Lessons From My Father

Just as the list of things my Mother has taught is far more than can be detailed here, the same is true of my Father.  They are both profound and useful and when taken with some of the things I’ve learned from Mom, one gets a pretty good understanding of how I’ve turned out.  At least most of the good stuff and none of the bad can be attributed to her and the man I call “Dad.”  And for the record, his is the name alongside hers on my birth certificate!  This is true despite the fact he was at home during my delivery, this, he says, was because the doctor indicated he had “plenty of time” before I came into the world.

Like most men of his generation and upbringing, my Dad can fix just about anything.  He taught to me rewire electrical outlets, replace dimmer switches, change the rocker arms in a 1964 Corvair and, if you’ve read my little essays before you will know, properly load the trunk of a car.  With his deep roots in rural Alabama, but a career that has taken him all over the world, much of what my Dad taught is no doubt the product of both.  For now I find myself reflecting on a few of the more notable things I’ve learned from him including: how to diagnose car trouble, there are people in the world who need what you have more than you do, and the importance of making a list.

Dad’s lessons about diagnosing and dealing car trouble while driving down the interstate are legendary for me. On our long trips back to Alabama from places like Maine, New York and Pennsylvania, our cars, always Pontiacs, would invariably make some strange noise. Regardless of whether it was a “clickalickalickalack” or a “tackalackalackatack,” Dad would hear something, quickly turn off the radio and “Shushhh” my Mother and me.

“Listen,”  he would whisper.

He would then slow down.  Then speed up.  Slow down.  Speed up.  It didn’t matter if we were on Interstate 95 between Richmond and Atlanta or on U.S. 78 between Birmingham and Jasper, at rush hour or 2 a. m., the technique was the same.  Rinse.  Repeat.

“Dad, are you nuts?” I would impatiently ask.  After all, 10-year-old boys are authorities on the definition of insanity, highway safety, and most matters automotive.  Not to mention space travel, dogs, and the best places to stop for lunch, which by the way was Howard Johnson’s, Whatatburger, and, in a pinch, McDonald’s.

“Listen!”  Dad would quickly respond, his ears dialing in to the right frequency.

This would go on several minutes until he was satisfied it was just a bad tank of gas, some mechanical anomaly or some vague highway noise or other innocuous engine or tire sound.  While the experience was nominally traumatic for an admittedly high-strung little kid, and generally completely insufficient as a diagnostic technique, I now realize this was part of the way my Dad took care of his family.  He bore the weight of insuring our travels were safe and uneventful, which they normally were.  Without realizing this then, I know now his diagnostic “technique” and precautions are the reason why I always have jumper cables, a flashlight, and a warm coat in the winter months in my car.  As my wife says, I’m a “safety first” kind of guy.

During those journeys we would often pull in to a rest stop and often encounter someone in need.  Whether he had his head under the hood of a car or was asking for “gas money,” I remember my Dad asking if he could help.  Fortunately, he never asked to drive their car and employ the diagnostic techniques I’ve mentioned, but he was quick to ask, “Need a jump?” “A push?” or whatever else he could offer in the way of tools or assistance.  When people would ask for money he would open his wallet, pull out a 10 or 20-dollar bill and hand it over.  On one occasion I recall some discussion about whether the person to whom he’d given the cash was indeed “needy.”  Dad’s reply was something like “I don’t get to decide what he uses it for, or if he needs it, I just get to decide whether or not to try to help him.  If he needs $20 he probably needs it much more than we do.” Dad, like my mother, taught me the Golden Rule by letting me watch him live it.

Perhaps the most maddening thing about my Father and something he taught me was and is his penchant for planning and perfection.  Everything for my Dad did started with making a list.  A list.  A damn list!   Even as I write these things I recall his encouragement for me to make such lists even as a teenager.    A list Dad?   On Saturday morning, Dad?  Okay.  Item One:  Sleep until Noon.  Item Two:  Eat “lunchfast.”  (Yes.  Lunchfast is a meal.  Its first meal a teenage boy eats when arising after 11 a.m.)  Item Three:  Rest up until its time to go to Uncle Abe’s Pizza, Shakey’s or to Amy Highland’s house for a party.  That was my idea of a list as a teenager.  It allowed time for basketball, a sufficient amount of attention to school to maintain a “B” average and room for the couple of girls who were willing to let me talk to them in public.  But guess what happened. Gaaaaah!  Over years that admonition sunk in, got me through college, and now allows me to torment my own children and staff with the same coaching.  Make a list.  If its important enough to do its important enough to write it down.  If it stays on your list more than three days its not that important or someone else should do it.  It’s true.  My children will confirm it.  In large part, I have turned in to my Father!  Other parts of me are clearly my Mother.  I’m grateful for both of their contributions to who I am.

I know this piece has rambled on but before I close, one last story about my Dad’s automotive repair skills is in order.   On a bitter cold winter morning somewhere in the Northeast, we loaded the car in a hotel parking lot preparing for the final leg of a journey home.  But the he car wouldn’t start.  The battery worked.  The motor “turned over” but just wouldn’t crank.  My Dad lifted the hood, removed the air filter top that covered the carburetor and proceeded to “prime” the engine by tipping a bit of gasoline into it.  With instructions shouted to my Mother to “try it now” the engine finally roared to life.  Smoke wafted out from under the hood of the car.  Yet they were not from the flames that spat from the carburetor.  They were from the scorched eyebrows of my poor Dad who’d remained a bit too close to the engine.  He emerged in blinking glory as my Mom continued to rev the engine.   In my minds eye, I now see him a proud yet singed figure of a thirty-something man, the smell of burning hair in the air.  Robert Duval would have been proud.  Dad might have said, “I love the smell of singed hair in the morning.  It smells like victory!”

Yeah.  My Dad has taught me a lot.  All those things I’ve attested to above and many more.  And oh yeah, he’s taught me to keep your head far from the flame if you’re trying to prime an engine, as well as to make a list, prepare for the unexpected, and share your blessings.  Thanks, Dad.