Hammering Out Life's Lessons
Updated: Dec 4, 2020
Guest Post by Jack D. Smith
An edited version of the following piece was first printed in the Washington Post on Father's Day, June 18, 2006.
Dad was one of the now-called Greatest Generation. His life ranged from buggies to space shuttles and from writing slates to PDAs. He was born on an Indiana farm before WWI; grew up during the depression; fought in WWII; fell in love; got married; worked over 35 years for the government; and helped raise a family.
I was born in 1951 when my Dad was almost 40. That was the time when fathers were supposed to dispense advice to their children based on the expectations created by TV shows like "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" and "Leave it to Beaver". Life's lessons were to be passed on as concise gems of wisdom that would be remembered a lifetime (or at least until next week's show).
However, in my own childhood, there were never any of these TV-style father and son moments at the dinner table. There were no heart-to-hearts on the front stoop.
And yet, as I reflected on my relationship with my father after his death last year at the age of 92, I realized that he had outdone Ward Cleaver, Ozzie Nelson, and the other fictional philosophical fathers. His method of imparting advice wasn't direct or even obvious, but in his own way, Dad made sure he passed on the guidance that would help me through life.
How? By letting me help him work on his many projects.
Dad was a tinkerer. I began helping him at an early age and initially my help was minimal at best. Our work together involved fixing things (cars, lawnmowers, stuck doors, etc.) and building things (gadgets, furniture, and more gadgets), and took place over 50 plus years.
One of my earliest memories was helping Dad fix our blue '51 Dodge Coronet. I was five or six years old and it was very cold and very dark. Dad was bent over the engine trying to change a particularly stubborn sparkplug. My job was to keep the beam of the flashlight aimed exactly where he was struggling.
I was young, so I was mostly thinking about anything but the work at hand. As my mind wandered, so did the beam of light. Every few minutes Dad would remind me, "Jack… the problem is here," as he tapped the wrench on the engine. "Shine the light where I'm looking, not where you're looking! Your job is to make my job easier." I jumped to attention and concentrated on making sure Dad had the light he needed.
As I grew up, I prided myself on becoming a flashlight pro. I would keep an eye on Dad and anticipate his need by moving the beam over to a new spot without being asked.
Presently in my business life as an entrepreneur, my days are often chaotic. It's easy to get distracted. It's easy to lose sight of the important things. But I often find myself saying "Keep focused on the problem" either to myself or my employees. I may not have a literal flashlight to shine, but I do try and keep my attention focused on the search for solutions.
"The Flashlight Lesson" even surfaced during a recent New York meeting with some new clients. The meeting was dragging on and the topics were running far afield from our original agenda. I found myself saying to the group, "Let's focus on your main problem. I'm here to make your jobs easier." I didn't have a flashlight to aim or a wrench to tap for emphasis, but the idea was still the same: concentrate on the main problem.
That lesson with the flashlight came when my Dad was younger than I am now. And through the years, the projects and lessons continued. As I grew older, the projects with Dad grew more complex. We replaced my Grandmother's front door (we'll call that the "Patience Lesson"). We built a bookcase, even cutting our own boards (teaching me the "Clear Communication Lesson"). We repaired a mower (resulting in the "Know When to Call an Expert Lesson").
One of Dad's last lessons for me would come when he was over 90 years old. At that point in his life, his hands-on projects had been ended by a series of physical problems that limited his mobility, but not his mind.
I was at my parent's house and my Mom mentioned that the kitchen sink was leaking. "I can call a plumber," she said. I knew if Dad were still mobile, he'd be under the sink and the word "plumber" would never have been uttered.
"Let me take a look at it," I said. I went downstairs to Dad's workbench and found the pipe wrench and other tools I needed in the same exact locations they had been for decades (an ongoing lesson in Organization).
I contorted my body under the sink and began working. Some of the pipe connections were older than I was. Dad painfully dragged a chair over near the sink and sat down to watch. He would have loved to have been under that sink with a wrench.
Parts bent. Knuckles were barked. And time dragged on. I know he probably had some great suggestions and ideas about what I should be doing, but every time I came out to get a different tool or stretch my back, Dad would only say, "You're doing great. You're making good progress."
And, after several hours when we turned on the water and there were no drips or drops from any of the new pipes and connections, Dad beamed as broadly as I did.
Dad knew that there comes a time when the teacher has taught all he can and the student is ready to stand on his own. I wish I would have thought to thank him for all the lessons over the years, but that would have been too packaged. Too 1950s TV family-ish.
Instead, I think the best I can do is to be ready to continue the tradition. I can't wait for my son to get his own place.
Jack Smith is the father of an adult daughter and son and grandfather of six grandkids ages 5 months to 19 years old. During the 1980s when his children were younger, he was one of the early “stay-at-home dads.” He created and managed his own business, web and online gaming developer Arrow NewMedia (formerly Chaos Limited and PeopleSpace), for 25 years. Prior to that, he was the Director of Creative Services with Kesmai, a leading developer and distributor of multi-player online games and entertainment now owned by Electronic Arts. Before that, he was a Senior Producer with General Electric's GEnie online services division for 12 years. Recently, he began working part-time for Montgomery County (MD) Schools at Richard Montgomery in Rockville. Jack earned his BA in Art History from the University of Maryland.