As I was growing up I never thought of my parents as particularly poetic or philosophical. They were down-to-earth people concerned with raising a family and taking care of business. Since they passed away (Mom in 1990 and Dad in 1991) I have realized that their oft-repeated sayings have found lodging in my psyche and directed my steps far more than I used to realize.
My mother, Pearl, operated by a principle that I find myself emulating to this day. When preparing for a trip or a project she would frequently say, and always act upon, “It is better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it.”
This uncomplicated saying holds a bucketful of advice in a thimbleful of words. An even greater simplification – without as much punch – is simply, “Be prepared.” Sometimes we returned from an infrequent vacation with clothes that had never left the suitcase, or a picnic with unopened cans and sacks, but no one ever lacked, at least in my memory.
This type of thought process carried through for these children of the Great Depression in preparation for business and retirement. My dad always had cash hidden somewhere for an emergency or a good deal. At the estate auction my wife and sister-in-law were doing some last-minute cleanup of a steel plate desk my dad had made and used in his shop. As one of them took out and turned over a drawer to empty the last remnants of whatever from it, she found a magnetic clip on the bottom of the drawer with a few hundred dollars in it. If he found a bargain, he was ready to deal and knew that cash brought the best price.
This would not be a bad philosophy to apply from a childhood piggy bank to the halls of national leadership. Working the other way of winging it and hoping may turn around to bite a lot of people real soon. Hoping for the best is not a plan.
Another saying my mother used frequently was, “Pretty is as pretty does.”
I was so young when I first heard this that I had no concept of what she was saying. Now it is obvious to me that face and form are merely external and slowly, constantly changing. Time and gravity win over all of us eventually. But a gracious spirit, a good attitude, and kind actions are a beauty that time and gravity cannot mar. The entertainment world is a constant reminder that good looks do not always, or even often, indicate good judgment or a pleasing private personality.
Though my dad (Roy, Sr.) was a hard-working, no-nonsense kind of man, many of his teachings that left the most lasting impression were expressed in simple poems that I first heard from him in the 1950s. I include the three which had the most impact here. You will notice the theme.
Good, better, best,
Never let it rest,
‘Til your good is better
And your better is best.
As I look back over a fifty-eight year working career from the time he first put me to work in a welding shop at the age of ten, I can see that – though I sometimes fell short – his poetry goaded and directed my steps. I generally stayed productively busy, though I do not think there was a time when I held more than six jobs at once.
This first poem spurred me to reach for excellence. Our mindsets help determine what information sticks with us as important. What my dad taught gave power to Paul Harvey’s comment that, “There is always room at the top.” The poem helped me understand that the room was reserved for those who tried a little harder and worked a little longer. Dad’s voice ringing in my memory gave import to the fact that in the Olympics the difference between silver and gold is often measured in hundredths of a second. Just a little extra effort can make a world of difference. I never heard him say that anything was “good enough for government work.” He was not working for the government. He worked for his family and his own self-respect.
A good thing to remember,
A better thing to do,
Is to work with the construction gang,
And not with the wrecking crew.
Though just a child at the time, I remember the tension in our home while my parents were deciding for my dad to leave a good, steady job with Shell Oil and go into partnership in the oilfield welding business. As a result of their decision I spent several years working in the oil field as a welder – when I was not going to school, being a salesman in a dry goods store, or spinning records as an announcer (disc jockey) at the local radio station.
This welding experience taught me to build and build well, or Papa would cut it apart and direct me to start over. The oil business is dangerous, and people’s lives can depend on doing the job right. We did many kinds of shop and field welding. My dad not only wanted things done; he wanted them done right, and right now.
Even a small town has vandals and thieves who ‘break through and steal.’ My working youth taught me the satisfaction of doing something constructive. Though I did not hear him say it, I think my dad would have heartily agreed with a sentiment he would have known well from growing up on a farm: ‘It takes a wise farmer to build a barn, but any old mule can kick one down.’
Early to bed and early to rise
Once made man healthy,
Wealthy and wise.
But now days the man
Who would fain make his mark
Has got to keep hustling
‘Til long after dark.
My dad lived this one. One summer evening I was at the shop welding atop a tanker truck. During a break to change rods I saw my dad giving the signal to roll up the cables and head for the house. Surprised, I looked at my watch and discovered that we had only put in eleven hours that day. I climbed down from the truck with a slight worry on my mind: “Why were we shutting down so early?” I never did find out why we quit when we did, but it was nice to have a short day once in a while.
One thing that has bothered me in my years of ministry is that I seldom felt like I was working. From my youth, work meant getting dirty, sweaty, burned and tired. Many nights after work I stood in front of the bathroom mirror so covered with dirt and grease that I could hardly recognize myself. My thick glasses were about the only thing that gave a hint of who I might be. After wrestling iron objects, fighting with an electric hand grinder, and sometimes losing, or swinging a sixteen pound sledgehammer for hours, sitting reading, or planning, or dealing with people and their problems hardly fit my internalized notion of ‘work.’ Reading, writing, studying and socializing were things I did related to school when I did not have to ‘work.’
That part about “hustling ‘til long after dark” would not have been so bad had we not usually started before daylight. For years I have joked with people by asking the question, “You mean six o’clock comes TWICE a day?” More than once I have, after a long day of preparation, taught the Wednesday night Bible study in uniform, and then gone straight to the police station to ride the 10 P. M. to 6 A. M. shift as chaplain. Then I would be up around 8:30 or 9:00 to help with the weekly church bake sale at Phillips Petroleum. I think my dad would have smiled at that.
He was a great one for getting the job done whatever the difficulty. I was nearby once when one of the hired hands came in from the field with a story about how he could not figure out a way to cut into two pieces of pipe so that he could then weld them together at about a thirty degree angle. My dad listened to his story, got up and went to the office, only to return with a final check for that worker. When the man was gone my dad climbed in his truck, went to the location and finished the job. His often repeated advice to me when I was stumped by a problem was, “Don’t say can’t. Say ‘can’t hardly,’ and then do it. Remember, success comes in cans.” Under that kind of tutelage and example, excuses are not of much use. You just do not get a chance to develop skill at using them.
My parents were not slave drivers or hard people with whom to live. They were God-fearing, hard-working, salt of the earth types, forged in depression and hardened by war. They had to struggle to survive the challenges of their times. But they never asked anyone to do what they were not willing to do, and probably had already done, and more. As long as my days frequently were, Dad’s were longer and a way of life, not just weekends and summers.
I do not know that my parents ever read the great philosophers or studied the poems of Joyce Kilmer or Robert Frost. Their philosophy and poetry were as practical as a pair of work gloves. The implementation of their ideals produced things solid as iron that have already endured for generations. Their philosophies worked for them and produced a poetry of life that still reverberates.