Memory Of A Robot
It’s usually a song or a taste or a smell that draws out long-dormant memories tucked inside the mind, buried beneath mundane daily clutter, like a favorite summer shirt packed away for winter, awaiting the spring thaw and a new beginning.
Some memories are retrieved more often than others. The smell of pine needles and the dulcet tones of Nat King Cole singing “Chestnuts Roasting on An Open Fire” trigger remembrance of Christmas past, sparking discussion of knitted sweaters Grandma fashioned each year for the grandkids. Or the time Santa brought older brother Billy a new dirt bike, ushering in the turmoil of jealousy between siblings.
Maybe one taste of Rocky Road ice cream is enough to conjure mental images of first love—found one afternoon while vacationing in Florida during sixth grade spring break.
The smell of fresh cut grass does it for me. There is a virtual Rolodex of memories attached to that one scent. It’s one of the earliest mental triggers I can recall. It’s strongest in late spring or early summer, when snow and cold are discarded for sunshine and warmth, and that first mowing of the season is underway.
I remember one such day, back when I was just five years old. One of the neighbors had gotten to his lawn first, stirring up that fragrant smell that made good on the promise of no more snow—at least for several long months.
My father, determined not to fall further down the totem pole of neighborhood lawn care, rushed out to the shed in our backyard. Now, this wasn’t one of those cheap little metal sheds that are known to blow away with only the slightest provocation. No sir. This one was made of wood and paint and windows with real glass panes. Inside, a small stove offered heat during the cold months. A large workbench occupied most of the rear wall.
The lawnmower brooded in the corner, incensed over being ignored since the previous October.
“It’s going to need gas,” my father said, stepping over the various collectables that had gathered there in the shed during the winter. “But first we’ll to have to clean up this place so I can move around in here. Who wants to help?”
As I mentioned earlier, I’d been just five that year. My sister and older brother were seven and eight. We’d yet to become teenagers that preferred the comfort in slinking off and shirking anything resembling responsibility.
“We’ll help!” came our shouts.
Stuff began to be moved here and there. Those items we’d keep were set aside for reassignment. The rest of the mess found refuge in a trash pile, destined for discarding come garbage pickup day.
“We’ll keep these coffee cans,” my dad said. “Those will be perfect for storing nuts and bolts, nails and screws.”
But there were more than were needed.
A lot more.
A grin attached itself to my father’s expression. “I’ve got an idea.”
Dad’s ideas had a way of turning a dull afternoon into something we kids would remember long after that day.
Coffee cans sat piled upon the workbench. Dad’s welder sparked into action. After a short period, those cans were joined together in long tubular forms.
“These will be the legs,” Dad explained.
Doctor Frankenstein had nothing on my father.
Smaller cans became the arms of whatever creation my dad saw inside his mind.
An old vacuum cleaner figured prominently into the torso of this incredible new being.
A trash can, old hubcaps, perhaps an expired license plate or two—these all went into the glorious monster my dad determined would see life before the end of the day.
Finally, after an entire afternoon of puttering, my father unveiled his masterpiece, right there in our backyard, where half a dozen neighbor kids had congregated, hoping to see a thing they’d never be able to forget.
It stood eight feet tall—at least to a five-year-old boy!
Coffee can legs stood sturdy and ready for battle—should Uncle Sam require its use in Vietnam.
“What’s that plug for?” somebody dared ask.
Dad’s grin grew wider than I’d ever recalled seeing before.
A heavy orange extension cord traveled the distance from the shed to the very spot where that beast awaited the jolt of electricity that would zap life into its metal body.
Dad plugged it in; his fingers found the switch on the vacuum cleaner torso.
The Mighty Heap vibrated, whirred, growled, and shook.
And that’s all it did. Nothing more, nothing less. It didn’t delight us by marching through the streets. It didn’t open its mouth and utter some profound thing.
It simply stood its ground and sounded just like, well, a vacuum cleaner.
Laughs were issued, pictures were snapped—though I’m not sure where those photos are today. Doesn’t matter. I can still recall most of the details of this robot’s short-lived life. It’s tucked away inside my head, easily replayed whenever that first mowing of the spring takes place.
All those other kids, the ones who dropped by that day to bear witness, they probably don’t remember that afternoon in 1972. Dad’s robot may not have made much of an impression—at least not the way it did on me.
My father is no longer here. So, it’s these little moments—silly as they were—that keep him very much alive to me. These are moments before alcohol became his weakness, changing him from that fun dad into somebody who at times was a stranger. One day I’ll be gone, as will my siblings, and there won’t be anybody left to recall that day Mr. Weeks built his coffee can/vacuum cleaner monster in the backyard of our family home.
I’ll hold on to my memories for as long as I’m able, breathing in those triggering smells, cranking up familiar songs, or smiling over some faded old photograph capturing another one of those simple moments. Our memories will be lost one day, and the following generations will gaze upon our tattered pictures and ask, “Who were these people, and what were they doing?”
But don’t fret. A new summer is upon us. There’s grass to mow and memories to make. How we determine to save those moments is entirely up to us.