I told you earlier that Alabama was the last port of call for cruise ship lovers Jim and Bonnie Stafford. While that is true in terms of home ownership it’s not an entirely accurate statement, and Jim was a stickler for precision. “I restored this Chevy” did not mean “I paid someone to restore this Chevy,” for example. For that matter, “restore” better mean “returned to its original condition” and not “modified into something that looks like the original but is completely modern underneath the skin.”
The man’s mind functioned precisely. Hold up a nut or bolt and he could tell you its diameter and thread pitch. Mention an airplane and he’d offer up what engine (or engines, if the plane’s specifications changed over the years) powered it. The boy who was held back in grammar school grew into an adult who memorized pages of text simply by reading them. “I don’t know why my brain works like that, but I’ve never had to study for a test in my life,” he said.
At work, that precision led to a niche position of his own making. Jim developed a laser alignment system for tire manufacturing machinery that was accurate to a microscopic degree, and then he refused to show anyone how to use it. He hated his boss and his boss hated him, but the system saved the company millions of dollars each year so Jim was left to his own cranky devices. The company recently inherited a tire plant in Mexico through a corporate merger, and that plant’s dismal record of tires that had to be thrown away due to defects required intervention. Would Jim consider packing up his equipment and his secrets and moving down there for a year or so? How about all expenses paid and double salary while you’re down there?
It was the kind of payday that would allow him to retire early, but there was only one catch: Bonnie didn’t want anything to do with it. She had her house in the woods now, her grandkids and her dance club friends. She didn’t want to live where she knew no one and couldn’t speak the language, but as she had done for the last 40 years Bonnie went where Jim went.
And so in the interest of precision it must be said that Jim Stafford counted among his mailing addresses one in Mexico, though during that time his ever expanding collection of stuff remained in Alabama. During his adventure south of the Rio Grande he suffered no further heart issues, but the pain in his knees grew intolerable. He blamed his knee problems on high school football, which may have been a factor but likely was not the only factor. Jim spent all but a couple of years of his adult life overweight, and he walked endless miles of factory floor in hard soled, steel-toed shoes. Inevitably, though, those were all probably just environmental factors irritating a bad turn of the genetic cards, as it wasn’t just the cartilage in his knees that was deteriorating. The discs in his spine were vanishing, too, leaving his unprotected vertebrae grinding against each other like an oil-free crankcase tearing itself apart.
That was the least of his health concerns. A local doctor diagnosed him with prostate cancer, gravely insisting that they operate immediately. Jim refused and flew back home to Alabama for a second opinion, where he was given a clean bill of health and sent back to Mexico to finish out his tenure. That couldn’t come soon enough for Bonnie, who counted the monarch butterfly reserve in Michoacán and visits from family as the only happy times she experienced away from home.
Back home in Alabama, Jim scheduled knee replacement surgery and took an extended paid leave from work in order to recuperate. When his leave ended, he announced his retirement. “That was a dirty thing to do,” his boss said. “You knew you were going to retire before you went out on medical leave, but you stuck us with paying you for two months while you laid around. You owe us that money.”
“I didn’t do anything that violated the employee handbook, and besides: You’ve been telling me for years that the company doesn’t owe me anything, so why should I owe them anything?” Precision.
New knees and all the time in the world for dancing, traveling, woodworking, whatever he wanted, but retirement hardly meant no more work. He taught heating and air conditioning at the local community college and added new clients to his maintenance roster: a couple of Dairy Queens, a few restaurants that his son-in-law referred his way. He loved fixing things, but it had to be on his terms. If anyone treated him like an employee he stopped taking their calls, but treat him like a friend doing you a favor–never mind that you were paying for his help–and he’d spend hours patching together your ice machines and ovens.
This wasn’t true just for strangers, by the way, nor was it true just of retirement-age Jim. Even as grade schoolers if they brought their father something to fix his children knew that they were signing up to sit quietly while he explained the function of each component as it was removed from the broken toy, often while giving the object’s history stretching all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia and interspersed with calls for tools and truncated curses for fasteners that would not surrender. The latter led to his son referring to him as Our Father of the Lingering Analogy, as these moments always sounded like, “Come on, you son of a bitch! Boy, that thing’s on there tighter than a….you know, people think capacitors are a modern invention but they’ve been around since the 18th century. Go get me a pair of needle nosed vice grips.”
Along with the teaching and the repair work, Jim volunteered to help his daughter restore the Nash Metropolitan that had been gathering dust in her garage for thirty years (“That thing’s dirtier than a…you know, Nash has a really interesting history.”) He’d use the opportunity to master the art of welding, he figured, and what better way to spend some quality time with his kid? If she wanted it done she’d need to come over and work, after all: He wasn’t going to just do it for her. The two spent hours down in the workshop dismantling the little car, stripping it down to bare metal, fabricating sheet metal and welding it into place. The project served as a great excuse to buy more tools, too. The big workshop filled up with welding rigs, a sheet metal brake, a rotisserie upon which the Metro was mounted like a luau pig, on and on.
Upstairs something didn’t feel quite right to Bonnie. Recently she’d been missing steps while dancing, which frustrated Jim, but now she was beginning to feel like her balance was off. A visit to the doctor resulted in nothing more than a shoulder shrug, so she went about her business. Doctors know best, after all. Years passed while the strange feeling grew stronger and the doctors shrugged their shoulders. At one point a neurologist told her that “you might have something, but it’s too early to tell what. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
Eventually she received a referral to a neurologist a couple of hours from their home in the woods. The couple drove to the appointment, and after a fairly quick examination the doctor offered his diagnosis: Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, or PSP, a neurological disorder that manifests itself much like Parkinson’s disease but is much rarer and thus difficult to diagnose. The good news: PSP itself was not fatal; the bad news: The side effects of PSP were. Bonnie could expect her broken brain to eventually betray her entire body. It may be a fall that would kill her, or perhaps she would choke to death when her swallowing mechanism stopped working properly. If neither of those got her then she’d probably inhale a little food or drink and develop pneumonia. But who knows when that might happen? Meanwhile, her face would slowly degenerate from her dimply smile into a blank mask; her personality would change; she would lose the ability to speak. Essentially the couple could expect Bonnie to slowly slip away, but how slowly was anybody’s guess.
Here was something that Jim could not fix. He could not remove the broken component from its case and plug it into the diagnostic tools overflowing from his workshop cabinets. No circuit boards could be replaced, no capacitors soldered. Bonnie was everything to him: wife, dance partner, travel buddy, best friend, cook, maid. Jim jumped right from his mother’s house to his wife’s house. He was a man in his sixties who had never cooked his own dinner, cleaned a bathroom, or ironed a shirt, and soon he would be expected to do everything not only for himself but for her.
He invited his daughter to lunch. “I don’t think I can do it,” he said.
“If you put her in a home I will never speak to you again,” his daughter replied.
Jim Stafford took a vow at age sixteen that read, “In sickness and in health, ’til death do us part.” Those words were very precise. The matter was settled.
Will the Metropolitan make it out of the workshop? Will Jim ever finish an analogy? Tune in next week for part ten of The Rather Unusual Obituary of Jim Stafford.
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