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My father's reign of mathematical precision


Civil engineer

My father didn’t like to be taken by surprise. 

As a civil engineer, his professional life was a matter of mathematics and rules. Driving over a bridge, he’d quote the equations that ensured it was safe and stable.

'To be at equilibrium, the horizontal forces and the vertical forces must be equal to what?'

This went straight over my head, which was usually buried in a book, probably a novel about an eccentric family in the Greek islands. 'Whatever you say, Dad.'

There were formulae in his domestic life too. Strict rules about stacking the dishwasher. Knives and forks pointed downwards, to avoid careless stabbings. 

As for family holidays: the Apollo space missions that put a man on the moon were not planned with more attention to detail. Dossiers were prepared, detailed itineraries drawn up, budgets, timetables, maps marked with multi-coloured dots. Once the trip started, every event was documented in slides to be sorted, boxed and filed away for the years to come. 

Dad kept his monthly accounts in notebooks detailing expenditure, bank balances, and cash in hand. He wrote out the figures with a fountain pen, double-checking everything on his old calculator. He never owned a credit card, because they deceive you into spending money you don’t have. He regarded the stock market as a casino and never invested in shares. 

After dad died, I went through his desk and found a much-used leather blotter, frayed at the edges; lots of spare batteries; two sets of small precision screwdrivers; a Swiss Army knife; seven rulers; two metal tape measures and two ribbon tape measures; ten rolls of sticky tape; six packets of adhesive labels; squared notebooks containing plans of the house and garden drawn from various elevations; numbered lists of household tasks; a small compass on a chain. 

There was also a box full of keys, all carefully labeled. ‘Greenhouse.’  ‘Large case.’ ‘Small case’. ‘Shed.’  ‘Shed—spare.’ Because God forbid that you’re caught without a spare shed key. 

Dad died on a winter day in 2012. He was shopping with my mother when his heart gave out and he collapsed pushing a trolley outside the supermarket. They called an ambulance but nothing could be done.

The obvious moral, like a Dutch painting depicting the figure of Death at someone’s door, would be: ‘All your planning can never prevent the final, unexpected event.’

But Dad knew that life was unpredictable, and had his wild moments when young. He led a jazz band at 15, playing professional gigs. He got paid in bunches of notes which he stuffed into a tin, never bothering to count them. 

A few years later, World War II pulled him out of university, put him into uniform, sent him overseas. At 21 he was in charge of a train hurtling through the Malayan jungle, hoping there were no mines on the track.  Soon after the war, his parents died of cancer in quick succession. Still a very young man, he had a wife and a young family. Life forced responsibility on him. Everyone relied on him. 

Perhaps his faith in equations, plans and measurements was his way of eliminating as much of the random as possible. He wanted life to be as stable as a well-made bridge.

In some respects I’m not much like Dad. I don’t understand maths, and I don’t know what makes a bridge stand up. I don’t organise my holidays carefully; in fact I migrated across the world without really planning it. I lose tickets. I don’t keep monthly accounts, I have a credit card but no Swiss Army knife, and I can’t find my shed key. 

Maybe it’s just not in me to have those qualities—some quirk of brain chemistry sends me to novels instead of equations. 

On the other hand, it could be learned behaviour. I grew up in a world so predictable I chafed against it. Dad did all the planning, so I never had to. I put my faith in the spontaneous, the serendipitous, the music of chance. At 21 I stood in front of a notice board of overseas teaching jobs and picked the first one that appealed.

We imitate and rebel in unintentional ways. I had the benefit of a childhood so risk-averse that I’ve loved surprises ever since. Maybe that was Dad’s gift to me.  

Nick GaddNick Gadd is a Melbourne writer whose novel
Ghostlines won a Victorian Premier's Literary Award and a Ned Kelly Award. His Twitter handle is @nickowriter

Civil engineer image by Shutterstock.

Topic tags: Nick Gadd, civil engineering, family, biography, travel



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Existing comments

What a lovely story Nick - we owe a lot to the WW2 generation.

Sallyt | 15 July 2014  

What were you doing in my desk drawer? You must have put the Swiss army knife in there, because I don't have one. And you missed the slide rule.

Frank | 16 July 2014  

A simple story, rich in meaning, and the best that I have read in Eureka Street for a long time.

Damien | 16 July 2014  

The legacy of careful planning and careful management in your father's generation is plenty of choices for your generation.

Dennis | 16 July 2014  

Another lovely piece, as thoughtful as it is amusing. Thanks Nick Gadd.

Joe Castley | 16 July 2014  

Lovely article Nick, beautifully written. Thank you.

Christine | 16 July 2014  

Thank you Nick, wonderful warm uplifting story. You made me smile. Eureka Street definitely on the right track here. As for the dishwasher, I'm the opposite, hoping they get a better wash and oh, be careful.

Jane | 16 July 2014  

So beautiful.

john frawley | 16 July 2014  

Give us more of this sort of contribution to Eureka Street, if not by Nick Gadd, at least by someone of the same ilk.
My father was a carpenter, who could be, had to be, as precise as an engineer, only the medium was different.
The beauty of wood is that the carpenter can see, touch and smell its beauty. One can't be untidy and be a good carpenter. My father's toolbox was a masterpiece of precision packing. I could go on. Regrettably not one of his carpentry skills was passed on to me. They went to my second brother who became a fitter and turner - another precision vocation. Me? I became a public servant and used to while away my time at tedious inter-departmental committee meetings by admiring the texture, the polish, the beauty of the timber that made up the chairman's desk. So all was not lost.

Uncle Pat | 16 July 2014  

Hmm. A lovely piece; thank you. Knives, spoons and forks the right way in the dishwasher, accounts but using a spreadsheet, batteries, slide-rule, compass. Careful records of weather, solar power and pluggable-hybrid car. My children will laugh at this and recognise me!

Peter Horan - Electrical Engineer | 16 July 2014  

We civil engineers salute your nice piece. Thank you for it.

Andrew Lukas | 16 July 2014  

Nick, as a civil engineer, the only thing I seem to have in common with your father is that I know how to stack a dishwasher, but I thought that was a male thing not specific to civil engineers. You know, what they say about males having better spatial skills?

But we tend to generalise about people, don't we - about men, women, even engineers?

Frank S | 16 July 2014  

I like Nick....Its ...warm and true.

Steve | 16 July 2014  

Thank you Nick, for sharing the gift from your Dad.

Vic | 17 July 2014  

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