My father was a remarkable man. He could fix almost any broken object just by staring at it long enough and when that didn’t work he would pry it open and poke about inside a bit until it did, occasionally keeping the odd leftover spring or screw for a later negotiations with other rebellious gadgets.
My father is my hero.
His ingenuity built most of the furniture in our house and his artwork adorned the walls – I grew up in deliciously detailed style. His hand was in all my world, painting strokes of inspiration into me with simple touches and meticulous execution. In my eyes there wasn’t a thing he couldn’t do, he wielded a paint brush in one hand, a drill in the other and clenched a third power tool between his teeth just for the hell of it. I never saw him do it, but I am pretty sure he could have juggled chainsaws too.
There was not a machine he cowered before when it bellowed in obstinate refusal to work.
He could be as gentle and as patient as a rescue worker coaxing a frightened kitten out of a tree, or at other times as gungho as a rodeo star straddling whatever machine was bucking its duties that day and getting it roped up and back in the pen before it could even clink its startled gears.
But alas all heroes eventually meet their nemesis and in the real world the super hero doesn’t always win.
My father’s kryptonite was the computer, or more precisely his inability to embrace its arrival.
This is the only machine I ever saw best my father. Well “best” would be more accurately described as – creep up behind him, kick him squarely in the nads and drop him to the ground – but however you call it the advent of computer aided graphic design brought my father to his knees.
What he taught me about modern technology was that it comes whether you want to deal with it or not, and finding a way to deal with it is a matter of survival, professionally.
You see my father was a tradesman, a signwriter. Ten years later he would have been called a graphic designer. He was a stickler for purity and tradition and because of it he was one of the most talented signwriters living in South Africa.
I was surrounded by hand drawn fonts and the smell of paint and thinners. My father wielded specially designed sable hair paint brushes, sometimes one hair thick, to paint decals and signs that were often mistaken for stickers and printed materials.
Most of what we take for granted, printing a neat document from even a simple typographic software like Word, my father could (and did) do by hand.
My father was so old school his apprenticeship predated the widespread use of masking tape to assist in painting straight edges and curves. He could paint an S freehand, in three or four deliberate strokes – without the aid of tape – and if you don’t know or appreciate the difficulty of such a feat you will realise how obsolete most of my fathers skills became when the first range of industrial printers and graphic design programmes could do in ten minutes what it took my father a lifetime to master, a month to design, layout, scale up, transfer and paint – all by hand.
It was the age old headbutt we all enter at some point with new technology – this new fandangled doohicky just aint equal to this here old doohicky and tradition and skill and pride will endeavour – but it hardly ever prevails.
We can learn a lot from our parents, most often especially what NOT to do in some situations. In my father’s case I learned how not to confront technological advances in my profession – which is to say don’t place one finger in each ear, shut your eyes really really tight and hope it will all go away.
Ironically it was my father’s hard earned skills and knowledge that actually undid him. His mastery of mixing paints and years of airbrushing sports cars had him convinced that color printing was a physical impossibility because the paint or ink would never dry fast enough.
He knew pigments and powders you see, he knew.
The speed at which new technology could do what my father did clearly baffled him. His was a world where quality came from time, patience and practice, not several seconds under a high falutin spray gun hooked up to a machine. His was a world of paper and rulers and compasses and erasers and waste baskets filled with first attempts, not flickering CRTs and clunky beige keyboards, not spitfire decals printed by the thousands, expertly each and every time.
Unwilling, and indeed unable to adapt, I wonder if my father felt like one of the first to fall in the robot apocalypse, squeezed out of his own skill set and utterly replaced by machines?
He didn’t take it well, but that’s another story.