciplined. They started and ended work about the same time every day. Each one of them had a minute here and there to talk to me. Their lives were tough, but they were fine with that.
I don’t know how much education either of those men had. But they checked on me. When I hit first grade, Mr. King would ask me to read something. I don’t believe he ever really listened to me. Mr. George would often give me a nickel after I finished.
Also, the men would occasionally leave fish, cleaned rabbits or squirrels on our back porch. Sometimes, deer meat. They were usually there toward the end of the month, as I learned later, because that was when my grandmother’s pension check was stretched thin or done. They knew it.
I moved away when I was 10 years old. I didn’t return often. But when I was 19 years old, I worked two jobs, day and night, all summer, to buy a used 1966 Ford Mustang (man, wish I still had that car). Guess where I took it when I noticed an oil leak? Mr. King.
My Uncle Sonny worked there then. He, Mr. King or someone else would work on my car and even give it a tuneup.
They were proud and impressed that I was going to college and working at the same time. It was funny to them (and sad, I guess), that I grew up next to mechanics and could not do minor repairs on my car.
No, I hadn’t learned how to repair cars during those early years. I had learned a lot more about life, about hard work and giving to others.
Happy belated Father’s Day to Mr. King and all of the men who worked at his shop.
Email Edward Pratt, a former newspaperman who writes a weekly Advocate column, at email@example.com.