Father’s Day got me thinking about my father, and fathers in general, and how one of the most important things a father does is to teach his children lessons he’s learned, the essential knowledge that will help them through life.
The first thing I remember my father ever teaching me was when I was 2½ and he asked if I wanted to help him paint our basement floor. We were standing at the bottom of the basement stairs, my dad holding a brush and a bucket of paint, and he said, “Okay, Scout, where should we start?” “Here!” I said, pointing down at my own feet.
My dad just smiled and said, “Let’s pretend we’re painting.” So we did. We pretend-painted all the way from the stairs to the far corner of the basement. “Uh-oh!” my dad said. “What’ll we do now? The floor’s all covered with paint!” I saw at once the fatal error in my original plan, and I couldn’t wait to run upstairs and explain Painting Yourself Into a Corner to my mom. Learning things was so exciting.
My dad worked for the telephone company and sometimes, after my sister was born, he’d take me with him while he drove around southwestern Iowa looking at phone lines. First we’d go down to the big garage to pick up a dark-green telephone company truck, and my dad would brag about me to whoever was there and I would have to demonstrate how I could read already, even thought I was only 4. Then we’d drive away and spend all day on the little county roads: Shenandoah, Creston, Glenwood, where the apple orchards were, Red Oak, with the butcher who made great dried beef, Atlantic, or Villisca, where the ax murders happened. Every once in a while we’d pull over to the side of the road and my dad would look at the telephone wires, and usually he’d try to explain the Pythagorean theorem to me. “See, Scout, if the pole is 4, and the guy wire is 5, the length of the ground between the guy and the pole is 3!” I might have been able to read, but geometry was still a little beyond me. Still, I could see what a kick he got out of math and years later, when geometry came back to haunt me in 10th grade, I found I had a real affection for right triangles.
My dad told us stories about when he was in England during the war and they used newspapers in the beds, under the sheets and between the thin blankets, to keep warm. This came in very handy when I went away to college and ended up living in an unheated attic room. When I started repairing and refinishing antique furniture to make extra money, my dad taught me that “two thin coats [of varnish or paint or shellac or wax] are better than one thick coat,” and he was definitely right about that. He taught me how to double-clutch, how to replace a faucet washer, and how to gap the sparkplugs in a car.
But as my sister got older and our mom got sicker, my dad’s lessons became less and less relevant. By the time I was 8 and my sister was 5, he was showing us how to knee someone in the groin and then, when the pain caused them to bend over, grab their ears and headbutt them—hard!—in the face. He explained to us that if we went out drinking, we should eat a stick of butter first because it would coat our stomachs and allow us to drink more without getting drunk. (The legal drinking age in Iowa at that time was 21. I was 10.) He told us that if we ever had to shoot anyone, we should shoot to kill because “then the only story told will be yours.” I didn’t even understand what that meant until a couple of years ago. In the only acknowledgment he ever made that we might, one day, begin going out with boys, he made sure to tell us never to eat spaghetti on a date. And even though he never explained how it was supposed to happen, he was adamant that we were never, ever to become pregnant. And we never did.