“Once we believe in ourselves, we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit.” — E. E. Cummings
While growing up, I wanted to please my dad. As hard as I tried, it was an insurmountable effort. My dad wanted a rough tough boy and to him I did not the meet the criterion. His discipline both verbal and physical was severe. Dad felt I was a loss cause and I would never amount to anything. Yet, I remember never giving up trying to gain his praise.
The summer after turning twelve, my dad announced I would spend the summer working on my uncle’s farm. He told me Uncle Hank would keep me so busy with hard work I would not have time to get into trouble. He was hoping manual labor would make a man out of me.
We had previously visited Aunt Ruth and Uncle Hank’s farm in northwestern Minnesota. Aunt Ruth and Uncle Hank had three boys and a girl. When visiting, we always had fun and there was so much to see and do on the farm. I felt excited with the thought of spending the summer there.
My dad lectured me on the five-hour drive to the farm. He had better not hear that I disobeyed my uncle. I better be respectful to my aunt. I would have hell to pay if I was lazy and did not do the job right. I listened as he told me what it was like when he was a boy to work on his father’s farm. How his dad expected him to work hard and not complain. It was the typical, “when I was a boy how hard I had it”, story. I listened, but I had heard this story before. Yet, he devastated me when he said he did not want his family to know he had a sissy for a son. For years, he had called me a crybaby and sissy among other names. This time it hurt more than normal.
When Dad finished his lecture, I told myself, that I would show him he was wrong. I was going to work my butt off and show him I was no sissy; I was a real boy. I felt confident; Dad would be proud of me.
That summer, I shared a bedroom with my cousin Mark who was a year older, and more physically mature. Uncle Hank assigned Mark to supervise and help me get use to the daily routine. Mark and I became friends and much of my apprehensions of failing diminished.
Our day would start with milking the 20 plus dairy cows. We separating the cream and milk, storing it in large metal cans. We finished by cleaning the barn. When completed, we went back to the house where Aunt Ruth always had a huge breakfast. After breakfast, it was out to fields for the day.
Uncle Hank raised potatoes and wheat. There were other grains and grasses grown, although, they were to feed the farm animals. Some days we were plowing fields for planting the winter wheat, while other days, we were cultivating the soil in the potato fields. We also spent days mowing, bailing, and storing the hay in the barn’s large hayloft.
I had never driven a tractor before and at the beginning, Mark would ride on the back while I learned. After three days, Uncle Hank told Mark I did not need his help anymore. I worked hard knowing Uncle Hank was watching. No way would he have to tell my dad I was a problem.
Uncle Hank was of German heritage, a large man and had an intimidating appearance. However, he was just the opposite. He was gentle, sensitive, loving, and a caring man. His family was foremost in his life. He was a typical hard-working farmer and away from his wife and daughter, his language was brash. All three of his boys were big and strong. Although I was not the youngest, I was the smallest. Uncle Hank treated me no different from he did his boys.
Uncle Hank loved to tease and I joined his boys being the target of his pranks and teasing. When my cousins and I did a job well, we received his praises. If we made a mistake, he was firm in correcting us, but never demeaning. He also enjoyed having us compete against each other. The loser would have to do a chore no one wanted to do, such as scooping manure.
We worked hard sunrise to sunset. If we had a rainy period and got behind, we worked evenings using tractor lights. Although it was hard work, Uncle Hank and my cousins made it fun. Several times on Saturday evenings, we would go fishing. After milking the cows, we would load up the boat with fishing gear and head for one of the large lakes in the area. If the fish were biting, we would stay out all night, getting home in time to milk the cows. We never worked on Sundays; we attended the small community church where Uncle Hank was an elder.
* * *
It was another rainy day. After we completed our chores, Uncle Hank went to the house and left us four boys to play in the barn. The barn was large enough to house all the dairy cows and other farm animals in the winter. The second floor was all hayloft and it was half full of new bailed hay. There was a bull being housed in a pen within the barn. The bull was mean and Uncle Hank warned me to never go into his pen. The hayloft had openings throughout the barn. They used them to drop hay down to feed the livestock during the winter.
My cousins and I were playing ‘King on the Mountain’ and having a great time. We had been roughhousing pushing and shoving each other off the stacked hay bails. My oldest cousin picked up a bail and tossed it at me. As I went to jump out-of-the-way, I fell through one of the opening. I fell 20 feet from the loft landing in the bull’s pen.
The fall had knocked the wind out of me and I laid in the mud and manure attempting to catch my breath. The spattering of manure was in my face, hair, hands, and clothes. The smell was—what can I say—it was bull manure. I remember my cousins hanging over the loft opening, and hysterically laughing. Trying to catch my breath, I watched in terror as the bull moved towards me. I was so petrified I could not move. His eyes fixated on me, and I thought I was dead.
When the bull was within arms length, I reached out and started petting his head. He stood still, eyed me, and allowed me to continue petting him. Once able to breathe, I got up, and crawled out of the pen. My cousins had come down from the loft and I joined them laughing at the incident. Although, covered from head to toe in bull manure, somehow I was unhurt from the fall.
Aunt Ruth did not find humor in the incident, yet Uncle Hank could not stop laughing. Aunt Ruth scolded us for our horseplay. Before returning to the house for lunch, I had to hose off in the barn while Mark brought me clean clothes. The rest of the summer they teased about my encounter with the bull.
* * *
I returned home that summer with fond memories. For the next three summers, I worked on Uncle Hanks farm. He paid me well, and with the money, I started my college funds. Dad never did give me the praise I sought. In fact, things went back to normal with me trying without success to please him. Without me realizing it, I had changed. I had found self-confidence even when my parents told me I was worthless.
I had started playing trumpet in the fifth grade and now I was enjoying my music. I practiced long hours, challenging myself to play harder pieces. I began playing solo parts at concerts. Before I entered high school, I was sitting in trumpet first chair of the high school band. By the time I left high school, I had learned to play any brass instrument.
I never excelled at athletics. With my found self-confidence, I tried out for several sports. I did letter my junior and senior year in track. My senior year, I qualified to go to the State finals in the 440-yard run.
My self-confidence did not carry over to academics. I was never more than an average student. I struggled with the motivation and patience it took to succeed. Yet, I would spend that effort with my music.
This same self-confidence became clear eight years later when I was in the military. Once given the opportunity, I wanted to be part of the Special Forces. I did everything it took to succeed. I still remember the day I received my burgundy beret and flash. I was now designated a member of the Air Force’s Pararescue Team. I felt more pride and inner happiness than I had ever felt. I had again proved to my Dad he was wrong about me.
My Dad retired from the Air Force after serving for over 30 years. I attended his retirement ceremony wearing my beret, wings, and polished boots. It was the first time I can ever remember my dad looking at me with pride. However, I did not need it—nor did I care. I had taken on the arrogance instilled in you during Special Forces training.
Without my dad even knowing it, he opened a world to me I never knew existed. He sent me to my Uncle Hank’s farm, thinking I was beyond redemption. Dad never said anything, so, I don’t know if Dad recognized or even cared about the change. I went on challenging myself and accomplishing my goals. Although it had become unnecessary, I showed him and myself I was able to meet life challenges and succeed.