When I was a kid, I spent endless fascinating hours with my dad in the garage of our southwest Detroit home. The floor-to-ceiling shelves were crammed with boxes of spare parts and electric motors. On the floor and the workbench were large and small tools, acetylene tanks, a grinder, a drill press, and a lathe. My dad was a heating and air-conditioning serviceman, and he loved explaining and showing me how things work: things like his Triplett electrical tester. This black box, with dials, gauges, wires, and switches, looked to my 9-year-old eyes like some exotic scientific instrument from the future

It was 12:05 a.m., and I was lying alone in bed, heartbroken after a recent divorce. She and I were both cops, she with Detroit Police and I with the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department. I had worked the scout car all day and then gone out on a date that evening, but I knew she wasn’t the one for me. I had finally dropped off to sleep when the telephone by my bed jangled me awake.

“Hello?” I said, grabbing the phone.

“Bobby! Please help!” It was my mother’s frantic voice.

“What’s wrong, Mom?”

“There’s people breaking in our house!”

My two-years-older brother was an inspiration to me—a giant. As a teenager, he was fascinated with military airplanes. Hanging on strings from our basement bedroom ceiling and covering every shelf were more than a hundred plastic model planes he had meticulously assembled and painted, making sure every color and decal matched the real thing. His airplane collection ran from the de Havilland biplanes and Fokker triplanes of the First World War to the Vietnam-era F-111 “fast movers” and B-52 bombers. He even had Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo spacecraft models.

My father was a heating and air-conditioning serviceman and a mechanic’s mechanic. We lived in southwest Detroit, and when he got home from work he’d spend the rest of the evening fixing anything mechanical, even turning out replacement parts on his lathe. He loved working with his hands, and a lot of the time he spent working in the garage was really pure mechanical engineering: he’d experiment with everything, whether it was building a new suspension system for his ’58 Olds or designing an electric mixer for my mom.

AuthorRobert Ankony