“When given full freedom, many men will piddle.”
In this inspirational fictional, middle-aged professor Adam Cherry finds himself alone on Father’s Day. His guarded excitement over having the entire day to piddle the day away on his newly acquired horse farm is progressively dampened by one unexpected interruption after another. Each quirky interruption elicits a response shaped by a poignant interaction with a male role model from his past. As his special Father’s Day crumbles, Adam reflects upon the fatherly influence of seven male role models, culminating in his reflections on a moving and emotional Father’s Day that he spent with his own father.
The story unfolds as a subtle, yet powerful message about the importance of fathers and mentors. Andrews suggests that these influences are not derived from lengthy conversations or direct instruction. Rather, it’s the distinct and impressionable moments in everyday interactions that matter, are remembered, and have profound influence.
“My Father’s Day Gift will have you remembering those in your life who saw something in you before you saw it in yourself.” – Wes Moore – Bestselling author of The Other Wes Moore.
Read an Excerpt from the Book
He was staring out the trailer window into the darkness when I awoke with my eyes burning from the tobacco smoke. We now refer to them as “mobile homes,” but in the south in the late 1970s, political correctness wasn’t necessarily extended to the white, working poor. It was still acceptable, at least where I grew up, to openly acknowledge that a loved one lived in a trailer.
Inside the trailer was a round, Formica-topped table with a convenient panel on either side that folded up to yield more space in the cramped room. This morning, one side was down and was pushed flush against the bottom of the kitchen window. The window looked out onto the tin-covered concrete slab that functioned as a front porch. Sitting at the end of the table angled toward the window, he searched the pre-dawn shadows.
I stopped in the trailer’s kitchen doorway not eighteen inches from the bedroom I’d just exited. He didn’t change position, didn’t alter his gaze, didn’t even acknowledge my presence. The ashes on the cigarette he held loosely in his strong, stained fingers had grown long. Gravity bent the ashes toward the floor.
An empty coffee cup on the table was the only clue that, for him, this morning differed from any other morning of the past 53 years. Eight days prior, before my grandmother died, he would have been sitting in the same spot waiting for daylight, but his cup would have been full. Mildred, in her threadbare cotton gown, would have already made the coffee, while the slight, five-foot-seven-inch Gus would already have slipped into his blue Sears and Roebuck work pants and matching shirt.
At first, I thought the empty cup was symbolic of his loss. Perhaps sitting in front of the window with one of his favorite morning pleasures (the first cigarette of the day) but without the other (the first coffee) was his own, unknowing tribute to her memory.
“Uh-umm,” I cleared my throat unnecessarily.
Freed from his trance, but not startled, he looked in my direction. Granddaddy Gus stood purposefully and made his way across the small kitchen to slowly open the cupboard directly above the empty coffee pot. He rifled through its contents, eventually securing filters in one hand and a tin can of Folger’s coffee in the other. He stared at them like he’d discovered moon rocks misplaced by the Apollo 11 crew.
The empty cup, it turned out, had no symbolism at all. Granddaddy Gus just didn’t know how to make coffee. Over the next few days, I would learn that he couldn’t make breakfast, do the laundry, buy groceries, or pay the bills, either. I watched him answer the phone, but I bet he didn’t know which three-number combination to dial in case of an emergency.
Mildred and Gus were married at 15 and had my mother, Helen, at age 16. One might assume that hormones having kicked in, they had slipped away to share a night of teenage passion, and subsequently were forced to marry by strong Southern Baptist parents, worried about the family’s image in their small, rural Georgia community. Not quite.
One spring day, my great grandmother left eight-year old Mildred with distant relatives and never returned. While no one in our family has invested much time in genealogy, mention of my great grandfather is conspicuously absent and leads me to assume he might be unknown. I once heard that “he went to war.” There’s even a fuzzy, faded picture of a man in uniform, but I wonder. I assume that those who pursue the family’s roots are looking for laudable links and traits. Those who don’t bother to look sometimes fear that what they find will disappoint.
Gus’s parents died when he was a young child, and he was raised, if you can call it that, by a bachelor uncle. Gus and Mildred met in the third grade. By all accounts, as sketchy as they might be, they instantly became the family neither ever had. By the ninth grade, they decided that marriage, not school, was their future. Mom was born a year later.
Never one to mince words, Mildred was graphic and excruciatingly direct. As an impressionable eight-year-old, I vividly remember her dispassionate description of her best friend’s untimely death from a heart attack. “Mabel dropped dead!” she told my brother and me matter-of-factly.
Mildred dropped dead of a similar heart attack on July 6, 1979. When we received the call, I was 20 years old and home from college, spending the summer doing odd jobs. She had always struggled with her weight, smoked like a chimney, and for years reported sporadic chest pains. Nonetheless, her sudden death shocked us all.
Over the next few days, the immediate family gathered in the small trailer. My mom, her sister and brother, their families, my father, and my brother all squeezed into the small space to comfort my grandfather. The funeral service attracted a few friends, but not as many as I expected. This was a woman who seemed to regularly draw unexpected visitors from the woods surrounding her secluded south Alabama trailer.
The days after her death passed quickly and before the natural flowers accompanying Grandma Mildred from the funeral home to her grave site could fully wither, family members began excusing themselves back into their busy lives. I wasn’t due back at college until late August, and the odd jobs I was finding weren’t generating much cash. My availability was noted by Mom and her siblings as they pondered ways to help Granddaddy through this difficult transition. I loved the crusty old guy and had always enjoyed spending time with him, so convincing me to change my summer plans was an easy sell. I happily agreed to stay on in the trailer and help Granddaddy build his new life.
As a psychology professor at a world-class university, I’ve had the good fortune to spend time with some pretty bright folks—noted scholars, university presidents, Nobel Prize winners, renowned business leaders, and even a few smart politicians who defied the apparent oxymoron. The next few weeks with Gus Payne, a man who initially couldn’t make his own coffee, would confirm what I’d suspected for as long as I could remember: Granddaddy was one of the smartest, most creative people I’d ever encounter.
I’m not certain how much or how well he could read, but it didn’t seem to matter. He had the uncanny ability to study objects and their function and recreate them regardless of their complexity. He would walk through Sears expressly looking for things he not only could make, but whose designs he could improve upon. He was a world-class engineer and inventor, a diesel mechanic trapped by poverty and a lack of educational opportunity.
When my grandmother decided to get into the ceramics business, Gus discovered a way to make molds that would reproduce any object she wanted for her inventory. She would purchase a ceramic vase at the discount store on Tuesday, he’d make a mold of it by Thursday, and by the weekend, they would be mass-producing as many copies of the trademark violating object as time would allow. Unfortunately, the demand for these country-made ceramics was severely limited by my grandmother’s taste for tacky vases, and by her lack of both patience and artistic ability in applying the finishing glaze. Gus made so many molds that he had to keep building additions to the shed he’d assembled for Mildred’s business next to the trailer.
When he needed a new tractor, he pulled out his welder and started bending, cutting, and connecting metal until he’d designed and built a small tractor perfect for his needs— compact enough to make tight turns in a smaller garden, but with enough ground clearance to weed between the rows as the peppers, beans, and okra began to grow tall under the summer sun. A pea-sheller, an automatic watering device for rabbit cages, and a flat-bottom boat to navigate the shallows were among his innovations that left a mark on my childhood memory.
Most memorable, however, were the activities he crafted specifically for my brother and me. He once provided the materials and just enough guidance for us to discover the joy of nailing two ends of a long piece of old inner-tube to the trunks of two trees, creating a supersized slingshot capable of catapulting large, rotten watermelons toward the path travelled by younger, unsuspecting cousins. When we were a bit older, he prompted us to discover fermentation, using scuppernong grapes, sugar, and a bit of yeast. Mom wasn’t very happy when her young teens got tipsy tasting the results, but Granddaddy found it most entertaining.
His appreciation and commitment to “learning by doing” was ahead of its time, and he was a master at leading us to a solution without solving it for us. He once parked his old truck in the middle of a large field and asked if we wanted to drive it.
“Yes!” we screamed in delight.
“Keys are in it” is all he said.
We ran to the manual-shift truck, eager to take it for a spin around the open field. Obviously, we’d seen people drive, but we’d never paid much attention to manual shifting. Three days later, we were only able to move the truck a few yards before stalling the motor. When we asked him to teach us to drive it, he answered with a question: “What do you need to know?”
Over time, we discovered that he only answered very specific questions, and even then, it would be with either a “yes” or a “no.”
We asked, “Does it have something to do with that stick in the floorboard?”
Then, “How about the pedals?”
“Will you show us?”
Through trial and error, combined with an occasional verbal affirmation, we finally discovered the basics, and after several days could jerk the old pickup around the field, much to Granddaddy’s delight. Of all our experiences with him, none had greater impact than the frightening snake we encountered as pre-teens.
Granddaddy hated snakes. If he saw a snake and could get his hands on a stick or a hoe, it was a dead snake. Poisonous or non-poisonous, it didn’t matter. One day, as we were walking down from the garden to the trailer, a six-foot long Sidewinder snake quickly slithered across the dirt road and into the grass on the other side. It looked particularly menacing because of its length.
Granddaddy sprang into action, searching for and finding a good-sized stick, then moving quickly to relocate the retreating snake in the grass. Impressionable and fearless when led by Granddaddy, brother Sam and I picked up smaller sticks and followed suit. Granddaddy brushed the grass back and forth with the stick until he found the back half of the snake. The front half was already half-way down a hole. Granddaddy took a couple of wild swings at the fast moving tail, but the snake disappeared before Granddaddy could inflict any observable damage. With the snake now safely in the hole, Granddaddy looked at us and asked, “Ideas?” Sam immediately spoke up. “Smoke him out!”
I wasn’t exactly certain where Sam got the idea or what he had in mind, but it sounded like fun to me. “Yeah!” I shouted.
Granddaddy slowly walked about twenty yards to the shelter he’d built for his homemade tractor. He retrieved a red, metal, two-gallon can of gasoline. We waited at the snake hole. When Granddaddy returned, he handed the can to Sam and his cigarette lighter to me. I immediately thought how fortunate we were that our mother wasn’t around.
Sam smiled broadly and immediately began pouring gasoline through the spout into the hole. Granddaddy let him pour about half a gallon before putting his hand on Sam’s shoulder as an indication that he’d used enough. I was moving in quickly with the lighter when he stopped me with: “Whoa, there!”
Undoubtedly thinking twice about the wisdom of letting his eleven-year-old grandson throw fire into a hole just filled with gasoline, he took the lighter from me and motioned for me to move to the side of the hole. As a diesel mechanic, he always had handy a dirty rag to check whatever fluids were in question. He pulled the old rag from his back pocket, took my stick, wrapped the rag around the stick, poured a small amount of gasoline on the rag, and lit it.
Now holding my shoulder to make sure I stayed to the side of the hole, he handed me the unlit end of my four-foot stick. I immediately thrust the fire rag toward the hole. The moment the rag touched the saturated earth, flames were sucked deep inside. Seconds later, the ground beneath us rumbled as fire shot two feet into the air.
“Maaaannnn,” Sam drawled, stretching out the word as only a Southern youngster could.
“Yeah, how ya like that, snake?” I added with pride, handing the stick to Granddaddy. The fire on the stick and around the hole quickly extinguished itself, but Granddaddy stomped around the grass at the hole’s edge to make certain.
“Show’s over,” he said, and we turned from the hole and headed toward the trailer.
With no warning, six feet of snake suddenly flew from the hole as if shot from a cannon, its head fully engulfed in fire. Sam and I never saw it fall dead to the ground. We were dashing to the trailer, not taking precious time to look back. When we reached the safer confines of the porch, we finally glanced back to see Granddaddy, bent over and slapping both thighs in laughter. The snake lay with smoking head in the grass by his side.
Those precious boyhood memories were challenged in the weeks after my grandmother’s death. Yet, quickly I began to understand. It wasn’t that Granddaddy couldn’t figure out how to make coffee. He’d simply never had reason to think about it. For 53 years, his coffee was waiting for him whenever he made his way to the kitchen table. He never thought much about how it got there. The division of responsibility in Gus and Mildred’s life was complete. Making coffee was as foreign to Gus as changing the carburetor on a pickup truck would have been to Mildred.
That first morning, I feigned my own coffee-making ignorance to reduce his embarrassment, and when we made it together, we were silently proud of our success. This respectful approach defined our relationship for the next few weeks as together we “figured out” how the washing machine and other appliances worked, where the extra toilet paper was stored, and which brand of peanut butter was our favorite.
Making coffee was the first of many collaborative efforts to recreate the life Mildred had built and maintained for him. We cooked bacon in the cast iron skillet and floated fried eggs in the residual grease. We made grits, reading the required ratio of grits-to-water from the round container but eventually guessing about the amounts because Mildred’s kitchen wasn’t equipped with measuring devices.
On that very first day, Granddaddy decided he could help me develop a few new skills of my own. Semi-retired from his lifelong job as a diesel mechanic, he continued to use his mechanical skills to provide low-cost repairs to friends and neighbors with ailing farm equipment. As soon as he finished breakfast, he stood up and donned a bright yellow Caterpillar cap.
“You comin’?” he said, walking toward the trailer door. He was on his way out to work and expected me to join him.
I was still in shorts and a t-shirt. Dishes remained on the table and a skillet of warm bacon grease was still on the stove, surrounded by a carton of eggs and uncooked bacon. By the time I threw on some jeans, stashed the remaining eggs and bacon in the refrigerator, collected the dirty dishes in the sink, and hastily used a few sheets of single-ply paper towel to rake off table crumbs, he was sitting in the truck. By the time I slapped some peanut butter onto bread slices for our lunch and filled the thermos with what was left in the coffee pot, the truck motor was running. As we pulled away from the trailer, the sun peeked over the horizon.
We followed the dirt road to a paved county road, then to the potato farm where we would spend the day. The potatoes were ready for harvesting, but the “tater digger” was broken. We spent the better part of the morning largely in silence, trying to figure out what was wrong with a conveyor belt designed to transport freshly dug potatoes off of the ground to a height allowing them to free-fall into a truck.
He stood patiently as I traced the intended path of the potatoes up the conveyor belt. From a distance, he watched as I pulled on this and that, started the engine to see what moved and what didn’t, and eventually noticed that one rotating cog in the overall scheme of parts moved freely without engaging any others. As soon as I made this discovery, he moved in and handed me the perfectly-sized wrench to remove the bolt that would allow us to replace the pin, which had sheared off when the belt became overloaded with potatoes. The replacement pin was in his pocket. Obviously, from the time of our arrival, he had understood the problem and solution just as well as I had understood how to make coffee.
While I felt a great sense of accomplishment in finding the problem on my own, no big celebration erupted in support of my discovery. We changed the pin and unceremoniously moved on to other farm-fixing tasks. By three o’clock, we finished our work and headed back to the 10-acre woods and the trailer.
Granddaddy entered and went straight back to the small bathroom to wash his grease- and grime-ridden hands. While presumably clean, there was little change in their appearance after washing. They always looked like he’d just closed the hood of a broken-down dozer.
I filled the kitchen sink with hot water to wash the breakfast dishes, lamenting the lack of an automatic dishwasher. He assumed his usual position at the kitchen table, gazing out the window. It took me a short while to figure out that he was waiting for supper. Country folks, especially older country folks, eat early. It was 4:00 p.m., we had just walked in the door, and he was ready for supper.
Two weeks earlier, he would have entered the trailer to the smell of fried chicken and Crowder peas—not the little frozen green peas you get from a bag, but fresh brown Crowders resembling black-eyed peas, only much smaller. The peas would surround a ham hock in a bowl already placed on the table, along with piping-hot fried chicken and warm rolls.
He would have followed the same path to the back of the trailer to wash his hands. On his way, he would have passed by Mildred, standing in front of the stove, and pinched her butt. She would have playfully called him a “bald-headed bastard.” After his failed attempt to change the appearance of his hands, he would return to join her at the table, where his plate would be full and waiting. This three-minute ritual had defined the end of his every workday for over five decades. Now there was no fried chicken, and there were no Crowder peas. He seemed puzzled that dinner hadn’t found its way to the table.
I rummaged through the fridge looking for something I could make quickly. Fortunately, a turkey carcass was left over from our days of mourning. I pulled meat from the carcass and began boiling water for rice. He sat staring out the window while we waited for the water to boil.
It’s said that a “watched pot never boils.” Neither of us was actually watching the pot, but his outward, silent gaze made it seem like hours before the first tiny bubble rose to the surface. We’d said very little to each other all day. He rarely spoke. As a child, I was usually verbose (I’ve remained so into adulthood), but I respected my grandfather’s pithy communication and responded in his presence only when necessary. This current silence, however, was profoundly different from the working silences of learning by doing.
I’m not certain he’d ever thought about how dinner, like morning coffee, made its way onto the table, nor that he appreciated the challenge of having chicken, peas, and whatever else hot and on the table at the exact moment he walked in from a hard day’s work.
We made it through the day and the weeks that followed without starving. After I went back to school, Gus didn’t die of loneliness. Rather, he engaged his innovative mind in solving household challenges. The second week, he bought a microwave. Mildred never had a microwave, and Granddaddy Gus took great pride in discovering what he considered innovative technology perfectly suited to his needs. He was not threatened by his lack of knowledge because none of his peers, male or female, could use a microwave either. Through pure experimentation, he learned to microwave most of what he needed and took quiet but obvious pride in his new skills.
I left him, having gained a few new mechanical skills and a much deeper understanding of how necessary my grandparents were to one another. I also walked away from the smoky trailer with an insight into learning that would permanently shape my professional and personal life. Sometimes folks have to figure things out for themselves. They don’t always need a lecture from a professor. They just need a little support and the right wrench, or microwave at just the right time.
One of Gus’s favorite sayings was, “If you’re not going to use your head, you might as well have two asses.” He used this phrase to characterize questionable choices I’d made as a child. I fully expected to hear it many more times during the weeks after my grandmother’s passing. I didn’t hear it that first day, or ever again.