The Measure of a Man

 In Family, Fred's Blog, Inheritance

When my father was five years old, he fell and sliced open the wrist of his right hand from a glass jar of peaches he was carrying. His family had no insurance or access to medical care, so they took him to the closest hospital where the doctor on duty told them the nerve in my father’s right arm had been severed and would need reconnecting.

The surgeon was drunk and botched the job, leaving Dad with a right hand that had little strength and was shaped somewhat like a claw. He was able to hold a nail between his fingers, weakly shake a hand, and hook his thumb around the steering wheel of the car to drive, but for all practical purposes his right hand was useless. He had to learn to write and do almost everything left-handed. Yet, when he talked about it he put it this way: “My right hand is not a handicap. It is a fact of life. I can deal with that fact.”

My father learned to compensate early in his life. While he could not catch a ball, he discovered he could kick. He could not compete in many things that were normal for boys his age, but he used his time to think. He learned to read people. He learned to speak and tell stories.

My father had nothing more than a high school education, but he never stopped learning. When he died, I went through his library and saw that the books he read were full of his left-handed scrawls in the margins. Someone once told the essayist Charles Lamb that he made books loaned to him even more valuable by the margin notes he made before he returned them. That would have also been true for whatever Dad read.

As much as anything Dad relished making and fixing things. What he really loved were the tools. He collected them partly because he needed the right tools to do the work essentially with one hand and partly because he loved working with them. He found delight in patiently figuring out the essence of a problem and then coming up with a solution that was brilliant – and incredibly ugly. What vexed us the most was it worked. He understood how things fit together.

Carol and I were cleaning out a closet this week and came across a couple of things that were such powerful reminders of my father that we put them together in a shadow box. One is a small plaque Dad received from IBM that says, “Think.” The other is his red carpenter’s pencil. He always said, “Measure twice and cut once.”

Countless times I have seen him measure and re-measure a plank with his T-square and then carefully draw the red pencil line across the cut. He built a barn, garage, patio, fences and walkways using the same precision and attention to the way things fit together. And always there was the sign to remind him (and me) to think before measuring and cutting.

Because Mom and Dad grew up in poverty they had few treasures to pass on to their children. Later in life they bought a number of expensive items they wanted to give us as heirlooms. Of course, we appreciated the gesture but had no interest in those. We wanted the pencils and the plaques – the things that carried our stories and our memories.

It’s probably the same for you. None of us really want the china as much as we want the mixing bowl. We want the common things that not only remind us of our family but of who we are as well. They make us whole and our memories intact.

For anyone else this plaque and pencil would have no value at all, but these two items now hanging on the wall of my study remind me of my father’s character and his values – and what he overcame in life.

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Showing 26 comments
  • Avatar
    Toni hibbs
    Reply

    I love reading about your family and am glad that I was fortunate enough to meet your dad. It was a delightful evening and I will never forget him. He “filled” a room……
    Hugs

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Yes, he did. Very few people have that gift and he used it well.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Yes, he did fill up a room. It was a rare gift! I am so glad you had a chance to meet him.

  • Avatar
    Tim Winn
    Reply

    Thanks, Fred, for bringing tears to my eyes this morning. You have a wonderful and touching way of expressing your love for your Dad. Thank you for making my day much brighter!

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Tim. Sometimes it takes a few years to distill what you feel about people – not just parents!

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Tim. For some relationships it takes years to distill the experiences, doesn’t it?

      • Avatar
        Tim Winn
        Reply

        My relationship with my father was, and my memories of him are, so very different from what you describe about your father. A natural reaction would be to resent what you had and have because I didn’t and don’t. But that is not my reaction at all. I rejoice with you — and constantly seek to build a different legacy than did my father.

  • Avatar
    Mary Helen
    Reply

    Started out my day with a good cry over this one, Butch! I was sorting through boxes of pictures and things we still hadn’t unpacked since moving over 5 years ago and also ran across some of Mom and Dad’s “treasures”. Thank you for reminding me of the things that last and what we will be leaving for our children and grandchildren. I hope it won’t be the wooden spoon! MH

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      I think it’s ironic that stories about Dad always get a visceral response from people – even those who did not know him. I told Tim Winn this morning that it takes years to distill the experiences. I think I could probably write a whole series of blogs on Dad and people would be thrilled. Knowing what you know, wouldn’t that be a turn of events?

  • Avatar
    Gordon Loux
    Reply

    What a man
    What a son
    You both have been a tremendous influence on my journey.
    Your Dad had a great impact on Chuck Colson and all
    Of us at Prison Fellowship in the early days.
    Thank you

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Gordon – Thank you. As I told you years ago, it is easy to find someone to whom you can complain and share problems but it is almost impossible to find someone who finds joy in sharing success. You are that rare person.

  • Avatar
    Glenn baldwin
    Reply

    Fred, thank you for this weeks blog. I loved your father and he taught me so very much about life and living. I still have about twenty 3/5 cards that I read from time to time. I will always cherish the Wednesday morning breakfasts we had together. He was proud of you then and and his buttons must be busting over you today.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Glenn. He loved you and would be more than pleased to know you have his most precious heirloom of all – those 3X5 cards!

  • Avatar
    Ida Bell
    Reply

    What a great reminder of the important things in life. It brings up so many memories of my Dad. That was an amazing generation.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Ida. Yes, it was an amazing generation. It’s not fair to compare generations but…they all seem to have had so much to overcome and they just did it. Poverty, war, no education, limited opportunities. They left a great legacy.

  • Fred Smith
    Fred Smith
    Reply

    Dear Ida, yes they were part of a special generation. They had so much to overcome – poverty, hardship, war, lack of education and opportunities. Still, they set an example that is extraordinary. It’s probably not fair to compare generations but….their legacy is remarkable.

  • Avatar
    terry parker
    Reply

    Thanks Fred. I am glad I had the chance to meet, and spend a little time with your dad — he had much wisdom to share even in our short time together. I especially like what you share above when he said his right hand wasn’t a handicap, it was a fact of life. When I developed a severe ringing in my ear I was very distraught. I couldn’t stop it, and I read where William Shattner almost committed suicide over his ringing, and I worried even more. Then I told one of my brothers about it, and he said “what’s the big deal? All the boys in the family have that ringing.. It doesn’t hurt, does it? Well no, I said. “So just live with it, it’s just a fact of life, and it won’t kill you!!” Same advice as your dad gave. So I just quit thinking about it. I only think about it when I mention it like now, but in two minutes I’ll go back to ignoring it.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Terry – Thank you for this comment. However, you’ve missed a chance to write a book about your disability and how you are struggling to overcome it!

  • Avatar
    Mat Clouse
    Reply

    Thanks for sharing these memories. I love the line “None of us really want the china as much as we want the mixing bowl.” Beautifully and accurately put!

  • Fred Smith
    Fred Smith
    Reply

    Thanks, Mat. I like that line myself! Someday you will write some great stuff about your father.

  • Avatar
    Nelwyn Reagan
    Reply

    Fred, I am so grateful that I had the privilege of being mentored by your Dad. He instilled in me important life lessons. He was always honest with me. He was so insightful and I slwsys felt like he knew what I needed to hear.
    Thanks for today’s reminder of someone who made a huge difference in my life. What a Dad!

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Nelwyn. There are not many people who are as proficient at listening as they are at speaking. He was one of them, wasn’t he? He loved you as a friend.

  • Avatar
    Tony Morgan
    Reply

    Fred, my Dad, who recently passed, also had less than a high school education, but could build almost anything from wood. the 2 most prized things of have of Dad’s are an unfinished wine rack and a fishing rod rack that he made for me late in his life. Thank you for sharing.
    I feel no feeling of melancholy about your story. On the contrary, i find it inspiring and uplifting! thank you for sharing…. will look forward to knowing your dad some day.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Tony. You are right. It is not meant to be melancholic at all. That’s the blessing of a relationship that, while imperfect, continues to be formative – even now.

  • Avatar
    Mark Modesti
    Reply

    It was after my first meeting with your Dad that I began to seriously consider Christianity. His network and his words have continued to bless me to this very day. I’m always a bit stymied for words when I mention his name and someone asks “who is Fred Smith?” He was so unique!

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Mark. Yes, he was one of a kind for sure. He knew he saw things differently and I think he sometimes wondered why others were so surprised by that. It was perfectly normal for him. I don’t believe he (except when he led a sophisticated congregation in whistling The Old Rugged Cross) intentionally tried to upset people.

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