Philosopher Jerry L. Martin discovers that Dad’s best lessons were the ones he didn’t teach.
If you are tired of people preaching at you, trying to lay down the moral law for your life, you have a problem. You have to dodge all those judgmental bullets.
You have a second problem as well. You have to figure out for yourself what values will get you through the thick and thin of life. That have staying power.
Where do you get values that work? First of all, from your own experience. You see what’s panned out and what’s gotten you in trouble. You can also learn from the mistakes of others. And, if you’re really lucky, you know someone who seems to be doing a pretty good job of what the ancient sages called “living well.”
For me, that person has been my dad. Of course, I have had to work to adapt lessons from his life to how we live today. If he had laid down a bunch of rules, they would be out of date or full of exceptions, but most of what I learned from Dad he didn’t teach me.
Of course, he taught me a few things, and he generally talked so little that the few things he did tell me I tended to remember. “You have to be dependable,” he told me when I had let down my first employer. “No matter how smart or talented you are, if people can’t count on you, you aren’t worth a hill of beans to them.” “The two most important things are to have a good job and good mattress, because you spend eight hours a day on each of them.”
Call that Lesson 1: Be dependable.
I’ve tried to take that lesson to heart but the things that really sank deep down, into my bones and marrow, are what I learned from how he lived. Not just when I was growing up, but stories he would tell about his own younger years.
Dad was born in Dublin, Texas, somewhere south of Dallas. Later his family moved west, to the area between Amarillo and Lubbock.
As a teenager, Dad had the reputation, he says, of being “wild” – a term that seemed to cover a host of both named and unnamed sins. In those days, some counties were “wet” and some were “dry,” which meant that you would have to go to the next county to get drunk. There was a liquor store right across the county line. However, he and his buddies were broke. But not out of bright ideas: Why not just rob the store, and then we’ll have liquor and money both! They had guns – who didn’t? – and came close to using them, but just before taking out a lease at the state prison, they had a second bright idea.
Lesson 2: Stay on the safe side of the law.
My grandfather sold household products, including vanilla extract (41 percent alcohol). Drink enough of those little bottles and, next stop, Shangri-La! They were sick as dogs, and still too sober not to care.
Lesson 3: Don’t do dumb stuff.
When he wasn’t drinking, or when he was, Dad’s main preoccupation was going as far with as many women as luck and good looks could get him. His buddy at this time was a smooth talker named Johnston. When they spotted some babes walking along the sidewalk, Johnston would hop out and start chatting them up. By the time the car reached the corner, Johnston would have them in tow and scoop them into the car.
At loose ends one night, he saw that there was a dance at this little town, “Welcome to Turkey, Texas. Pop. 996.” That’s where I was born … but we haven’t gotten to that part yet. It didn’t look to be much of a dance in this podunk place but he decided to check it out. His radar scoped out one cutie, dancing with a girlfriend, as girls did in those days.
“She looked like a well-developed 14-year-old,” he says. They danced for a while and then he offered to take her home. Other guys had brought her and her two friends, she said, and their coats were in their car. Alas, the garments were guarded by three guys who didn’t smile on poaching. Dad called to a couple of his more brutish friends (they all did amateur boxing), “Follow me.”
Lesson 4: Don’t try to do everything yourself – get help.
The coats’ guardians stood aside. Not knowing which coat was the cute girl’s, my dad took them all.
Lesson 5: When you have an objective in view, don’t mince around — go all out.
Dad got to take the cutie home, and the other guys latched onto the other girls. All in all, a good evening’s work! When cutie got out of school the next day, Dad was there to drive her home in his spiffy blue coupe.
Lesson 6: Follow up – immediately.
“How old are you?” he asked her. (In those days, underage sex was statutory rape and it was vigorously prosecuted, first of all by the jail-bait’s gun-tottin’ dad and older brothers). She would turn 18 in a couple of weeks. Close enough!
Lesson 7: Sex is serious – in more ways than one.
To his relief, she seemed glad to see him – in spite of the fact that in his mind “I had been so mean to her that first night.” My dad never said how he had been mean, but I suspect he was lusty and pushy about it. My mom later explained that back then the guy was supposed to try to get all he could – that way the girl knew she was attractive to him. And it was the girl’s job to resist — that way he would know she was not “that kind of girl.”
Lesson 8: If you like her, don’t hold back – let her know!
Dad picked up cutie every day after that. As my grandmother told it, one evening they were sitting around the pot-bellied stove. Dad was staring at the glowing embers visible through the grating. “Honey, is something wrong?” she asked. “I think I have gotten myself into deep, deep trouble,” he replied. She thought he had gotten some girl pregnant, but no, “I think I’m in love.”
Falling in love was not my dad’s game plan. There were wild oats yet to sow. Women and booze were not the only loves of his life. There was football. He was the only unanimous selection for the tri-county all star team – “the best athlete I have ever coached,” his mentor said. He was in line for a football scholarship.
On their second date, cutie asked Dad about his plans. It wasn’t college and football that he talked about. “The first thing I’m going to do is marry you,” he said. She laughed.
Lesson 9: When you find the right woman, old plans go out the window — it’s time for new life plan.
She laughed only once. Within three weeks, she was saying Yes. The first person she told was her sister-in-law. “What’s his name?” she asked. “J.B. or L.J. or something like that,” said cutie. The sister-in-law ran to the kitchen, “Mom, she is getting married and she doesn’t even know his name!”
Later cutie asked her mom’s advice. Her mom had always warned against this or that suitor. One was “too high-tempered.” Another picked cotton, and “you’ll never be anything but a cotton-picker’s wife.” This time, her only comment was, “You’re the one who’ll have to live with him.” It was a green light.
“I told the coach that I wasn’t going to go to college,” Dad says. “I would now have a wife to support.” He made another decision remarkable for a “wild” nineteen-year-old. He gave up drinking. Totally. Immediately. Full stop.
“I would go to a party where married couples were drinking and dancing,” he says. “Later I would end up in the back seat of a car, making out with a guy’s wife, while he was in the front seat making out with some other girl. I knew that couldn’t be good when they got back home.”
Lesson 10: Marriage is holistic – it isn’t just part of your life, it is the frame of your entire life, and may require a whole life overhaul.
My mom died a few years back. “We were married for 67 years,” Dad says, “and that wasn’t nearly long enough.”
Dad never preached or moralized about love, marriage, fidelity, or anything like that. He never told me, don’t drink or don’t stray. His main ethic is that everybody should live their own lives and mind their own business. But he knew – and I use the word advisedly – that that the bedrock of happiness is a good marriage, a committed relationship, sharing your life with someone you love, and that infidelity is the quickest way to torpedo that. And, growing up with him, I came to know that too.
Lessons 11: The bedrock of happiness is a committed relationship. If he cheats on her, or she on him, the bloom is off the rose.
Mom told me that a day never went by that Dad didn’t tell her he loved her. He continued to court her.
Lesson 12. Keep the romantic fires burning.
These lessons are not so much value judgments as factual observations, or in a zone where the two come to the same thing. Dad had observed human behavior carefully, and saw what leads to happiness and what leads to a mouth full of dust.
Do these lessons still apply in the 21st century? In Dad’s day, men earned the money and women took care of the house. But girls as well as guys can bring home the bacon these days, and responsibilities for a shared life are subject to negotiation. The part of the lesson that is still true is that you are building a life together, and both have to take that seriously.
Even in our more relaxed age, cheating is still deeply problematic. Your intimacy, your love, your lust should now focus on your partner, not wander with wild abandon. At least, I personally have never known wild abandon to be a workable plan. It undermines the romantic bonding that is the crazy-glue of love. Dad never told me that, in so many words, but his best lessons were the ones he didn’t teach me.
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