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Part One: “Listen to Your Father (and the Septic System Repairman)” or “I Think I Dig It”
“Listen, my sons, to a father’s instruction.” -Proverbs 4:1
The summer after my freshman year of college, I got a job working on a Texaco Tank Farm in Port Arthur, Texas. We showed up every morning at 6:30 a.m. to receive our assignment, which was never very glamorous and always grueling. The work entrusted to us usually required some kind of shovel and a very strong back. I got the position because my father was employed by Texaco in Houston. Technically, he worked for the Texas Pipeline Company, a division of Texaco. He started out literally digging ditches and laying pipe. He had an extraordinary work ethic, was likeable, smart, and motivated. The first day I showed up for work, both supervisors (Carnes and Broussard) welcomed me, looked me in the eye and told me the same thing but at different times: “Son, I knew your daddy way back in the day. If you work half as hard as your dad, you’ll do the work of two men.” I worked damn hard that summer. You have no choice with a set-up like that.
Over the years, having inherited my father’s propensity not to shy away from any arduous task, I likely spent way too many hours devoted to defining my self-worth by my working-self. However, the work I’ve spent my energy on rarely involved the back-breaking labor of digging a ditch. In fact, for many years, I didn’t even own a shovel. On the rare occasion that I needed one, I’d simply borrow one. My work required a different set of tools: a Bible, lots of books, a fast computer, a good sound system, an expansive CD collection, a writing tablet, and a skillful editor. I still need those same tools to engage in my vocation of writer, priest, and music collaborator, but now that I live on a ranch in the country, I’ve found my “practical” tool collection expanding exponentially. I’ve already acquired a barn full of farm implements (well, gardening tools, if you insist). My battery-powered string trimmer has led me into battle against the boldest barnyard varietals and the toughest Texas weeds. I now know the difference between burdock and bull nettle, and could expound on the virtues and vices of each. A lawnmower and chainsaw are next on my list, and no longer do I have to ask for directions at my nearest Lowe’s, Home Depot, Tractor Supply, or Farm and Ranch Feed Store & Mercantile.
Every day brings a new challenge – a challenge that usually requires a tool, implement, sturdy back, gloves, boots, and mosquito spray – or at least knowing someone in possession of all those items plus skill and experience. A few days ago, our septic system sprung a leak. Years ago, such a statement might’ve sent me quivering in panic toward the nearest Hyatt. Today, that awareness simply elicits a phone call to the local Ace Hardware – an amazing place that specializes in the installation and maintenance of such systems. Technically, what we have on our land is a small, onsite-wastewater treatment plant. I got a call from Hank, one of the owners of the company, who came out to our place as soon as he could work us in. He was a kindly, older gentleman with silvering hair, a mustache, and glasses. When I told him that I was new to the country lifestyle and really didn’t know much about septic systems, he took his time and began teaching me about the intricacies of breaking down waste, from the difference between aerobic and anaerobic bacteria, to evaluating the efficacy of an aerator and pump, to changing the sprinkler heads from a 360 to 180 degree spray. He gave me his cell number and told me to call if my system alarm went off or if I had issues or questions. He also confided that “my wife isn’t too happy if people call me after hours? But I’m the one who gave ‘em my number.”
I’ve learned real fast that here in rural America, when people show up to do a job, in addition to working hard and charging you a fair price, they want to talk. They want to get to know you and assume that you want to get to know them, too, which in fact, I very much do. After Hank had taught me more than I have a right to know about septic principles, he started digging down to find the leak. He used a long, narrow shovel that some might call a drain spade, not to be confused with a trench shovel, which is similar in design. My shovel inventory consists, thus far, of only one pointed digger, a traditional all-purpose shovel. But for Hank’s purposes, digging down several feet to expose a pipe, his model, combined with what my dad would’ve called “elbow grease,” got the job done. After he repaired the “leaky elbow joint” and I watered my newly planted sod, we got back together and did a little internal digging – beneath the surface, and all the way to the soul. We started talking about values, work, family, and God.
Hank told me about his father’s death not that long ago. “He was a good man at peace with his Maker and he was ready to go to the other side,” Hank said. He shared that not long after his father died, he appeared to him in a dream. It was a short dream, as his dad was not big talker. He told his son simply: “It’s all true and God sees all.” Hank found great hope in this wisdom shared by his father. “We all need some hope,” he told me. “We need to know we’re on the right path.” He shared that dream with his pastor and with his men’s bible study group. I asked him about his home church, and he told me he and his family attended “Martin Luther” in the town where the Ace Hardware is located, just fifteen minutes away. Around here, given the large German influence, it’s just assumed that everybody’s Lutheran.
We talked about his German heritage and the value of hard work. “I still see it in some of the younger generation” he observed. He spoke of his four children and how proud he was of each of them. One of them is a nurse, and they’re all doing good work in the world. “I’d rather my kids be famous than me. That shows that I’ve done something right.” I shared that one of my best friends is a Lutheran pastor. His face lit up. “Where’d he go to seminary?” he wondered. I told him it was the one in Minnesota, realizing later that in Minnesota there could be as many Lutheran seminaries as there are lakes. He countered, “Well, you know here in small-town Texas we have a few small differences with the seminary folks.” He reiterated that they were “small” differences in the grand scheme of things. He shared how his faith, his spiritual community, and his family all brought him great joy. He mused that someday he might retire and entertain selling the business but pointed out that anybody running such a specialized business would “have to know what they’re doing. You must have the knowledge and experience as well as work ethic. Or at least be open to learn.”
I’d add that you have to have the right tools. And you have to be willing to dig deep, beneath the surface. And it helps if you care about your customers. As I looked at my watch, a habit I engage in with far less frequency here at the ranch, I realized Hank had been with me – showing, teaching, evaluating, digging, repairing, sharing – for two hours. The time had flown past. When you work hard, love what you do and who you’re with, it always does.
“The father of a righteous child has great joy; a man who fathers a wise son rejoices in him.” -Proverbs 23:24