When I was around seven years old I wanted bunk beds. I had no particularly good reason for that– I had no siblings, and maybe the only time they’d be practical would be on the rare occasion I had a friend over. I think I was really just in love with having a bed that felt like a battleship. It would be safe, somehow.
If you had a Dad who liked to pinch pennies and get his hands dirty, you know what’s coming next. My Dad, Joe Colombo, and I built those bunk beds together. I was just old enough to help by handing him tools, holding things in place, and using my body weight as a human vice as he cut boards to length. I was also old enough to realize that helping him was the least I could do since he was taking time to build this thing for me. After all, he did let me choose the color– dark blue!
Made entirely of 2x4s and 2x6s, it was comically overbuilt, though this was better than being underbuilt, especially when it was to hold your son six feet off the ground at eight hour clips. Years later I’d borrow heavily from this design when building a queen-sized loft bed for my wife and I when we needed to make every cubic foot count in our small Brooklyn apartment.
We used the last scraps and paint from the bunk bed project on an aerodynamic “flying wedge” Pinewood Derby car for Cub Scouts. Not only did we win, but it was also the first time I was allowed to use the radial arm saw (I mistakenly called it a “radio alarm saw”).
It was around this time that my Dad decided it was time for a career change– a drastic one. He began to taper off his 30+ year career as a New York City union musician, and go back to college full-time to study physics. All of a sudden our house began to fill up with young physics students. My Dad was the only one with a house and a kitchen, so our place became an ideal destination for study groups. All of a sudden I had a host of highly intelligent, geeky older brothers and sisters. This was so cool! They would come over and play video games with me, then drink a Foster’s (which they lovingly called STP) because it was the only thing that could spin down those analytical neurons after marathon homework sessions.
The next few years marked a turning point I’ll never forget. My Dad graduated and got a job as a high school physics teacher and planetarium director. He went from being a professional musician, a job that required intense creativity, to a gig one would think is a 180 swing, teaching the most analytical and mathematical topics there could be. But what Dad discovered, and I learned, is that everything is just part of a whole. When he was a musician, Dad needed an encyclopedic knowledge of the Great American Songbook, mathematical skill to navigate harmonies, scales, and modes, and electronic knowledge to keep his guitars, pedals, and amplifiers in working order. O how I wish those old parts suppliers on Canal St. still existed!
My Dad got a teaching job and his superior told him years later that the moment he was hired was when my Dad said “teaching is show business.” He learned quickly that to teach students effectively, he had to engage them creatively. Every planetarium session he ran would become a show. My Dad would even ham it up by wearing a Star Trek uniform, and he’d stand behind his console manning the controls. He loved it.
By now I was a young teenager, and as young teenagers often do, I made the fickle decision that I no longer wanted bunk beds. By this time they had become festooned with whatever stickers I had collected. Slightly grudgingly, my Dad led the charge as we demolished that dark blue juggernaut. Instead of carrying the detritus down the stairs, we just threw it all out the window onto the backyard. I’d be lying if I said this part wasn’t a whole lot of fun.
Over the next 15 years, all this wood was put back into use through various projects. I could write an entire history of my relationship with my Dad, or enumerate a set of woodworking lessons, just based on the things we built with this wood. Through all these projects, that tell-tale dark blue indicated the origin of the material. Here’s just a short list of what things employed those bunk bed remnants:
– Garden fencing
– Innumerable shelving units
– Sailboat cradle supports
– Abstract art pieces
– Digital recorder hard case
– Hanging lumber rack
As time rolled on, the cache of wood dwindled, and I became a man myself. My Dad died of a rare form of cancer when I was only twenty, after he had taught physics for only ten years. It was devastating to be sure, but I honored him the best I could by carrying on.
I inherited a bunch of his things that my Mom and sister didn’t want. I soon found myself playing music in a band in New York City, using the 1964 Gibson EB0 bass that put food on our table for so many years. Then when the band broke up several years later, my wife and I moved out to the country and I found myself using his tools to make all sorts of things. Some of my projects ended up on the MAKE site; I even started making my own musical instruments!
I realized I was taking a similar, right brain/left brain trajectory my Dad did. Around this time I found out about NYU’s ITP graduate degree. It was perfect! There was a place for me– a place for us. The creative technologists. The makers. I discovered there was room in the world for this strange cross-disciplinary work we do. And shouldn’t our work be a celebration of what we love most?
To think it all started with those bunk beds… that 2×6 is all I have left. I keep it in my workshop. With the remaining stickers it stands as a totem for so many things I love– music, electronics, computers, carpentry, sleep, and of course, my Dad. Happy Father’s Day.