The Art of Dying

Civil Engineer

My dad was an engineer of sorts. He was also an inventor. He was also, according to his siblings (who all seemed to agree on this point, and never voluntarily withheld the information) lazy: He’d sit by the edge of the potato field dreaming about (or up, depending on viewpoint) a machine that would harvest the potatoes rather than, like the others — i.e., is siblings, actually get into the field, get his feet dirty, bend his back and do the harvesting by hand — there were no potato-harvesting machines at that time.

He’d often tell me, with some pride, that all the formal schooling he had as a kid was six school years that consisted of going three days a week, basically four years of elementary school in other words, to the little school house he showed me a few times when we were visiting his mom. It was a very small house, one room housing all grades. All he had learned since, he said, he had learned from correspondence courses — Hermods was the name of this school and this company, amazingly enough, is still around; founded in 1898 says the site.

Yes, a title my dad liked was engineer. Another title he liked, and mostly used as I recall, was Constructor. As in the maker, constructor of things, especially those machines he, himself, had invented — and he had, really, invented a really clever machine that made roof tiles out of cement; this is how he made his money and raised two families. Engineer cum Constructor, that was my dad, on paper.

I think I always knew, sort of in my young bones (legs, mainly, for they used to ache a lot), that the (his) plan was for me to get some mechanical or engineering education and then take over his factory — where he (and his three or four employees) built his roof-tile machines.

I never bought into that scheme, as I recall. I might have nodded and smiled now and then just to be agreeable, but no, I can’t recall seeing myself at the helm of the good ship “Tunock Maskiner A.B.”, the name of his company, and definitely never after I had completely embraced the notion that I would be a Civil Engineer when I grew up.

It must have been my mom Lisbet planted that notion, though I can’t put my finger on exactly where, when, or how. My dad definitely would not have advocated this profession since that would be the same as saying that I would not take over his factory.

Now, Lisbet and Kjell, my dad, did not always (as in rarely) see eye to eye, and somehow, I believe, that Lisbet felt that Kjell would score some easy and unearned points in their ongoing marriage-match if I would make it a true purpose to take over his business one day. Also, Lisbet wanted me to be something finer, and someone better educated, than, essentially, a factory worker. So, one day (she must have) told me that the thing to be was a Civil Engineer for not only was that a prestigious job, they all earned buckets of money. So, okay, that sounded just fine with me. Civil Engineer it was.

And from that day on (I might have been seven or eight, maybe even nine) whenever grownups (as in aunts and uncles and neighbors) would ask me the obligatory question “And what will you be when you grow up?” my answer was always, and without hesitation, “A Civil Engineer.” This, I soon noticed, would always produce a few oohs and aahs of admiration. So young and already so certain. And was I sure that I didn’t want to walk in my dad’s footsteps? Yes, certain. Civil Engineer it was.

Here, though, is the very embarrassing rub: I literally had no idea what a Civil Engineer was or did. None. Nada. Only that there was prestige involved and that they made a lot of money — and, sadly, also that it made my dad wince a little every time I said it, from the let-down I think, from me never answering that I wanted to be just like my dad, a Constructor.

Throughout school then, the Civil Engineer notion fostered and grew deeper and deeper roots, and by seventh grade, there was not a doubt in my mind: I was studying to become a Civil Engineer (while still having no idea what one was or did — and that is a very scary notion when you stop to think about it).

My grades throughout were very good, especially in math and physics: I was obviously cut out for that glorious title and role, and after graduating Junior High with amazingly good grades, my next step was, again without hesitation, Technical Gymnasium, the next step toward Civil Engineerdom. This, even though my Swedish Literature and Writing teacher took me aside when he heard that I was heading for Technical Gymnasium and told me point blank that I was making a mistake. You love the Swedish Language, he said, and you love writing. Do you love math and physics? Truth was, I did not. Truth was also that he was right, I did love writing. You need to study what you love, he said.

But look, I said, look at my grades, they’re made for Engineering.

Be that as it may, he said. My advice stands, choose a Liberal Arts Gymnasium instead.

Well, what did he know. I knew that I was going to be a Civil Engineer and that was that. Technical Gymnasium had to be the next step. So, I applied and was accepted and come fall (1964) I enrolled.

By January, 1965, I had dropped out. Only those who loved math and physics did well with that no less that grueling curriculum. Those who loved to read and write and who had discovered girls and Rock and Roll that very same summer (1965) did not cut it.

The plan was to return to start over the following year, but I never made it back to school, and, needless to say, I never became a Civil Engineer.

And here’s the really, really sad thing: it was not until many years later that I actually sat down and figured out what a Civil Engineer did. Ten, perhaps twenty years later. And sadder still: I had, all though late childhood and my later school years lived according to a notion planted early and never, ever inspected and understood; a notion that actually, and in a very grave and severe and concrete way came to direct my life and to dictate choices I really should never have made.

If I were to do this over, I would listen to my Swedish Lit teacher and studied what I loved.

Then again, had I done so, I probably would not be sitting here now, in Northern California writing this in English. I would probably be an alcoholic has-been Swedish writer or something like that by now. Or dead. Or. Or. Or.

The Civil Engineer purpose was never really mine, but I adopted it and I treated it as what I really and truly wanted to do — though I never did.

If there’s a lesson here it is that for Heaven’s sake, clarify and understand what it is you decide you’re going to dedicate your life to become and be.

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