These are some of the things I learned from my father:
Never buy a car with electric windows. They always fail. Also, buy lighter colored cars: they don’t get so hot in the summer, and you don’t have to wash them so often.
You can freeze applesauce in the can, then cut the lids out and push it out like a Pop-Up frozen treat before cutting it into rounds as cold and wonderful as it’s possible to imagine on a pre-air conditioning summer’s day.
Scrambled eggs are good. Scrambled eggs with ground sausage are brilliant.
Centipede grass is the best thing for nutrient-poor, droughty soil.
Half a century ago, my dad went around our Raeford, North Carolina neighborhood with his edger, having me cut and collect the centipede runners that overgrew the street curbs of the elderly widows surrounding us.
We’d bring the long strips of grass home and plant them under the enormous oaks in our yard, under whose impenetrable shade all other grasses failed. They were supposed to knit together into a flawless green carpet.
I opposed the project. I liked digging up the back yard to make rivers and canal networks fed by a water spigot (“Spickett” in local argot), with locks and reservoirs regulated by saucers from my sister’s tea set.
It was a bootless enterprise for both of us. My sister shut down my Suez with a maternal order to surrender the saucers. And fifty years after we moved away, Google Maps still shows bare patches in the front yard. There is a lush, green backyard only because the next owner of the house cut down both oaks and pulled out the stumps.
My dad had a passion for gardening. Even in the Sandhills, you could fill a yard with shrubs and roses, day lilies and azaleas, camellias and trees. It was a far cry from the Dust Bowl days of his Texas youth, and he liked the difference. He fertilized and watered and dug and planted and bulb-separated and collected cuttings like few I ever knew.
As Only Son and Default Junior Assistant Yard Hand, I absorbed a lot. 1962, for example, I remember as the year of learning to work a posthole digger that was taller than I was.
At my mother’s behest, my dad fenced in our backyard. Previously, the yard bled over into the margins of a public park that was also the playground of John W. McLaughlin Elementary School. My mother was sure I would drag home unvetted children all the time once I started school, and the next thing you knew they would just be showing up unbidden. In that, and other ways, she was a pioneer of helicopter parenting.
My dad saw a dazzling new future once the fence went up- an escape from the horizontal. In his vision, the fence vanished, the trellis for a hundred-foot run of climbing roses, all bearing blossoms the size of cabbages. Holes were called for. Many holes.
But an inch below the surface, the beach sand soil- millions of years ago, the area was the North Carolina coast- was packed hard as concrete. I’d pry up a bit with the digger, run the water hose to loosen up the next inch or two, and repeat until the hole was deep enough to partially fill with compost and then top up with a rose.
Most childhood lessons are time-released. Having to stick to a thing long past my interest, or belief in my ability to complete it, came in handy when I took up rowing in graduate school. In races, I discovered that, while I might be sure my heart was going to burst in three more strokes, there was no stopping, no calling a time-out, and no asking for a substitute. I just had to carry on till we crossed the finish line, long after I was sure I’d already be dead.
I also learned from my dad that gardening is the calling of humanity’s Candides.
God laughs at those who make long-term plans; humans look for loopholes. President Hoover, who lived to 90, said God did not subtract from a man’s life the time he spent fly-fishing. My dad had a story about an elderly man who suddenly began ordering trees for a new orchard. His son chided him: “It will be twenty years before they bear fruit.” “Then we’d best get at it,” the old man replied. “There is no time to lose.”
My dad lived to see every one of his gardens torn out, his shrubbery uprooted, and his trees cut down, by later owners. In Raeford, his fence is 54 years old; the roses are long gone.
I never heard him say a word about any of that. He was always focused on his next project. As one aphorist has written, “the gardener is the one who has seen everything ruined so many times that (even as his pain increases with each loss) he comprehends - truly knows - that where there was a garden once, it can be again, or where there never was, there yet can be a garden.”
When I was ten we moved to western North Carolina, where the soil is red clay. Such was the insularity of my childhood. I’d only been more than fifty miles from home twice, and that was to the beach. There were places that had different kinds of dirt than home? Who knew?
Our new home in Shelby was three years old and had a boxwood at each corner. As my dad gleefully launched The Second Ten-Year Plan, I learned clay has all the pickaxe-breaking hardness of Sandhills soil, with the added charm of staining everything orange when wet.
For my dad, new experiences led to new rules. When you live in red clay country, never build a house clad in light-colored brick. And never build- or buy- a house bigger than the ones around it. It will be hard to sell, and it will irk the neighbors. But that one had nothing to do with clay, or any of our homes. It was just common sense. He was always imparting examples of that to supplement my evident deficiencies- a sort of metaphorical multivitamin.
His was a common sense, practically-oriented mind. My dad adored time-and-motion studies. To this day, I find myself mentally organizing a trip across a room in sequential segments, always handling things once. He might be checking.
Watching him play golf was like watching a finely-tuned assembly line process. He moved seamlessly, shot by shot, tee to hole, the data all neatly recorded in his ledger-clear handwriting.
Day-Timer calendar products were the oil that lubricated his highly-organized life. When I went to work for my first law firm, he sent me their catalogue.
Clutter was a moral failing my dad could not abide, because it was so easily remedied. When he left Burlington Industries in 1965, my family took a long holiday at my grandparents’ farm before the moving van got packed and he started his new job after New Year’s.
Bored, he started going into town to help out at his brother-in-law’s auto repair and Firestone store. My uncle’s inventory method was organized on the LIST system- last in, still there. When he closed the store in the late ‘90s, you could still buy the original Patty Duke TV Show board game, or a complete run of the 1960s Firestone Christmas LPs.
After a week, the store was stunningly tidier. Uncle Joe, who could make President Coolidge seem chatty, sent my dad back out to the farm, with unmistakable instructions to stay there.
As I was writing this, a stray thought came to mind which I tracked back to a 2004 New Yorker article written by Edmund Morris, President Reagan’s official biographer. He recalled, after the President died,
As anyone can see who consults Ronald Reagan’s disciplined, dogged manuscripts, he needed to impose order on chaos. He did not like to be surprised, or hustled; he liked punctuality, symmetry, sureness. Every item on his schedule was crossed off upon completion, with a triumphant arrow pointing down to the next. When travelling, he packed his own clothes, synchronizing them with his itinerary, so that each change would suit the time, occasion, and climate stops on tour. He even tried to reorder nature at Rancho del Cielo, his mountain retreat above Santa Barbara, pruning every thicket of brush, every dead madrona branch, until the skyline was as sharp as a sketch by Grant Wood.
In 1973, my dad finally got to take on nature on an evening playing field. He and my mother had an architect design a house for them. When we moved in that fall, the house was surrounded by a vast expanse of bare red clay. The Third Ten-Year Plan was launched as I left for college.
My dad was a fount of odd bits of non-gardening information. Whenever the movie of Al Jolson’s life came on TV, he’d tell us how he saw Jolson himself perform during a USO tour of Korea, then segue into how Larry Parks, who played Jolson in the biopic, ruined his career by being a Communist.
Whenever I see the original version of The Fly, I remember my dad telling me the actor Herbert Marshall had a wooden leg.
My dad grew up in the heyday of radio. When it was time to go somewhere, he’d breeze into the room booming, “Are you ready, Hezzie?” It was the opening line in broadcasts by the Hoosier Hot Shots, a jazz/swing band. They were a big act out of Chicago on WLS, a clear-channel, 50,000-watt station that blasted a signal all the way to Mexico in the 1930s and ‘40s.
We always had a radio on around the house, and in the car. Sundays, coming home from weekends at my maternal grandparents’ farm we’d listen to The Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s show, and Monitor Radio, the news and entertainment anthology.
There was The Manion Forum, a very conservative political show. The host was a Notre Dame law professor who, to my ears, was inexplicably obsessed by labor unions and some man called Rankin, who had a file everyone was concerned about.
When pocket-sized AM transistor radios came into vogue in the early 1960s, he bought me one. It cost $15 in a time of four-cent first class stamps; it’d be over a hundred bucks today. That little radio introduced me to the world outside Raeford. That was a big deal- I was eight years old and my world, inside Raeford, was about sixteen square blocks. I listened to it under my pillow in bed at night for years; its magic reach extended over half the country, far beyond WSHB (Where the Sand Hills Begin”) AM, which went off the air at sunset.
After I was born in 1955, and put my parents under house arrest, they bought a television. It was one of fifty-five million sold in America the first decade they were married. It’s a measure of how fast things change that my parents were the first generation to grow up with radio; their kids were the first to do so with television; and their grandson is among the first to grow up not knowing life without the internet.
We were a CBS family. My dad thought it a bad idea when CBS expanded the news from fifteen minutes to thirty in October 1963. They’ll pad those shows with a brick, he’d say. There’s not enough news to fill half an hour a day. He got his news from Paul Harvey, The Charlotte Observer, and the Kiplinger Washington Letter (when I graduated college, he gave me a subscription).
We watched the CBS prime-time lineup after dinner, as my dad fussed with the rotor that adjusted the antenna on the chimney (once, before we got that when I needed settling, he directed me to hold one of the TV’s rabbit ears for the next half hour. He said I grounded the signal and he really wanted to see the pending show).
Many of the big TV stars of my childhood had been the big radio stars of his childhood. My dad considered Red Skelton a genius, and let me stay up to see his weekly program. Jack Benny he didn’t find funny at all. He thought him effeminate. Charles Nelson Reilly wore his last nerve.
On the other hand, he thought the actors Paul Lynde and Wally Cox hilarious. But there were men like them out on the world, he often warned me, who were "funny", but not amusing at all. They were people to avoid and, most important, not to grow up to be like. A good, firm handshake was the best indication of who was what, he advised.
My dad- who had a death-grip handshake- was six feet tall, and stunningly good looking. Tailors and haberdashers adored him. It was as if Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man had walked in for a suit and two pairs of pants, so almost perfectly symmetrical was he.
His whole life, he was effortlessly popular. Girls fell over him when he was in high school. He managed the football team, and was class president.
My grandfather Thompson died, suddenly, in my dad’s senior year. My dad had to make his own way in the world. He joined the Air Force and served in Korea; mustered out in North Carolina in 1952, he met a pretty girl and married her after a whirlwind courtship.
My dad figured, being married, he couldn't support a family and go to college on the GI Bill too, a view he later wished someone had talked him out of. He joined Burlington Industries, then riding a wave of military contract wealth to become the largest textile firm in the world. Having been a general’s assistant was a good launch pad for a management career.
Burlington moved managers around like chessmen, and often faster. The worst of their 49 years together, my mother insisted, was 1959, when we were transferred to Drakes Branch, Virginia, a jerkwater railroad stop since the Civil War whose population peaked at 700.
My dad remembered Drakes Branch for the insight he got into Burlington’s management techniques. His first day on the job, he toured the plant, was shown his office, and was then introduced to the man he was replacing, who’d just been fired.
Wherever we lived, he fell naturally into the role of community leader. He had that aura. People insisted. Every blood drive, every United Way campaign, he was there. One measure of his magnetism, and the shadow he cast, is that to nearly all his friends and business colleagues, I was Tommy Junior.
After he turned thirty, my dad tamed what was, when roused, a volcanic temper; sanded down his Texas twang; and taught himself to be a Reagan-class public speaker and raconteur. His bell-like tenor kept him in demand at wedding services for years. With no degree of his own, he came to sit on a college board of visitors, and be an influential Republican. When my youngest sister was old enough to be home by herself after school, she’d call my mother to check in on arrival. “The congressman’s here again,” she often reported. “He says he needs a nap.”
Rheumatic fever swept my dad’s family in the Thirties. That, the privations of his war service, and his endless rounds of company and community work, laid the groundwork for a heart attack when he was 52. A second, at 64, left him a semi-invalid the last seven years of his life. Between them, he was forced into early retirement by a leveraged buyout. The Southern textile industry was in its death throes; he and his company died within a few months of each other in 2001.
My dad is buried in his adopted state, among the family he married into, in a graveyard nearly 250 years old at the end of a little-traveled country road. People came hundreds of miles, despite their own age and infirmities, to see him off, and filled the little church.
The last years of his life we both managed to grievously disappoint each other, as I’d suspected would be the case for thirty years before I finally bit the bullet and came out.
We carried on, politely, as is the family way. No one could figure out how to patch the hole, though. Nothing I tried worked; he seemed unable to try anything. When time was called on the match, the score remained 0-0.
But he and my mother got the big things right for all their kids. For that I’m grateful. By that measure, the score is 1+all the numbers of pi to nothing, in their favor.
I was prone to cack-brained schemes in my teenage years. The fact that a few worked, like a three-week scholarship to an Outward Bound-type course in the game reserves of South Africa my freshman year of college, only egged me on to court lighting to strike again.
And it did. My senior year at St Andrews, I got it in mind to pursue a graduate degree at Oxford. I won a Rotary Scholarship for overseas study; it was a princely sum that would have paid for three years of college. But when the fees schedule came with my acceptance letter, it was plain the money would barely cover the first year at Mansfield.
“You can’t not go,” my dad said, and that was that.
My second year, raging inflation on both sides of the Atlantic saw me and my fellow Americans checking the morning papers to see how much the value of our bursaries had declined overnight. When Mrs Thatcher became prime minister in May, her education secretary announced we foreigners were hoovering up university resources from deserving UK students, and jacked up our fees.
“You can’t not finish,” was all my dad said, and that was that, too.
I don’t know how he made it work. It had to be back-breaking, but he made it work. I came home a graduate in the Honours School of Philosophy, Politics and Economics.
At the end of a visit to Oxford after my finals, my parents determined to let me stay in for the summer vac and take my degree in August. It was a glorious, unmerited gift straight out of Brideshead Revisited.
On a Scottish visit to some St. Andrews friends studying at the original St Andrews, I sent my parents a postcard of a particularly picturesque university scene. “When I finish in Oxford, can I do my Ph.D here?”, I asked in the cheeky spirit of the author Max Beerbohm (In 1899, he wrote of his university days, “I was a modest, good-humoured boy. It is Oxford that has made me insufferable.”)
My dad replied on the back of a postcard of the Court Square in Shelby:
“No. Come home. Love, Dad.”
I have to stop writing now. See, there’s a half-lot copse next to my house. A hundred-foot-wide wall of trees, it blocks nearly all the morning sun between its edge and the driveway.
The two big oaks in the front yard, the three in the back, and the house, block most of the afternoon sun. As a result, from the street, all the way to the back corner of the lot, is a strip where no grass grows.
I have to go see my 85-year-old-neighbor- a widow- across the street. I want to see if she’ll let me transplant some centipede grass from her backyard. Centipede grass is the best thing for nutrient-poor, droughty soil.