Whoa! Didja get the numbers off that truck?!?

June 15, 2003 - 10:34 a.m.

About Dads

That’s my dad. There he is, sitting on the front porch of my house. That picture was taken on the last visit he made here in 1999. One of the memories I have of that visit is a trivial one, yet it embodies what he was to me.

The furniture I had at the time was worn after 14 years of exposure to small children. The deck of the sofa was broken so that if you sat in it, you had a hard time getting out of it. My parents were old so that presented an additional challenge. So dad and I went to Home Depot, bought a 4 x 8 sheet of half inch waferboard; and we cut it to fit the deck of the couch. Problem solved.

My father was never one to express things on an emotional level. I think it was difficult for him to say what he felt, to us kids anyhow. He was pretty good at yelling, and we got a lot of that. I see his motivation with adult perspective now, but when I was little, he scared me and as I got older it just pissed me off.

My father was the son of a wealthy and successful man. My grandfather had the wisdom to recognize an opportunity and capitalize on it. Earl had two sons: Tom the elder and Robert, my dad. Earl met an inventor early in his sales career. The inventor had developed an automatic valve for oil fired heaters. Before this invention, people had to manually fill their oil heaters, which was probably a messy and distasteful chore. This valve eliminated that. Earl said he could sell that valve, and he did. He sold a lot of them and started a company called Automatic Products. They converted its use to refrigeration in the early days of air conditioning. Earl was able to retire early because of his successes. He bought a run-down old farm and restored the house and the barn. He built a small apartment in one side of the barn, where a series of helpers lived. They had livestock, and Earl leased the surrounding farmland out. The house and barn sat on an expansive ten acres of yard. I remember visiting the farm as a kid. I never knew Earl very well, he was well into a long lasting bout with emphysema by that time, and he impressed me as just being an old grouch. I’m sorry I missed the earlier days.

My dad probably lived a life of privilege in those days, I don’t know because he never talked about it. His brother Tom went off to college after he graduated from high school. My dad was going to go as well, but in the summer between high school and college he made the mistake of falling into a sickle bar mower, which severed the tendons in his right hand, his write hand. They fixed it, but it was never the same. He spent the rest of that summer alone in his room, teaching himself how to write with his left hand.

After working at one of Earl’s companies for a few years, he got into sales. He sold many different things. He left the Wisconsin area in the early fifties with his young bride and they settled in Ohio. He sold farm implements for awhile, and then he started his own rep firm. He picked up lines that were too small to have their own sales force.

Sales guys like that spend a lot of time on the road. Dad covered an area that included Ohio, Indiana and part of Michigan. He traveled each day in his car, before the days of air conditioning. Each day he put on that suit and tie and traveled in his car and talked to buyers, pitching whatever he sold at the time. He preferred two door cars because it was easier to get at the samples and literature in the back seat. He would easily put 100,000 miles on a car inside of three years, traveling around like that. He did all this business before the days of cell phones, fax machines and the Internet. Those tools would have made his job a lot different, but 1960’s business practice involved driving a lot of miles.

My dad raised five kids on straight commission. He did a lot of things around the house himself, because money was tight and he loved doing it himself. He did a lot of the car repairs himself, that’s where I learned oil changes and brake jobs and wheel bearing repairs, among other things. He also made a lot of things out of wood. He sold power tools for a time, and bought the samples from the company when they went out of business. I still have the Shopmaster drill press and table saw that he used for many years.

Because he was gone for two to three days at a stretch I saw more of my mom than my dad. Many times I dreaded his arrival near the weekend. It usually involved a lot of yelling, as if he were making up for lost time. Dad was a pretty fastidious guy, and he was pretty mad at the disarray that small kids can produce, especially in his workshop. I adopted his love of tools and spent time there when he was gone, making things. He didn’t see it as a son emulating his father’s talent; he saw it as an invasion into his domain. I’m sure that after a week of the kind of frustration that comes with sales, it was nice to retreat into a world where he could control things, and create things.

He taught me how to fix a lawnmower engine and how to take things apart and get them together again so they worked better than before. He did many things with his hands which was remarkable because one of them never worked right after the accident with the sickle bar mower. Perhaps part of his motivation for doing so was to prove that he could still do anything despite that. There were many things about dad that I never knew; he was private when it came to that.

My dad was an honest and dependable guy. The lasting lessons he taught me was to take care of things so they last a lifetime, and never make promises you can’t keep.

He was meticulous about shoes; he had a triple A width and had a hard time getting ones to fit, so it was nothing for him to make a pair last for 20 years. He never wore tennis shoes or as he called them, “canvas shoes”. Even in the hottest summer, he’d be wearing his trusty leather ones.

He always looked good, even on weekends. Taking care of his appearance was important in his job, and so he always took good care of his clothes. He had so many white shirts, mom never ironed them; in those days before permanent press he had them sent to the laundry. They always came back folded just so, with a white paper band holding them in place.

He had a wicked sense of humor. He enjoyed beer. He listened to the Indy 500 every year on Memorial Day. He watched football on TV but never was fanatical about it. He never said “I love you” out loud to me, he never hugged me. He didn’t have to. He wasn’t Ward Cleaver, but he took care of us just as well as any TV dad would have.

Happy Fathers Day, dad.

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