My village elders

It takes a village, and mine was well populated.

Father’s Day weekend is my ‘take stock’ time; gratefulness for healthy, happy, successful-in-their-own-unique-ways children, a self-check on how I’m doing as a father and grandfather.  It is also a time of reflection and a reminder of the men who played the unofficial and the codified dad and grandpa roles in my life: my dad, Gramps, my pseudo-grandfather Ivar, my uncle Don,  and stepfather Gary.  The value of what I received from all of them is incalculable  – the sum only as great as it’s multiple, generous parts.

I am simply thankful – well aware that I was blessed by having them all in my life.

Along with dad, Gramps, Ivar, Don, and Gary, there are other men that I think about on Father’s Day – gentlemen whose lives intersected with mine in a wide, ongoing array of ways for many years each; they all brought something special to the smorgasbord of skills, abilities, and character traits that make me, me.

A lengthy and impressive roster, it is.

There were Elving, Albert, Art, Cleo, Ray and Harold – all helping ride-herd on curious, rambunctious, me every Horseshoe Lake summer of my youth. Len, Henry, Win were family by choice, not blood.  Hjalmer and Palmer, father and uncle of boyhood friends and our up-the-street neighbors; master mechanics, guardians of our block, and wink-and-a-nod sages.

It’s an imposing roll call, and humbling when I stop to think of all the time and wisdom they invested in me. Each of them played very significant roles in making me into the man – the husband, father, grandfather, teacher, and leader that I am today.

The list of tactile, hard skills that I learned from these guys would fill a flash-drive: plumbing, house painting, carpentry, roofing – and my personal favorite, lumberjacking.  Master plumber Ivar and would be proud that I still mostly know my way around underneath a sink and can still handle a pipe wrench with aplomb. With satisfaction – and with a brag or two directed toward Ivar –  his best friend – and master housepainter – Elving would note that with house paint and brushes, I am more than proficient.

I’m still pretty damn good at cutting a doorway or window.

The lines of memory blur when I try to place a specific skill to the individual I got tutoring from. Even so, I learned things then learned that everyone has their own way of doing things. So much the better for me.  Youthful understanding of the concept that there is always more than one way to skin a cat has served me very well.

Truth be told, it truly was a village effort.

No matter who may have shown me how to do something, each person added their own take on how to handle such tools as chainsaws, splitting mauls,  axes, logging chains and cross-cut saws – among other tools of the wood cutting game; how and when and where and why (and why not) to use each of them.  Knowing the difference between a framing hammer and ball peen hammer is good; skill with each of them, even better.  A number of these guys took a hand in teaching me the nuances (along with their own peccadilloes and quirks) about how to drive a stick shift, change spark plugs or the oil in one of Detroit’s finest, and I still know of multiple ways to bait a fish-hook, hoe the weeds from a potato patch, scale and filet a sunfish.

That is only a partial list.

Len showed me how to use a lathe, Albert how to properly seine for minnows, and how to properly stack a cord of firewood;  Harold instructed me in how to whittle – knife safety of paramount focus, aside from the artistry. I handsremember many of those lessons vividly, and later on the looks of accomplishment and satisfaction when I showed some mastery at any of them.

Those were just some of the unique slices of tangible skills – physical expertise I was shared that stand out.  Those guys were all present and responsible for so much more than that I just listed.

I also remember others who played lesser, but powerfully important and fondly remembered roles as additional father figures; Mr. Keuken across our Minneapolis alley; Vic the taxidermist, Joe the bartender, and Birkeland the electrician – role players in my summers at the lake.  That’s how I knew them, (Vic, Joe, Birkeland, anyway) and what everyone else called them. Vic and Joe did have last names, Mr. Keuken and Mr. Birkeland had given names.  I remember my dad’s friend Bill, theatre manager and raconteur extraordinaire. There was also Ray, the anthropology professor-cum-writing-coach, and Super Joe the grocer: trust me, loving life and laughing boisterously is a learned skill.

As I peruse this list, I still know I am forgetting somebody.

To this day, I tend to get more than a bit peeved with someone when they marvel at some skill I have displayed or off-beat competency I have shared. “Where’d you learn how to do THAT?” 

Their ignorance, my bliss, I suppose.

In my days as an employment counselor, I helped develop and then taught a class on skills identification – an easy and fun assignment, as I have significant expertise in a lot of areas – and I could also honestly imbue my students with the thrill of acquiring skills and how such knowledge itself has benefitted me in learning other things.

Writing that curriculum came rather easily to me: I saw it as a tribute to all of the men on this list, and quite a few others as well

There is a popular meme that makes its rounds on Facebook pretty regularly stating  ‘Well, another day has passed and I still haven’t used algebra.’ I used to share that attitude, but I now know better. Algebra? Maybe not; but the skills that go into solving equations, the critical thought involved…oh yeah, I use all of that. But I am still lousy at algebra itself. As a high school English teacher, I constantly have students complaining that (fill-in-the-blank) skill I am trying to impart on any given day will never be of use to them.

Their ‘aha’ moments will come for them. In time.

One more aspect to the men listed above that I have always been aware and in awe of: I wasn’t their sole focus. For the most part, there was no obligation to include me in much of anything; these guys were volunteers in the purest sense of the word.  They had their own children and grandchildren, a lot of other things to occupy their time.

The skills were hands-on, as was the problem solving; the lessons often implied, frequently not grasped until after the fact.   Thanks, guys.

If you were to Venn diagram all of the key dads, granddad and facsimiles thereof in my life, the outlying rings – the ‘not in common’ stuff – would be filled to overflowing.   As a village, ‘eclectic’ would be a good name for this tribe. The inner circle – the ‘in common’ – would be full and diverse as well, and would make a good primer for how to live a life: treat people with kindness, respect, dignity. How to develop patience and put it into practice. Do onto others. Help somebody. Follow your gut and your heart, but don’t lose your head doing it. Don’t get frustrated – figure it out. Have faith, live it out.

Clichés?

A damn good instruction manual for how to live a life.

No, I do not regularly use most of the skills I mentioned here on a day-to-day or even-year-to year basis.  As an urban guy, I sadly have little need to lumberjack anymore, and adjusting a carburetor is not something I will probably ever need to do again.

It is unlikely I ’ll anytime soon be needing to shingle a cabin, patch a fiberglass canoe, or lathe a wooden flower vase – though in a pinch, I could still show the younger crowd a thing or two.  Especially on a roof; you modern day guys and your wimpy nail guns; do you even own a framing hammer?

On the other hand, maybe I will someday get a chance to again pilot a pontoon boat.  That would be exquisite.   Will I have to treat a maple dance floor with dance wax again? Probably not – but there is always hope; a man’s got to have a dream.

Oh, I still get to play cribbage from time to time, and might hopefully get a chance to get a hold of some cards and play whist again.  Or canasta, Chinese checkers, mumbly peg, the harmonica.

But I will definitely have to fix another toilet, and there will always be a room that needs a new paint job, something to be repaired or replaced, and each day brings something that needs to be brainstormed, finagled or simply figured out.  There will always be stories to tell, lessons to imbue, parables to impart, jokes to be told.   Spiritually, to me wasting a skill is sinful.

I will always write, always need to think.  I will forever need to laugh, need to cry, need to empathize. I will always need to give a damn, and to help others.

This is where the rubber meets the road. Because of what I learned back then, refined and cultured through the years, I can dive in with confidence – anytime, anyplace, anywhere. I am Mr. Problem-Solver, because of all of all of these guys.

If anybody wonders how I can always say “I got this” it is simply because…

I had them.

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