My father died suddenly when I was fifteen. But I have had several father figures unselfishly help me see what was important.
Like the lesson that came when I was ready for my first car.
My denim-clad neighbor was on the verge of transition. Frank called me over to his garage to see an older but respectable set of four wheels. The 1966 Pontiac Bonneville was a barge by today’s standards. But it was squeaky clean.
He said, “you’ll be needing a car soon.” I thought, “how did you know?”
Frank said that the end of his days of driving was my beginning with a tinge of melancholy.
“When one door closes, another opens.” Alexander Graham Bell
The lessons began with the sale.
- Like any good salesman, Frank took the lead. But he wasn’t overly obsessed with selling me, negotiating, or price. He listened to make sure that the car served my needs. Frank was the first adult that made me comfortable. He conversed with me like I was his equal. He was respectful, patient; he picked up on nuance, hints, shades of feeling.
Frank created an attraction that, when combined with my need, made that 1966 Pontiac Bonneville irresistible.
- Frank knew value. The car was a creampuff, but it was almost ten years old. He priced it not at the highest worth like a car dealer might do but also not at a giveaway price like someone’s uncle might do. You would have embarrassed yourself if you tried to get him to come down in price. Frank’s version of the no-haggle price was unspoken. It was about value plus integrity.
- It was a Pontiac Bonneville. But Frank saw more than a car. He saw inspiration. Making that car last with a shine wasn’t a mundane or prosaic prospect. Frank saw direction, vision, purpose, and meaning. Fixing and maintaining the car would help him sort himself out, keep him balanced, always moving upward, toward what is good.
“To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wildflower.”—William Blake
- Frank knew that small efforts were an opening to build strength, something extraordinary. He made what he had the best it could be rather than scorn what he didn’t have. A dusty, dirty, decaying car was a physical sign of entropy—a lack of order or predictability, a gradual decline into chaos or disorder.
He saw the car as a concrete opportunity to keep order, to improve, to exploit what was possible.
Frank liked cars. That made it an easy avenue to responsibility, resourcefulness, and humility.
- Frank didn’t tell me that a car could provide a sense of direction or keeping a vehicle clean, organized, and in good repair could spill over into life.He knew what would help a floundering young kid. It was more likely that I would work on what I discovered for myself than advice.
Frank showed me. The super clean 1966 Pontiac Bonneville was an externalization of who he was. Frank polished his better side with meticulous care of a car. He glowed as much as the car did.
You don’t expect your older neighbor in coveralls to have transcendental eyesight. But Frank showed me how to improve. He also opened my eyes a little bit.
As the years went by, they increasingly opened. I became more responsible.
Maintaining and polishing that car taught me the not so trivial structure of how to embrace responsibility and care for something; to improve upon but not make things worse.
I developed the character to embrace what I should do; to make things around me shine.
As I tell my children, “in my twenties, I was pretty pathetic, but through the years, I’ve become okay.”
Of course, I’m human, but my better side shines more brightly, more often than it would have otherwise.
Looking back, I’m not sure if Frank knew I needed a car. But I am sure he knew I needed direction.
This Father’s Day, who do you have to thank?