Failure was the ever-present backdrop of my childhood, but not my failures. My Dad excelled at failure.
He was born on January 1, 1923, and weighed in at 13 pounds. Everyone plans and dreams on New Year’s Day and—true to his birth date and his enormous size—Dad was a lifelong planner and dreamer with a can-do spirit. He was an excellent student, amiable, loving, and, in his youth, very handsome. Unfortunately, he was far better at planning and dreaming than executing his plans. He had a lot of mechanical ability. These days, he would have gone to college and perhaps become an engineer, but he was born on a farm in Idaho at a time when hardly anyone went to college. Young men became farmers like their fathers.
When he came of age, he and his three brothers purchased a farm dirt cheap out on the Idaho desert. And yes, it was dirt cheap because it was mostly dirt and sage brush. There were aquifers beneath it for water, though, and the soil was perfect for growing famous Idaho potatoes. The brothers built houses, dug wells, cleared away the sagebrush and planted their fields. Before long, they divvied up the land among them.
Dad farmed for nearly 20 years but never made a go of it. The problem was partly that times were hard for farmers, but truthfully, he just wasn’t cut out for that lifestyle. He bought used equipment from the junk yard (which he could fix, thanks to his mechanical ability) but that equipment always seemed to break down right at harvest or planting time. Our cars always came from the junkyard too, and every journey included a prayer that we’d reach our destination. We spent a fair amount of time on the side of the road, depending on the kindness of friends or strangers. Once he bought an old hearse to use as a family car. Seat belts were not required in those days; we all just piled into the back and off we went. That thing ran pretty well too, but since I was in my early teens by then, instead of the usual prayer to get where we were going, I prayed that sucker would disappear. Eventually it made its worthy way back to the junkyard.
Our family survived because Mom was trained as a school teacher. Dad and Grandma took care of us while Mom taught school, then she was home in the summer while he farmed. The farm didn’t manage to break even, however. Dad had to take out operating loans every spring against a successful harvest. When the harvest did not pay off—as it frequently didn’t—we were left in debt when the next spring rolled around. Besides crop failure and bad prices, we had other bad luck. He tried raising sheep. When my brother and I were only five and six years old, we herded them in some nearby pastures to save money on feed, but, in spite of that, the sheep business didn’t prove to be profitable. He tried raising pigs twice, but both times the devices he rigged up to keep the animals warm in the cold Idaho winters burned down the buildings and destroyed the poor animals. When I was 12 we sold the farm to cover the debts and Dad embarked on a series of careers.
He began training to be a welder, but one evening during a class fell through a manhole that someone had left uncovered and broke his shoulder blades. After that he could not weld without pain. We were just glad he survived.
Next, he went to college and was certified to teach elementary school. My mother convinced him to do this because she believed boys needed male teachers to serve as role models. That lasted a few years, but didn’t work out so well. Teachers need to be organized and Dad wasn’t organized. He had to take some writing classes in college, though, and wrote some fine poetry and essays.
He really wanted to be a businessman and had lots of dreams and plans. He designed a fishing pole holder that set off an alarm at the tug of a fish, manufactured a few prototypes, advertised in Field and Stream, and looked into getting a patent. He never quite took into account the fact that fishermen like to hold the pole and feel the tug themselves. That’s what makes it a sport.
Someone convinced him he could make big bucks on a business that installed and stocked small shelves in local gas stations. Unfortunately, that business required organization.
He bought a laundry with plans to install the latest machines, which he could not afford to do. He spent all his time repairing the old machines and made very little money.
He bought an old semi truck intending to fix it up and truck wood out of the mountains to sell as firewood. This was about the time that OPEC put the squeeze on the nation and everyone was installing wood-burning stoves. No load of wood ever emerged from the mountains on that truck.
He started a weed spraying business and advertised on the radio. The problem was that the county ran a weed-spraying operation that sprayed roadside weeds for free and hired out to farmers for a small fee. That one didn’t work out either.
Finally he bought some old houses that were broken up into apartments and became a slumlord. It didn’t make much money, but it was real estate that at least retained some value, and it kept him busy, which had become an important objective for his wife.
Through all of this our family survived because Dad’s ventures more or less broke even and Mom insisted early on that they have separate checking accounts. Her teaching money supported us, and—in the meantime—we had a lot of fun as a family. One of Dad’s junkyard purchases was an old boat. We spent many happy hours water skiing behind that boat. And we learned skills. The boys helped fix up the series of old cars and equipment. I learned to cook and sew. We depended on our large garden for food, and canned whatever we didn’t eat fresh. We loved to play games, especially Rook. Dad was a heck of a Rook player. The only problem was that you didn’t want to be his partner because true to his big-dreamer personality, he took every bid, whether he had a good hand or not. He was always optimistic that he’d pull this one off.
One of our Mormon leaders once said that no success can compensate for failure in the home. I’d turn that around to say that success in the home can compensate for any failure. Dad was a failure at pretty much every career he ever tried, but he was nevertheless a successful father. I often think that my Dad’s children became everything he wanted to be. One brother is a college professor, another is a very successful businessman who uses the mechanical skills Dad taught him every day. Two are engineers, and he got one historian and author. We all married good people and have raised fine families of children who themselves have become good parents. Dad was a serial failure, but he succeeded at the one thing that mattered most.
In spite of his failures, we’re all so grateful we had the father we did. And of course, our wise and steady mother.