My birthday was this week and, numerically, I’m approaching the maximum Interstate speed limit in most of the country. While I focus on my next orbit around the sun, I still check the rear view mirror to see where I’ve been. At this age there’s a lot of territory behind me. I’ve managed to negotiate the trip so far with a minimum amount of damage and sometimes I’m in awe of how I’ve managed to get so far. I’ve had a lot of help and influencers along the way. Teachers, coaches, bosses, professors, best friends, spouses, and children all provided important direction and course adjustments along the way. The best route advice, which I regularly ignored in my earlier years, came from my parents, John and Helen.
In some ways they were an unlikely couple. He was an only child and nearly 14 years older than she was. He liked motorcycles, fast cars, and could operate nearly any piece of equipment that had a seat and levers. After finishing his hitch with the Seabees in the Pacific Theater during WWII, Dad came home to help his father run their small construction business. Mom was the youngest girl in a family of eight with five brothers and two sisters. Raised on a farm, she grew up in a crowded house, where two of her brothers brought their new wives back to the family home. My grandmother gave up her room to one of the couples and slept on the window seat. Coal oil lamps provided light until 1941 and though an indoor bathroom was added some years later, the outhouse was still in use until the late 50’s. Independent, strong-willed, hard working, and intelligent, Mom was pretty much a liberated woman in 1948.
She was sitting on the porch with a girlfriend in Petersburg, Indiana one afternoon when a good-looking guy in a roadster cruised by. Her response was to give a loud wolf whistle. His response was to turn his car around and find out who whistled at him. That’s how the great relationship and true partnership started.
They discovered they had a lot in common. Neither was afraid of hard work. Honesty and trust were the foundation blocks of the relationship. Your word was your bond and the expectation was that you would always give your best effort. They loved to laugh and never tired of being in each other’s company. Mom would tell me the only thing they argued about was who loved the other more. I can vouch for that. Growing up, I rarely saw them argue or heard a cross word.
Dad wasn’t one of the great romantics. He and Mom lived together and were planning to get married, but he couldn’t break away from work long enough to get that done. On February 21, 1948 a major snowstorm hit southwestern Indiana. Dad’s comment was, “Well, I can’t work in this. Let’s go get married.” So, they picked up two of their friends and headed to Kentucky in order to avoid the three-day waiting period in Indiana. The 50-mile trip took more than two hours and they were married in the parsonage of the Henderson Methodist Church
When Dad expanded his business into coal mining, Mom managed the office, kept the books, and was the parts runner. Construction and mining have largely been male dominated industries for decades, but that didn’t deter Mom. There was work to be done, money to be made, and she was not about to be the silent partner in the business. Dad knew exactly what Mom could do. Though his pet name for her was “Little Woman,” he had immense respect for her business sense and authority.
When I was around 10, Dad hired some men to do some general labor on a project around our trailer that was going to take a few days. One of the fellows smoked a pipe. As Mom watched him on his first day on the job, she noticed he was spending more time filling his pipe, tamping the tobacco, lighting the pipe and smoking it than he was working. She promptly told him that he was done and that she would write him a check for a half-day’s work. The man was taken aback by her direct approach and said, “Ma’am, your husband hired me and if anyone is going to fire me, it will be him.” Mom pointed to where Dad was standing and told the man, “He’s right over there. You go tell him what I said.” The man sauntered over to Dad and relayed Mom’s message. Dad gazed in her direction, looked the man in the eye and said, “Buddy, if the Little Woman fired you, there ain’t a damned thing I can do for you. I suggest you get your check and go.” This was typical of their support for each other.
Occasionally Dad would try to pressure Mom into doing something. Even though his proposition was presented in a number of what he felt were very attractive ways, Mom could sniff out a sales pitch a mile away…and she wasn’t buying. Dad liked guns a lot and was a crack shot. He wanted Mom to like shooting as much as he did. With his coaching, she became a very good shot, but told him she just didn’t enjoy it and that her mind would not be changed. Somehow, Dad felt there was still possibility in her reply and promptly bought her a new gun for their anniversary. Her response was to get him a new washer and dryer. Lesson learned.
While there was plenty of love and laughter in our home, life wasn’t particularly easy. Money was usually tight depending on what was going on in the coal and construction industries. My folks did their best to keep that information from me, but frequent meals of bologna and crackers made me a bit suspicious. Our livelihood depended on Dad’s business, so that’s where their attention was focused. It was always a six and sometimes a seven-day endeavor. There wasn’t a lot of time for us to play catch or shoot baskets in the back yard. As a teenager, I couldn’t understand that Dad’s absence at my games was due to the responsibility he felt about keeping the business going for our well being and that of his employees. All I saw were my friend’s dads in the stands. I just couldn’t broach the subject with him.
Then there was the issue of their constant unity on all things concerning me. It was if they shared a brain. Distance did nothing to diminish their ability to be in sync. There were just no opportunities to play them against each other. At that stage of my life, I viewed that as a bad thing for me. It took me a while to see what a wonderful gift I had been given.
I also got a lot more direction and discipline than I wanted. As a teenager, having parents who were closely involved in my life and wanted to ensure I stayed on the right path was not what I really wanted. The expectations and consequences were always clear. Ignorance was no excuse. Mom handled most of the discipline and it was rare for me to get a punishment or penalty I didn’t deserve. While I always wanted to stay in Mom’s good graces, the most painful thing for me was disappointing Dad. He just seemed to be able to look into my soul and see what was really going on in there. After my second semester at college, I was embarrassed to show him my grades. He looked at them and then up at me and said, “Is that the best you can do?” I didn’t have to answer. He knew what I was capable of. I wished he would have screamed or thrown something. That would have been easier to take.
The longer I live, the smarter my parents get. I’d like to share the basic lessons they kept coaching me on that are the underpinnings of my life and continue to guide my course as I move through an increasingly complex world.
· Always do your best.
· Do the right thing.
· All people deserve respect.
· Be a person of strong character.
· Your word is your bond.
· Finish what you start.
· Principles are constant.
· Ethics are not situational.
· Find a good partner in life and show them appreciation daily.
· Always wear clean underwear. (You heard this a lot if you were raised in the 50’s and 60’s.)
Thanks, Dad and Mom. I love you.