With Father's Day coming up later this month, I've been thinking about the influence my own dad had on me. I've thought often lately about the "tools" and methods he used to teach me some important life lessons that are still part of me about 25 years after he passed away.
Although Daddy had worked as a dairy farmer and a carpenter early in my life, it was as a self-employed brick mason that I most remember him. The tools of that trade that he used most often were a trowel, a level, a mason's rule, and a brick axe. The trowel he used to spread mortar on the brick and to scrape off the excess mortar after he mashed the brick into place. The level he used to ensure that the walls he laid were level and plumb. The rule he used to ensure the consistency of the size of the joints between courses of bricks. And the brick axe he used to break bricks into the various sizes he needed at the ends of the course, on window sills, and on rowlocks.
Those were tools he used every day to earn a living. But they were also the tools he used to teach me the importance and value of work and personal responsibility. From the time my brother and I were old enough to get into trouble at home, Daddy made us go to work with him whenever we weren't in school. The work he required of us on the job was commensurate with our ages and ability levels. But he expected us to work whenever we were on the job. He didn't like to see us sitting around or having nothing to do. If we had nothing to do, he would always find something for us. I lost count of the number of times he had me clean out and organize the toolbox on his truck. Or remove and straighten bent nails from scaffold boards. Or chip dried mortar from his story poles and apply oil to them. I didn't enjoy the work, especially whenever I saw neighbor kids playing freely. But Daddy paid us for our work and in the process taught us both how to work and the benefits of doing so.
Daddy also taught us by his dress. For work, he wore old clothes that he didn't mind getting dirty. And he certainly got them dirty. Sometimes I was a bit embarrassed by the raggedy condition of the clothes he wore: pocket T-shirts with holes in them, Khaki or gray uniform pants that were permeated with mortar dust. Work boots that were caked with dried mortar and stank to high heaven despite the Borax he regularly poured into them at the end of the day. But whenever Daddy went "uptown" to shop at Miller's in Knoxville, he dressed up. Suit and tie or sport coat with open-collar. Often a hat, especially in winter. And on Sundays for church, it was always a suit. Although he was a laboring man, he knew his suits. He taught us boys how to tie a tie when we were just little, and he expected us to dress according to the occasion. I "inherited" one of Dad's Hart, Schaffner, and Marx suits when I went away to college. He was teaching us boys by his dress standards that appropriateness was the key. Work meant wearing work clothes. Other occasions required more appropriate attire.
Daddy also used a belt as a tool to teach us. That instrument was for not only holding up his pants but also for holding us boys to the high standards of behavior my parents had for us. Sometimes he substituted a fly swatter (that was Mother's favorite teaching tool), a rolled up newspaper or magazine, a switch from a bush, or even his trowel. I feared his belt second only to the trowel. In my mind's ear, I can still hear the sound of that belt flying through the loops on his pants! But he was never abusive, as some moderns might hastily and incorrectly conclude, and we deserved every whack we got--and plenty more for the times he didn't catch us in our misdeeds. In thus disciplining us, he was teaching us obedience and submission to authority and many other important life lessons.
Underlying all of Daddy's instruction using the aforementioned tools, however, were the foundational tools--the Bible, the hymnal, and the Westminster Shorter Catechism. It was his love for God that made him love us kids and to insist that we behave as we ought, dress as we ought, and learn to work and fulfill our increasingly varied responsibilities. To this day, we remember the verses of Scripture we memorized, the hymns we heard and sung in church, and the doctrines that were inculcated in us. And they all have had a lasting influence on the direction of our lives as adults in our families, in our careers, and into our retirement years.
Not many kids today are receiving the kind of education our Daddy gave us. And it shows. Few kids today have responsibilities placed upon them. Not even chores required at home, let alone having to work as youngsters. Discipline is rarely enforced in a way that shows a direct connection between infractions and the pain of consequences for misbehavior. The Bible was long ago removed from our schools, and fewer and fewer homes are guided by it. Church is an occasional event, if it is even that. Kids know few if any of the old hymns, which were filled with principles for our spiritual betterment. And we see efforts to remove all religious influence from the public square. Dress is characterized by slovenliness, even for what once were considered "dress-up" occasions. Kids seem to have no knowledge of the concept of appropriateness in dress.
The "good old days" were not perfect. They were not painless. They often were not fun. But when the right tools were used, they taught us valuable life lessons, and the kids of today could benefit from a return to many of the values of that time.