Life Lessons Learned

Life lessons come along at different intervals throughout our sojourn on earth. Every day can be a new class, a new opportunity to learn, if we stay in school. In reality we’re never too old or too young to learn.

As a teenager my family and I attended a Bible-believing church in southern NY. The pastor was a wonderful man of God, but it was his wife who had the bigger effect on me. I’ll call her “Mrs. H.” Mrs. H. may have been my first crush. I was only thirteen when we started attending her church. My body was growing taller at such a rapid rate I could hardly keep up. I was freckle-faced, gangly and about as coordinated as a new-born calf. I had begun to notice the opposite sex, but girls in general made me as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.

Mrs. H. was older than I was, of course, but she looked a lot like the then president’s wife, Jackie Kennedy. I doubt that she knew about my infatuation. I was content to admire her from a distance.

Mrs. H. was our teen class leader. Things she shared have stuck with me to this day, going on fifty years later. One thing she said a lot was, “Never say ‘I can’t’ say ‘I’ll try’.” I never wrote those words down or tried to memorize them, but they got etched in my psyche as if burned in oak. Her words proved true often over the years. Facing a seemingly undoable task I’d want to quit, but instead I’d give it a try, and soon it would get accomplished.

For example, while my wife and I were in Oklahoma for a year our worn out Datsun (now Nissans) developed an electrical problem. It wasn’t recharging the battery. My automotive mechanical ability is not one of my specialties, but we were very tight on finances, so I decided to take apart the alternator and replace the inner brushes. For me taking on this task was similar to a toddler taking on brain surgery. Well, I got the alternator out of the car and began to disassemble it. I could see right away that it was meant to be divided into two halves, but a thin copper wire held the two halves together with no discernable way to disconnect it. I actually considered snipping it off. If I had, my wife and I would have been without a vehicle till we saved enough money to buy a new alternator.

Before I snipped my way into bigger problems the thought crossed my mind, why not just set this project aside for awhile, re-group and then take another shot at it. I wanted to either snip or quit, but I set the alternator on some old newspaper and walked away.

After about an hour or so I picked up the alternator again, held it in my hands and studied it carefully. As I did I noticed that there was a collar around the midsection of it where the two halves merged. All I had to do was slide the collar over about half an inch and the alternator separated as clean as sliced watermelon. I replaced the brushes, reassembled the alternator, installed it back in the system and everything worked fine!

A little patience and perseverance goes a long way! I once saw a plaque that read, “Patience is a virtue, catch it if you can; found seldom in a woman, and never in a man.” (Sorry guys!)

Another life lesson concerns a time about eight years earlier. My wife and I were living in a small apartment when our first child was born, a beautiful daughter. I was just out of Bible College and trying to find a direction for my life. My dad had a great influence on me as a tractor trailer driver and a heavy equipment operator. I felt like truck driving and heavy equipment operating were ensconced in my DNA. So I got a job in a stone quarry in our area of southern Pennsylvania.

I took the job because there was a promise of operating big trucks and heavy equipment, without having built up any experience. I hired on and sure enough soon I was driving an ancient Mack Thermodyne dump truck. It had two shifters! [I’m smiling now just thinking about it!] I learned to steer with my elbow while I split-shifted those two shifters, one forward, one back, all at the same time and all while double-clutching. [It doesn’t get much better than that!]

I also got to operate a 1949 Euclid. A Euclid was one of those huge dump trucks made only for off road construction work. It had five feet high tires and weighed 25 tons. It could haul another 25 tons. It had hardly any brakes, but there was a pull-chain dangling from the roof of the cab that operated a bellowing air horn. When the other vehicles heard that horn they got out of the way! To get in and drive I had to actually climb up in. I loved driving that old thing. The job didn’t pay well, but I was gaining experience.

When winter came the quarry shut down for the most part, so the owners had to find other things for us to do. They bought an old quarry not far away, mostly just for the purpose of cutting up all of the medal to sell for scrap. An acetylene cutting torch was used to cut the medal down to workable pieces. But before the medal could be cut it had to be scraped free of any nonmetallic debris. That miserable task fell to me and few other peons.

Let me set the scene for you. It was the middle of winter just north of Philadelphia – in other words, it was cold! The work that particular day was about two stories up in an old stone bin. Our little crew had to climb a rusty ladder up over the edge and down into this bin. The bin was about fifteen feet square at the very top. It dropped straight down for about five feet, and then began to angle in on every side until it focused down to an opening of about 18 inches square. That was the chute that trucks used to pull under and fill with stone. Now it was just a hole you could just slip through and fall about 15 feet to the frozen ground.

The inside of this bin was the problem. From years of use and abuse it had small pieces of stone and even stone dust cemented into the rusty sides. Because it was now open to the weather it had accumulated ice in spots covering the cemented stone and dust. Well we climbed up there and began to chip away at this mess with shovels and spades. Keep in mind that we’re trying to balance in this angled geometric configuration so as to not fall and slide out the chute, along with handling these tools and chipping away. As you can imagine, we weren’t making much progress. So we tried hammers and chisels instead. They worked a little better, but we had to fight just to chip off minute pieces.

I don’t know why the duty fell to me. I didn’t have the most seniority. I was not a natural leader. But I found myself climbing out of the bin and down the ladder to talk with Slim.

Slim was our foreman. He reminded me of the old Jimmy Dean song, “Big John”. Remember those lyrics? “He stood six foot six, weighed 245; kind of broad at the shoulders and narrow at the hips; everyone knew you didn’t give no lip to Big John.” That was a good description of Slim. Plus his identity was bound up in the 50’s, so his jet black hair was slicked back in a duck tail haircut and oiled up so it always looked wet. He usually had a chaw of tobacco jutting out the side of his jaw. He had an ongoing challenge: anyone who could defeat him in arm wrestling could take his job. [No one ever did] He never smiled. He was just Big John, er, I mean Slim.

I walked up to Slim trying to muster an air of confidence. He turned to face me. His stare was cold and intense. I thought I could hear music in the background from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”. I swallowed with effort. The silence was deafening. I did my best to look him in the eye and started to speak. “Slim, we can’t get all that stone and stone dust off the bin,” I stammered. He paused for a moment, chewing his chaw, with no visible change in his expression. Then he leaned in even closer to my face and, without raising his voice, carved these words into my inner sanctum: “Do you mean you can’t do it, or it’ll be hard?”

I never answered that query. I just spun on my heels and strode very deliberately back to the icy bin.

How was that again, Mrs. H.? “Never say ‘I can’t’ say ‘I’ll try’!”