Every day I am forced to choose what kind of person I will be. The person I have become is mostly too old to change much, yet I’m not done yet. Or, should I say God is not done yet. I can be better. I still have things to work out and change.
I didn’t become me because I read it in a book. Even though there are a few books that have been influential. I mostly read a lot of Peanuts, Snuffy Smith and Beetle Bailey cartoons when I was a kid. I loved the Sunday AJC that came to our house. I dug out the cartoon section and tossed the rest aside.
I did get advice along the way. Things like, “If you don’t have anything good to say, keep your trap shut.” That has served me well on a number of occasions. But I have forgotten way more advice and clever sayings than I have remembered.
The greatest influence in shaping the way I think and the way I behave has been the role models in my life. I was lucky to have a Mom and Dad that mostly had their act together. I’m certain they had their character flaws. We all do. But as far as I could tell not many screws were loose and they lived in a way that gave a young boy a fighting chance at becoming somebody. Maybe even a decent human being.
A lot of kids dream about careers. They spend a lot of time thinking about becoming a professional athlete or a movie star or a music sensation with a hit record that sounds a little like a chain saw running inside a barrel. They think about the jobs that could make them rich and famous.
It’s not a bad thing to dream about what you will “do” with your life. But it’s more useful to think about what kind of person you will “be”. If you confuse childhood idols with role models, you might miss the lessons that will serve you best in life. I’d rather be a respected house painter than a million-dollar spoiled brat any day.
The people who influenced me most were my parents, of course. Followed by a parade of Aunts and Uncles and Cousins and teachers and coaches and church folks and preachers. The people you know in the trenches of everyday life are the folks who have the ability to shape who you become if you’re smart enough to pay attention to them rather than giving all your dreams to some super star.
For one thing, my Dad always made me work. Chores were an expected part of life. Growing up with a garden and cows and fences there was always plenty to do. And he didn’t just tell me to work, he showed me what work was like. When Saturdays came around or when I was out of school for the summer, there was always something that needed to be done. He did most of the work, but he always included me in it. He showed me how to do things. He showed me what could be done if a fella put a little time and effort into it. He hardly ever paid someone else to do it for him.
When hay season rolled around, we worked together with my cousins Billy and Walker, along with Tootie and Orange from the foundry. They helped us get our hay cut and bailed and put up. Then we turned around and did the same thing for Billy and Walker. I learned from all of them what it means to work together. That there is an unspoken rhythm among men who know what needs to be done and who do not only their part but who are willing to work alongside others until all the work is finished.
I was in scouting for a long time. It was one of the most formative experiences of my growing up years. Billy Dan taught us boys that the oath was more than just words. “On my honor I will do my best.” And what I got out of men like Billy Dan was that honor meant being good for your word. He kept his promises. If he said he would do something, he did it. Without fail. If he told you something, you could count on it as sure as the sun would come up the next day. Being “mentally awake and morally straight” was a core value that meant a boy had to make hard choices sometimes that went against the current.
I just remembered another saying that my Dad used one me all the time. It usually came up when I had done something stupid or careless. “Son, use that space between your ears for something other than holding your cap up.” As a young man, he had done a careless thing when he burned down the house in 1953. There was no getting back what he had done. He taught me the value of thinking something through before you act.
My Dad graduated from Hampton High when there only 11 grades. I always wondered what happened to grade 12, but never asked. But his education went way beyond formal schooling. He read all the time. He cut out articles about everything from giving cows shots to making a marriage work. When we cleaned out his desk after he passed, the drawers and cubby holes were full of the things that shaped who he was.
The one book that was worn and tattered and marked up was his Bible. He taught a Sunday School class at Berea for over 50 years. He showed me in his life that faith was not about religion but about living. He gave his tithe faithfully. He mowed his friends yard all summer one year because his buddy had a broke leg. He gave of himself and never expected anything in return. If he taught it in class, he lived it to the best of his ability.
You don’t get that from someone on a poster in your bedroom.
I was an average goofy kid when it came to church. I loved playing in the graveyard after services. I loved dinner on the grounds with a 100 foot table full of fried chicken and corn and 31 flavors of casseroles. The sweat tea was served with a ladle out of a 30 gallon trash can. And when it came to the preaching, I squirmed and doodled in the bulletin and watched wasp fly around the room, hoping one might land on the lady’s hat in front of me.
But somewhere along the way, I started listening. Mr. Vic’s sermons started making sense. He woke something up in me. Mr. Mike and Miss Glenda, who were at Berea before Mr. Vic, would come to the house for supper. He was funny and interesting for a preacher. Mr. Mike and Dad were great friends for years. He preached my Dad’s funeral. Then, there men like Olin Hay, Roy McKinney and Beauford Bryant. Men who forged in me a respect for the Word that has stayed with me through thick and thin.
When I was about sixteen, my Dad pointed something out to me. Some friends of his had a son who was probably about five years younger than me. I’ll call him Bob. “Bob is watching you”, my Dad said. “You make sure he sees something worth watching.”
I was not ready for that. I didn’t want to be in that role. But no matter how much any of us tries to be free of watching eyes, we cannot escape. We all have role models and we all become role models for somebody. It makes my knees knock to think that I could possibly carry that kind of influence, even though I know that I have looked for that very influence from others my whole life.
“I want to be like him.” That’s what a young person thinks. Every kid that has ever lived has patterned their choices and behaviors after someone they looked up to. “Monkey see, monkey do” is the way it works. Honor. Integrity. Gratitude. Guts. Grit. Faith. Humanity. Generosity. And more. It’s what we’re made of.
And, like it or not, somebody is watching.