One reader asked me when and how I learned to be a self-motivated and responsible person. Looking back, I have to wonder whether this was something I was deliberately taught, or something that was so common that I was bound to emulate it, or maybe a little of both.
Earliest lessons consisted of learning table manners, learning please and thank you, and learning to be quiet in church. No problem. At five I fetched tools for my dad, and I learned to dread the criticism, "Never send a boy to do a man’s job." At six I learned how to use and care for a shotgun. At seven I learned how to care for and milk a cow, and how to drive the Model T flatbed truck in the hayfields. At eight I learned how to drive a tractor, and prepare the fields for planting. I think this was the normal drill for a farm boy growing up during the forties. However, I don’t know if my dad’s method of teaching was normal.
He was a thoughtful and soft-spoken man, and he didn’t waste words. For example, I liked to go with him into the fields, riding on the fender of the tractor, and one day he told me to sit in the driver’s seat. I was delighted; I had been waiting, and secretly practicing, for this moment for months. But when he told me to push in the clutch, I couldn’t do it; I wasn’t big enough, or strong enough, even with both feet. He only waved my feet away, depressed the clutch himself, and pointed to the gear shift. I put the tractor in gear, he let out the clutch, and away we went. We were plowing that day, and he let me go a few rounds before stepping off the moving tractor. He walked away, sat on a rock under a tree, and watched for a while. The next time I looked, he was gone. I was scared, elated, and very proud to be trusted like that. He returned two hours later, boarded the tractor, and stopped it. He nodded, waved me back to the fender, and drove home. He never did say anything.
After that, dad would simply announce my task for the day, and say, "Let’s get you started." He’d drive me out to the field, get the tractor going, and leave me there. Eventually, I grew big enough to handle the clutch, and then I was on my own for the whole job.
Kids get in trouble, of course, and I think a lot of learning responsibility comes from learning how everybody involved responds to that trouble. When I was about fourteen, dad told me to take a load of corn to the commercial granary to be ground for cow feed. It was a sunny winter day, probably a January thaw, and the packed snow and ice on the roads appeared to be melting. I loaded the wagon (by hand), and set out on this eight-mile journey. The tractor handled the slush on the road fine until I came to a small valley where the ice and snow had not melted. There the tires lost traction, and the whole rig slid sideways to a drop-off on the edge of the road. I stopped. I tried to figure out what to do. Tricycle tractors are notorious for tipping over on a hillside. As I saw it, I couldn’t move forward, or backward. I turned it off, set brakes, blocked wheels, and walked to the nearest farmhouse to call home. Dad was furious, though not at me. He drove out, looked the situation over, waved me aside, backed that rig down the hill, and then gunned it, slipping and sliding, to the top on the other side. I ran up the hill, expecting I don’t know what, but he was just sitting there with a small smile on his face. He laid a hand on my shoulder in passing, and I went on to finish the job.
Times change. I was unable to offer my children that kind of rural experience, mainly because I was inclined toward something completely different myself. But I applied my own early lessons as I thought appropriate to our urban home environment, such lessons as the Golden Rule, teach by example, learn from mistakes, keep your eyes open, rise to your potential, do the job right, and meet your own expectations. Each one of us is responsible for what we do in life, good, bad, or indifferent, and there is no escape from the reputation we create with ourselves. Somehow I got the message, and somehow my children got the message as well. When and how? Darn. That’s real hard to say.