Thug Can Be Only Skin Deep
Dad taught me with his thoughtfulness that a woman loves to receive flowers, wants to be pampered, and desires both closeness and space. He may not have bought many flowers during a more than fifty-year romance, but certainly brought Mom a lot of wild ones. Those deep purple winged violets and root beer brown and deep yellow daisies brought a loving pause to Mom’s busy meal preparations for an unpredictable number of friends and workers.
Dad had incredibly good taste in selecting the prettiest woman in the county. He was a small town boy—a very, very ornery one. The following photo makes him look a bit like a thug. But, then, like father like son. The next picture was taken of me taken 28 years later.
My Dad Was One of the Best
My father had a real sharp eye for the unusual. He could be cultivating on a tractor and spot a small arrowhead between the cornrows that some Native American had lost while hunting years and years ago. He would walk across the lawn and suddenly stop to reach down and pick a four-leaf clover that he always saved for my mom. He could see a morel mushroom while others saw only grass and dead leaves. I asked him how he did those things and he said something profound, “Look for something that isn’t like everything else. Look for what shouldn’t be there.” I would learn later that with a little adaptation that insight would help my fictional writing. The key to writing is the ability and willingness to see what isn’t or shouldn’t be there.
Dad was a hardcore romantic. He loved to sing to my mother. One song always caught my attention–“Can I Canoe You Down the River?” Here are full lyrics.
“Can I canoe you up the river
Can I canoe you up the stream
Can I canoe you up the river
Like I did in last night’s dream
We’ll drift a moment in the moonlight
I’ll fish for little things to say
And with the help of Mr. Moonlight
Maybe you’ll see things my way
I tried to tell you how I care
But never made the grade
Now things might change if I could have
A setting for my serenade
So, can I canoe you up the river
I’ll be as nice as I can be
And hope that while we’re up the river
You’ll go overboard for me”
It is my hope people hearing or reading my stories will be motivated to write and tell their stories. Everyone is a storyteller. Some are just better than others. Think about how many times you say or hear, “I remember,” “You should have been there,” or “Now listen to this.” Those are phrases that indicate the speaker is about to weave a tale of one sort or another.
I used to play a game with my grandchildren in order to tell my stories. I called it “Truth or Fiction.” I would weave a tale and then ask them to guess if it was true or fictitious. This game excited their interest while allowing me to testify to many of the “mighty acts” of God in my life or expose them to some of our family lore. I hoped some of the stories would be etched in their minds and that some of them would take up the family tradition of storytelling.
Our life is a series of moments. They follow one after another in endless succession. A series of moments make an experience. It is fair to say that most moments are hardly discernable and seldom processed. Brief experiences only provide a small effect on our life and are then filed in our subconscious and eventually forgotten. However, important transformational experiences impact our life in one way or another in terms of who we are as a person. As Sue Monk Kidd wrote in the Secret Life of Bees, “Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.” The sum of our experiences determines who we are.
We begin to understand why we act the way we act when we retrace our life to identify transformational moments and how we responded to them. It is like walking backward with a personal characteristic in hand trying to find the place or moment where we picked it up. Transitional moments can be negative experiences such as the premature loss of a parent that drove us into a responsibility for our family that we certainly didn’t want or expect. Or, on the positive side, they can be the special attention given by a teacher that birthed our positive self-concept. Every moment carries the potential for a positive or negative impact upon life, but only a few really make dramatic and immediate changes. Most of my writing focuses on such transitions whether serious or humorous.
The Importance of Making Correct Decisions
I learned three basic tenets to guide my decision-making. First, I leaned heavily on the teaching and example of my parents. “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but raise them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). Second, I learned the steps of the scientific method. I learned to identify a problem, identify all possible solutions, try the best option, and use trial and error to finally decide upon the best solution. Third, I learned more about the mandates for happiness and right living in the Old and New Testament. That wisdom straightened my path and heightened my discernment between good and evil. Pragmatism and spirituality combined to offer me the tools for dependable answers to problems.
Remembering My Parents
“Parents are the ultimate role models for children. Every word, movement and action has an effect. No other person or outside force has a greater influence on a child than the parent.” Bob Keeshan
I keep getting images of my parents, Robert and Marilee Beryle Fleenor Watkins, as I survey their farm. Children should revere their father and mother. It is the fifth of the Ten Commandments. “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the LORD your God is giving you.” That was always easy for me. Mom and Dad made me proud and thankful for their wisdom, perseverance, faith, and constancy. We had a few conflicts along the way, but their paths willingly became my paths. Seldom did I have any reason to question their parental judgment.
I received ample space to make small decisions as a child. Success brought positive reinforcement and failure was answered with interpretation and instruction. This living through the ups and downs of experience brought mounds of wisdom. Consequences became a master teacher. Every year my parents expanded the parameters for more difficult decisions.
Shaping of My Work Ethic
I have returned to the 160-acre farm that provided a wonderful childhood for my sister and me during the fifteen years my mother and father sharecropped the property for Mr. C. J. Artz (affectionately called Artzie Fartzie). I remember him driving his Studebaker out to the fields to watch us work.
Landowners seldom lent a hand in the physical labor. Mr. Artz was a sweet man and gave me the freedom to raise my baby beef and sheep without any rent for the use of his land or its products. Actually, He certainly realized the manual labor that the children of his sharecroppers provided. I don’t believe it entered my mind to complain about the hard work I did. “This isn’t fair” or “I am going to take this week off,” was never uttered. As I think about the laziness of so many children, I have to blame it on the parents for giving their children such an option. I never heard my parents complain about our employer. I am thankful for this because it enabled me to work and serve without resentments. I remember one angry response from my father when I complained about helping him work on a piece of broken equipment on a humid day. The sweat poured off both of us. The salt leaked into my eyes and in pain I said, “I hate this.”
Dad quickly responded, “Nope. I think you should go to the house, I will do this!”
When I retreated with the desire to stay, he said, “Go, go now.”
I rebutted, “But I can help.”
“No, I don’t need your complaining. Go play.”
I was wounded. I was wounded and healed forever. This was a transitional moment in my life. I would never leave my father under those conditions again. I am so thankful that my parents cared enough to block any ideas I might have had to be a lazy complaining bum of a child. Their desire to form a productive child has made it easier to make a difference in this world and to bring happiness and meaning to others. Our folks were not our pals; they were our parents.
These were laborious years—most of the work was not done voluntarily; instead we were obligated by our station in life, even though I didn’t realize it at the time. I can still feel the endless fatigue and perspiration from a long day with a hoe cutting weeds out of the soybean rows. We protected ourselves from the blisters and calluses by using leather gloves. There were also the scratches on my neck and chest and aching muscles from lifting several hundred bales of hay into the barn loft that readily rest in the recesses of my mind. Those were happy years despite the illnesses and hospitalizations that my parents faced and conquered. My father’s heart attack, numerous back surgeries, farm accidents that required multiple stiches, and annual bouts with poison ivy are better relived as a memory than during the times that the incidents rocked our family. My parents bent in the wind, but they never broke.
Pleasant Grove Township
Our land in the rolling hills of Pleasant Grove Township was not as fertile as the dark top-soil on the flat prairie found just ten miles north of our farm. Seventy-five percent of our land was tillable; the rest was timber. Harvest varied greatly from one part of our farm to another depending on the clay and loam in a particular field. We compensated by using more fertilizer in the less fertile areas. Nevertheless the lack of rain could virtually wipe out any growth in some areas without the loam to protect the moisture.
Farming was definitely a career dependent on faith. Crop insurance did not exist in those days, so drought or an untimely freeze could seriously lower the income of a given farmer in any year. I don’t remember a single year that we didn’t have a decent harvest, but very dry summers sent farmers to church more frequently and to their knees to pray fervently.