If still living, my father would be celebrating his 100th birthday this week.
Unfortunately he only lived to be 71 years old. As far as I’m concerned his life was way too short. After I reached adulthood my father and I became good friends. Not so much before that.
I was a challenging child – at least that’s how I choose to see it. I didn’t try to do things to irritate my parents, they just sort of happened. I remember one of many conversations with my big brother about life. He told me that before he did anything he thought about how his actions would impact our parents. I was amazed. Such thoughts never entered my mind. If I wanted to do something, I weighed the impact it might have on me and if the results were something I thought I could live with I did it. So I was often in the doghouse it the McConnell household. Dad and I had many chats. Well, not exactly chats. He talked and I listened. The less I said the better the outcome for me.
My earliest memories of my Dad were waiting for him to come home to deal with some of my misbehavior. Please understand, my mother had no problem dealing out some discipline; she just saved the heavy lifting for dad. Like Bill Cosby said of his parents, when dad got home mother only had one thing to say – “Kill the child.” Fortunately, much like his younger son, dad often failed to follow my mother’s instructions. Thus, I survived childhood.
My dad was a worker and felt it was his task as a father to teach his children the joy of hard work and the accomplishments it brought. Every Saturday, while my friends were in the house watching morning cartoons, my dad always had a project lined up for my brother and I to do. Every project was a learning experience and dad was a great teacher. Over the years I learned how to cut the grass (First with a mechanical push mower.), build fences, fix small engines, cut down trees and split firewood, plant trees and bushes, shovel and haul manure (Not difficult to learn.), build a rock damn on a creek, take care of a dog, plant, cut, strip and house tobacco, cut and house hay, raise hogs, repair and paint a barn, repair a roof, replace a broken window, balance a checkbook, develop a budget, change a tire, and the list could go on forever. My dad could work anyone he ever met right into the ground. I often thought he would never announce that it was quitting time. Sundown didn’t necessarily stop the work.
Dad was fun and interesting to work with. He was always teaching. He had a great sense of humor. And lunch was good and he paid for it. I have often thought that the best meal in the world was bologna and cheese on crackers with a Pepsi and eaten sitting on the tailgate of his truck. The man could work you into the ground. I have never seen such stamina. One steaming hot summer day, Dad, my brother and I were building fence on the farm. When we paused my father looked around and asked where my brother had gone. I looked over in the weeds and discovered the body. Bob had passed out in the heat. Dad had hardly broken a sweat.
Ah, his truck. It served many purposes besides being our dining room table for lunch. It was always the cheapest model available. No air conditioning, three speed transmission on the column, power nothing and white. But riding in it with dad was always and adventure. Mother called him, “The most dangerous man in Henry County Kentucky”… because dad never paid any attention to his driving. He was busy looking at the crops in the fields we were passing or counting how many head of cattle the neighbors had. It seems dad’s policy was to drive down the middle of the road and it was everyone else’s responsibility to get the hell out of the way. I lived through several heart stopping moments riding in that truck… most of them experienced at the crest of a hill. Near the end of his life I drove him across Kentucky to a meeting during an ice storm. When we arrived back home he said, “You are a very good driver.” I told him that compliment would have meant more coming from someone else. Mother spent her life convinced my father would die in a traffic accident.
My father was a wise man and he didn’t mind sharing that wisdom. Unfortunately most of it was shared with me while I was still a know-it-all teenager so it fell on deaf ears. Dad had two favorite lecture halls. If he was dispensing wisdom, it was in the bathroom. He sat on the pot and the receiver sat on the edge of the tub. We had sliding glass shower doors so one didn’t actually sit on tub, but on the relatively narrow channel the doors slid in. it took the channel approximately 20 minutes to cut off the circulations to my legs and I lost all feeling in them. I always stood up post lecture and reeled around the house like a drunk. As my legs deadened I lost all interest in the lecture and could only concentrate on the process of feeling my legs go to sleep.
Dad’s other lecture hall was his in home office. This was reserved for the angry, you-have-really-screwed-up-this-time lectures. Unfortunately for both of us, I attended a rather large number of these lectures. Occasionally the invitation to the office puzzled me; I had no idea what it had done wrong. Most of the time I had no doubts. One of my father’s favorite ploys was to ask, “Is there anything you need to tell me.” Sometimes he followed up with, “Confession is good for the soul.” I learned from my older siblings that the safe and proper answer was, “I love you, Dad.” Rarely would I deny any wrong doing, but I made it a policy to never admit to anything.
Just as I had the distraction of taking notice of how long it took my legs to go to sleep in the bathroom lectures, I had a distraction in the office lectures. Dad invariably started every office talk by declaring, “Now, I’m not going to get mad.” He got mad every time. There were two distractions connected with this. The first was, how long would it take before he was completely out of his mind with anger? In my experience it usually took between 90 and 120 seconds. The second distraction was that special vein in his forehead. About two minutes into the lecture and his anger was peaking, a vein on his forehead would stand out about an inch and pulsate. It was mesmerizing. I kept waiting for it to explode. Somehow it always managed to make it through the talk intact.
Dad had grown up in a time and place without television or radios. They didn’t even have electricity during most of his childhood. For entertainment they set out on the porch and told stories. He became a master story teller. Many a summer evening we sat on the porch and listened to dad tell stories of his childhood. When dad told a story you could see the people he described, feel and smell the environment and hear their voices. Dad described “Uncle Lem’s” laugh as a come-back laugh. When he described Mide Fogg’s face I could imagine her dark sparkling eyes and see every wrinkle. In my mind’s eye I can still see her tiny cabin tucked back in a Kentucky hollow. I can hear Uncle Theodore yelling into a stubborn mule’s face, “You think you’re smarter than me? I’ll have you know I graduated from high school.” What could be funnier than when his very stoic and no nonsense father fell off a hay rake because his brother had failed to sufficiently tighten the bolt holding the seat? He immediately jumped up looking for someone to give a good hiding. Granddaddy found himself surrounded by the most innocent looking boys imaginable.
Dad spent many hours teaching me and my brother the ins and outs of baseball and basketball. He even built a driveway turnaround that was the size of half of a basketball court. He could shoot a two hand underhand set shot from half court that got nothing but net. Over and over and over. He was even better at teaching baseball. We built a backstop in the far corner of the yard and my brother and I spent thousands of hours pitching and batting. In high school I lettered in baseball and Bob became a superstar. His pitching ability was renown all over the state of Kentucky. The first day one of us hit a ball far enough to hit the house and break a window, dad was thrilled. He even took the time to coach some of our kid’s league teams.
Mom and dad’s philosophy about vacations was, “If you take the kids, it isn’t a vacation.” Most vacations we kids stayed home under the watchful eye of one of our strange and entertaining aunts. The only family vacation I remember was an eternity long road trip to Florida. The car was hot and crowded (Five kids), the motels were hot and crowded and the beach was hot and crowded. Dad’s favorite form of fun was to float us out from the beach on an inner tube and then claim he saw a jellyfish. Without fail one of us kids would flail around avoiding the phony jellyfish and fall off the tube. Dad thought that was hysterical.
Dad brought a never ending line of strange characters to the house. Most remembered was Mr. Wiekel. Harold Wiekel was much older than dad but loved to hang around with him. Mr. Wiekel showed up most Saturday morning excited about helping dad with whatever project he had cooked up. The most memorable thing about Wiekel was his shaky hands. They never stopped shaking and we boys couldn’t take our eyes off of them – especially during lunch. I will never know if mom did it on purpose but it seems she served either soup or a vegetable like peas every time Mr. Wiekel came over. Our mouths gaped open as we watched to see if Wiekel’s eating instrument would make it to his mouth with any trace of food on it.
Like many veterans of World War II, dad made a promise to God that if he survived the war he would go to church. He was a man of his word. So the McConnell family showed up at church every time the doors opened. Church was central to our family social circle. At church mom and dad made lifelong friendships. Their friend’s children became our friends. The McConnell house was always full of family and friends. On Saturday mornings, before fixing breakfast, mom would do a “body count” so she would know how many to prepare for. There was much love and laughter in that house and dad was always right at the center of it all.
Unfortunately for my kids, my dad was a much better father than I turned out to be. I was lucky to have him and I still miss him.
Copyright © 2015, William T. McConnell, All Rights Reserved
Bill McConnell is Senior Minister at Lindenwood Christian Church in Memphis, Tennessee and is a Church Transformation consultant and a Christian Leadership Coach. He is a frequent speaker at Church Transformation events. His latest book on church transformation is DEVELOPING A SIGNIFICANT CHURCH and is available at Westbow Press.