“Daddy, why do elephants have trunks?”
“Um … because they need someplace to put their luggage?”
“Daddy! I’m serious!”
Bob looked down. His six-year-old daughter, Allie, looked to be more than a little perturbed that her father would take such a serious question so lightly.
“Well, it’s to help them eat, and to help them take a shower.”
“But why don’t other animals have trunks then?”
[spoiler]“I don’t know.” Thankfully, at that point, Allie was distracted by the giraffes being led out of their house, and tugged at Bob’s hand to go and watch. They arrived at the fence in front of the giraffe enclosure, where the spotted coats of the walking giraffes in the spring sunshine provided an interesting effect against the regular pattern and stable brickwork of their house.
“I know why giraffes have long necks, Daddy,” Allie said brightly.
“Why is that?” Bob asked, curious as to what she might say.
“Because they eat leaves in trees!”
Bob laughed. “I guess you’re right about that.”
“Did they grow long necks to reach the trees, or were trees shorter in the olden days?”
Bob tried to distract her. “You’re full of questions today, my little Allie-Cat.”
“How was the zoo?” Sue asked when Bob and Allie returned.
“Fun,” Bob answered, as Allie ran off to tell Paul all about their day and the animals they had seen. “Nice to see all the animals again.”
“I wish we could have gone too,” Sue said. “Poor Paul.”
“It happens,” Bob replied. “Better to have that happen here, instead of when we’re out.”
It was supposed to be a family Sunday. Allie had awoken early, as she often did on Sundays, and headed for the TV and a bowl of cereal; and at some point, had decided that the family should spend the day at the zoo. She had excitedly bounded into her parents’ bedroom to tell them that was the plan; and Bob and Sue, seeing nothing wrong with it, agreed. But as Sue was getting baby Paul dressed and ready for his stroller, he had an attack of the runs. Since Allie was bouncing around excitedly, saying “Let’s go-o-o-oh” as only a six-year-old can, it was decided that Sue would stay with Paul, and that Bob would take Allie to the zoo.
“I wish you had been there, though,” Bob remarked. You might have done better with Allie’s questions than me. Why does the camel have a hump, why do tigers have stripes, those sorts of things.”
“Well, you know the answers to those.”
“Sure, but with Allie it goes deeper. She was asking whether giraffes grew long necks to reach the tree leaves, or whether trees were shorter once.”
“I couldn’t have helped a lot with that,” Sue mused. “Evolution?”
“Guess so. But how do you explain that? Sometimes, I worry that she’s going to think I’m dumb or something.”
“Oh, don’t,” Sue consoled him, giving him a hug. “You’re her Daddy—the smartest, strongest, bestest man in the world.” Sue hugged tighter. “And in mine.”
“Aw, mush,” Bob chuckled, as he returned the embrace.
But later that night, after Allie had gone to bed, and Paul’s night had been seen to, Bob was sitting in front of the TV thinking. Sue had gone to bed, but Bob had begged off heading that way immediately, saying that he wanted to see the nightly sports wrap-up. And so, the TV quietly burbled away, talking of hockey playoffs and home runs, but Bob wasn’t interested.
He was looking at his hands—good hands, they were; working hands. Gentle enough to brush Allie’s tears away when she was hurt, and big enough to cradle Paul through many sleepless nights, but strong enough to handle a ratchet wrench on a stuck bolt. And Lord knew, he had done that many times. From his childhood, helping his father fix cars in the driveway, through trade school and his apprenticeship, then to the little garage across town, and finally to the shop in the big dealership, Bob Morton’s hands had been his living.
Oh, he used his head too, Bob reflected. The number of manuals he had studied, and questions he had asked—he had an uncanny knack for learning and retaining information. Foot-pounds of torque, engine timings, pressures, and other figures—he usually knew them immediately. But then, he directed his hands to do the work.
Is this all there is, Bob wondered. Thirty-four years old now, and maybe thirty more years of a mechanic’s job to look forward to. Oh sure, he could probably be a service advisor, working with customers; but that would be about it. Sales weren’t his thing, and the parts department wasn’t where he wanted to be. He liked his job; but really, there had to be more.
And truthfully, Allie’s curiosity scared him a little. Her questions at the zoo were just a sampling of what Allie wanted to know; she asked about many things. But outside of a person’s common knowledge, all Bob knew were engines; and when Allie went beyond typical kid questions, as she had today, Bob was stumped. He wished he could answer his questions with something other than “I don’t know.”
He had been kicking around an idea for a while, one that he hadn’t even mentioned to Sue yet. He remembered how excited he had been when he had got his mechanic’s ticket, and thought about how uninspired he felt now. But some of that excitement had returned when he spotted an advertisement in the paper recently. It said that the local university was offering night courses that could lead to a degree. Bob had never seriously thought about a degree, but the ad made it look easy, and maybe it was time to think about something new. Heck, he thought, as he watched the new baseball season’s highlights on the TV, it is springtime, after all. Maybe it was time to emerge from the winter of his discontent (and Bob smiled at the fact that he could still remember a phrase from high-school English), and to awaken into a new spring (and he smiled again—did he just create a metaphor?).
All it took to get further information was a phone call, the ad promised. Resolving to make that call the next day, Bob shut off the TV and went to bed.
“This came for you today,” Sue said, handing a big envelope to Bob when he arrived home from work. She pointed to the return address. “From the university?”
“Yeah—I was thinking of taking some courses.”
“Well, science and stuff. Interest only, I guess; just curious about things.”
Bob smiled. “You got me. Yes, I’m probably as curious as she is about a lot of things. An ad said I could take night courses. Maybe even get a degree. So I called and they said they’d send me some info. I guess this is it.”
“My husband, a university graduate,” Sue said, putting her hands around his waist. “You really are going to be the smartest man in my world.”
“Well, let’s not get carried away,” Bob replied. “For now, just a course or two, see how I do. Later—we’ll see.”
“Never mind,” Sue reassured him. “I’ll be proud of you for even trying.”
It had been difficult at first, Bob found. One night a week of class wasn’t all there was to it; there had been homework as well. Lots of reading and answering questions from the textbook, which he did at the kitchen table after dinner. Sometimes, Allie wanted to “help” her father with his homework, and Sue tried to distract her but wasn’t always successful; and Bob occasionally had to leave his studies at the kitchen table in order to play with Allie or to put Paul to bed or to do some other domestic chore that Sue couldn’t because she was attending to the children.
But for all the difficulties, Bob was liking his studies. His knack for retaining and understanding information was serving him well; and he found that he genuinely enjoyed being prepared for class and participating in the discussion. The course tests and exams worried him a little, but he studied as best he could, and was pleasantly surprised when another envelope arrived from the university one day.
“Sue!” I think this is my grade.” Sue came in while Bob opened the envelope and read the contents. “Wow! I got a B-plus on my course!”
“I knew you’d do well,” Sue smiled.
“And look—this course counts for credits towards a degree!”
“Well, you knew that.”
“Yes, but now I have those credits. I’m part-way there!”
“Don’t you still have a long way to go, though?” Sue asked.
“Yes—but not as far as I did a few months ago. What should I take next?”
The years went by. Bob took one course a semester, usually; but sometimes skipped a semester, when he found that the demands of family life would detract from his studies—such as getting Allie to music lessons, or Paul to soccer games. But sometimes, he took two courses a semester, and did summer studies some years. He did his best to remain the dealership’s top mechanic, and Sue’s husband, and Allie’s and Paul’s father; and while it was exhausting at times, Bob was happy.
For her part, Allie was growing into a smart young lady. Excellent grades at school, popular with her friends, and an accomplished pianist; she had happily discovered that the arts were where her future lay.
And Paul was turning out well too. Schoolwork was a struggle, but Paul was a natural athlete, participating in all the sports that school offered. And while schoolwork wasn’t his strong suit, Paul had inherited his father’s mechanical interests, and father and son spent many happy Saturday mornings in the driveway, fixing up an old beater.
Sue supported Bob every step of the way, sharing his joys at good grades, and commiserating with his when they weren’t so good. She shouldered a heavy burden with him studying, Bob knew, and he wanted to make her proud. So he persevered, and persevered, and persevered…
“John Allan Curtis.”
Sue applauded distractedly, as John Allan Curtis mounted the stage and walked towards the Chancellor. She was making sure the camera was ready.
“Mom, it’s okay, I told you I can take the photos,” Paul reassured her.
“Well, I know, but … you know.” Sue smiled weakly.
“Yes, I know, but relax,” Paul said. “They’re going alphabetically.”
“Of course,” Sue replied. “Just have to wait a bit, then.”
The announcer read off names, one by one; and one by one, the owners of those names mounted the stage. Elizabeth Patricia Franklin, Steven Bertram Howell, Heather Adrienne Jenkins, and a number of others, went forward to meet the Chancellor. Finally, the announcer intoned, “Jeremy Charles Macdonald.”
“Mom, get ready. Anytime now.” Paul held the camera.
Sue, on the edge of her seat, looked down at the stage.
“Allison Catherine Morton.”
Sue, smiling, applauded loudly as Allie marched across the stage and was awarded her degree by the Chancellor. Paul snapped photos and tried to applaud his sister. When the applause died down, Sue was back on the edge of her seat.
“Robert William Morton.”
The figure that made its way to the stage was obviously older than his graduating classmates. But there was no doubt that it was Bob Morton, and just so everybody knew, Bob turned to the audience during his walk and gave it a big smile. Sue applauded wildly, and Paul snapped photos; and Allie, who had never left the stage, waited to be the first to congratulate her father after the Chancellor awarded his degree. As she embraced him, Bob asked her what he had waited years to ask confidently.
“Hey, Allie-Cat—got any questions?”