Father’s and Sons is a collection of short memoir pieces that tell about what I most remember about my Father. I often veer into the vagaries of history, culture, and the world that he grew up in. Dad valued honesty and hard work and would let you slide by with anything as long as you were trying. But if you tried to sneak something by him or go behind his back? When you cut corners or cheated? He was done. It’s that same thing that I tell my girls: as long as you’re trying, I really don’t care about what your final grade turns out to be. What I want to see is effort.
I don’t remember him ever saying another thing to me about race. Maybe he never gave it a second thought. Maybe the belief that you measure people by effort instead of by words came from sports? I don’t know. But I am impressed that he saw this as a teaching moment for his young boy.
Jerks. They’re everywhere. Don’t Be One.
Mom and Dad were sun worshipers. They loved nothing more than to grease up and bake. I was maybe nine or ten they decided that we needed a pool. A real pool. A little slice of sunny Palm Springs plopped down in misty Tacoma. Maybe they beat Kevin Costner to it and thought, ‘if we build it, it will come”? This was well before the time of credit cards or home equity loans so Dad decided to start a lawn care business. We had the nicest yard in three counties so it was a good fit. Dad bought a truck – a green 1963 Chevy – a few mowers, hiked me into the truck to carry buckets, and we were off and in business. I made a whopping fifty-cents an hour. Millionaire wages from my view.
We Meet the Jerk
Business was good and we were busy. During that first summer of work, we received a phone call from a guy who was hosting a big family get-together on the next Saturday. Could we come over Friday and clean the place up – make it shine? We showed up on Friday morning to find that he lived on one of those lots in Tacoma where the road is cut right straight through a hill. Backyards are flat and large and front yards are cliffs. Over the years – these houses were built in the ‘30’s – most owners had terraced the front yards to make them manageable. But not this one. The front fell at a forty-five-degree angle straight down to the road with a weedy carpet growing about a foot high. No one had heard of weed eaters yet so dad and the owner, who was probably the first Black man I had ever shaken hands with, agreed to hit the backyard hard for the party and worry about the front another time. They shook on a price and we went to work.
It was hot and sometime around mid-afternoon, the owner came out of the house with a dripping glass jar of lemonade. We drank and stood around for a minute cooling off before he dropped the bomb”: “Hey,” he said. “When you guys make it around to the front yard can you…” Dad busted right in. “We’re not doing the front. We can’t do the front. We talked about it.” The guy blew up. “Why in the hell would I hire a guy to do my yard and not do the front? You expect me to pay you for ripping me off?” He was yelling loud and waving his arms and even I knew we had been had. Without a word of discussion Dad looked up and yelled to the sky “Den! Load up the truck. We’re outta here!”
A Learning Moment
I don’t remember anything else about the guy. I don’t know if he stayed in the yard and yelled back but I started tossing hoes and prongs and buckets in the bed of the truck as fast as I could. Dad tossed in the mowers and emptied the wheelbarrow on the lawn before putting it away. “Get in the truck!”
We sprayed a little gravel and sped off. It was surreal for me as a young kid. We were working, sipping lemonade, and enjoying the day, and, in an instant, it all fell away in a fury of waving arms and shouts. I don’t remember, but I was probably a little scared. Mom and Dad fought like anyone but I’d never seen Dad act this way with another man. We drove about a mile or two until Dad pulled over and parked in front of the Tacoma Public Library. I’m sure I wondered if I was in trouble, too. We sat for a minute while Dad kind of gathered himself up. Finally, he turned to me and said, “Den? I want to let you know something. That guy back there was an asshole.” I puffed my chest out a bit. We were swearing together like men. “You’re going to meet all kinds of jerks and asses as you grow up. It doesn’t have anything to do with him being Black. Asses come in white, black, red, yellow. It doesn’t matter. You’ll meet lots of asses and lots of good people and none of it ever has anything to do with their color. It comes from what’s inside.
Then we drove off. It’s the last I ever remember talking about it but it was an expectation in our home that people were judged by their actions and not on their words or on what they looked like.
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