Friday, June 14, 1996
Thieves can steal tools but not memories

The Cincinnati Enquirer

There's been a break-in.

My mom's voice shook through the phone as she said the words.

''Where?'' was all I could get out.

In your dad's workshop, she said. At night. I was asleep. They took his tools.

His tools.

Instantly, he's by my side again. We're working together in the afternoon sun on the last autumn of his life.

Elbow to elbow. Side by side. I feel the warmth from his honest sweat as we work toward dinnertime.

We trade tools. He finishes with his drill. I'm through with the reciprocating saw. We make the exchange and our hands touch. I feel his strong fingers. They're steel bolts with knuckles.

Dad's been gone since 1994. Now, so are his tools.

Two months and one week after my mom's call, I am standing in the basement of a Price Hill church. I hurt from anger and helplessness. And, I am not alone. I'm in a line of people who lost their tools.

The police have borrowed this space to lay out the stolen goods. It's a chance for victims of the west-side tool thief to take back what he took.

Before me - on 18 of St. Teresa Church's best bingo tables - sits the handiwork of Gaylord Fife. Twenty-five drills. Sixteen sanders. Five hundred chrome-plated sockets. Three grinders. Four table saws. Wrenches by the dozen. And one lawn mower.

Stolen lives

Gaylord Fife stole all of this and more. He admits he broke into 200 detached garages on Cincinnati's west side. Since January, no less.

And he did it while on disability. The police say he gets a government check because he hurt himself so badly he can't work. At least not honest work.

Besides, it's tough getting a decent job when you're on probation. In September, Gaylord Fife was arrested by Wyoming police. He claims he stole tools from 100 neighborhood garages.

The justice system being what it is, a sorry place for victims, Gaylord Fife was charged last fall with two counts of breaking and entering. He did 30 days behind bars and then was freed on probation. Free to collect his disability check. Free to practice his trade as a thief. Free to steal my dad's tools.

As I walk by the tables, one man discovers his screwdrivers. He touches them, pats their handles and mutters: ''What I'd like to do to the son-of-a-bugger who took these.''

Another man comes up empty and seeks revenge. ''I'd like to take a baseball bat to his fingers so he'd never hurt anybody like this again.''

At the end of the line, I look at 25 banged-up drills on a bingo table. Like all the other tools in this room, not one is my dad's.

Tools of life

I'd know his favorite drills anywhere. Gray metal case with a nose shaped like a duck's head. They were the ones he worked so hard to buy and used to work on projects with such care and love. He used them to build houses, craft furniture out of his favorite wood, maple, and repair broken hearts when a little kid's toy went on the fritz.

Those drills were in perfect shape, well-used but used well. They were owned by a man whose tools were his livelihood. He lived by them. And he taught me about life with them.

By his side and with his tools, I learned about the pride of working hard, the sins of laziness and the rewards of determination. The job may be tough. And it may take time. But if you stick to it, you can get it done. And done right.

From him, a job well done would earn his highest praise - a shy smile and two words: ''Good enough.'' That was his idea of perfection.

Today, when I go into his workshop, it's empty, except for the faint scent of wood. The shelves that held his drills are bare. Ghost tools, outlines of chisels, screwdrivers and hammers painted in bright yellow on a battleship gray board, hang on one wall.

I curse this emptiness and the man who took these tools. I call him worse things than a son-of-a-bugger.

Then, I stop.

Death can rob me of my dad. A creep can steal his tools.

But the lessons I learned from working right elbow to left arm with my dad are mine. Forever.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. For now. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.