Saturday, October 31, 2009

Determining the Quality of LIfe

This is a story I started to write for my father's newsletter The Life and Times of Don Bovaird.

The Rich Splendor of My Father’s Shade

My father taught all us children from a young age how to tell the age of a tree. Once a tree was cut down, and the stump was visible, he pointed out the rings that determined its age. He’d wipe off the sawdust with the side of his strong hand, and then count the individual rings with us. He especially liked to do this with huge, old trees that he’d need cranes to help take down. He also liked to show us how you could tell the quality of the tree by the rich color of the rings left behind on the stump. These lessons were such a natural part of our lives that we didn’t even see them as lessons…

I also remember long, lazy afternoons driving home from church with my family and Dad would stop and look at tree jobs. Sometimes he’d let one of us kids go with him when he talked to his customers. I always loved this privilege. They’d point out specific trees they wanted cut down, and invariably ask advice about others. My father was so knowledgeable. He’d gesture this way and that and make suggestions. But one thing he didn’t like to fool around with was “tree rot.” People would ask him, “Don, isn’t there anything I can do to save that tree? It’s been in my family for so many years.” Or “It’s such a lovely shade tree. I’d really hate to lose it.” My father would lean into the tree with a measuring eye. He’d examine the bark, and the leaves to see if beetles had been at them. If he determined the root of the problem to be tree rot, he’d bluntly say, “I’m afraid it’s had it. When it gets tree rot, best thing to do is cut it down, and plant something else.” On a few occasions when they pressed the issue, I saw him bring out a foul smelling canister of greenish black spray that he’d squirt on it but I could tell by the way he did it he didn’t hold much faith in saving it.

Looking back on those childhood memories, I can’t help but think of his recent cancer as a kind of ‘tree rot’ and recall his straightforward advice about how to deal with it. Did he ever think of his cancer that way himself? He faced his cancer straight on. Ever practical, he called Hospice himself the first time he fell out of bed. He didn’t mince words or pity himself. He prepared. Dad believed in quality of life, and not quantity.

But along with that obvious lesson, I also remember how he taught us to tell the age and quality of a good tree. My fatherlived for seventy-eight years. In that time, he provided us with gentle "shade," which came in the form of his humor, his savvy, his easygoing nature, and his love for his profession. People would talk about the twinkle in his eye, and how he loved children. People enjoyed being around my dad because he made them feel good about life.

I noticed that my father had deep roots for family, but the independence that stood alone. He was sturdy, able to survive in all kinds of situations; sometimes he went against leadership when he believed he was right. He didn't back down. He would rather resign a position than go back on the rights promised to him. He did that once in local politics. I admired him for that. He knew himself well enough to run a business, to make it succeed, and to develop other interests in his life, which became his avocation. He always took chances and dreamed big.

So, these days when I envision my father’s life, I always think of the trees he loved so much. We had one large tree in our backyard. In that tree, Dad built us a tree house that became the envy of all the kids in the neighborhood. It was high in the tree with a sturdy base, a roof, and a small section where a tree trunk came through. He covered that with a flat piece of wood that served as a shelf for food.

Our tree house also contained an enormous slide coming down, the kind that big, old-fashioned parks used to have. Dad always knew the right person or had the right timing to get something. So he must have gotten the slide from some park that had replaced theirs with a better one. There must have been twenty or twenty-five iron stairs going up to the tree, a nice wooden platform to cross over on … and then came the slide. With waxed paper, it provided a fabulous ride over two dips that all the kids in the whole area loved to line up and slide down!

Not only did that tree hold a tree house perfect for summer sleepovers – ample enough for two to three people – and a great slide, but it also had a perfect steel pole you could twirl down if you didn’t want to exit via the slide at that particular time. It was one just like the fire companies had, except my father had repainted it green. It was the coolest thing!

But there was more, there was a big branch that stood out from the tree, and Dad had made a tire swing hanging from the end of a long rope that we all loved. It seemed at one time my father had a knotted rope you could swing on, too. I don’t remember if that was in addition to the tire swing or if it replaced it. I just recall swinging from it.

As we grew older and my father built onto our house, he cut off bits of the tree until he finally cut it down altogether. I guess he felt it had served its grand purpose for us and it was time for something else. He replaced the tree with beautiful topiary gardens, which provided such beauty to all those who passed by. He tended those gardens with the same loving patience he endowed to that beautiful shade tree.

My father is like that backyard tree that provided such splendor – so accessible and inviting to children – to both those who knew his familiar “bark”, and to those who had just come out of the sun and into his “shade.” Like the tree, he was very fun and unique, full of surprises. He was also open-armed, and gentle. Strong. Dependable. And always extending or reinventing himself, as with the trees and shrubs that took such unusual forms, my father knew how to carve beauty out of a simple backyard, just as he did with his unpretentious life. He was a showman. A tree of the very best kind. I guess that’s why he called himself “The Tree Man.” The name stuck with him until the end of his life – familiar to all, still beckoning those who knew and loved him in the days of his splendor.

This is his story -- or bits and pieces of it -- wedged within each of those seventy-eight odd tree rings that defined him to his core. But like all trees, some rings vibrantly stand out – wide and dark-hued, while others, chipped and nicked, seem to lightly fade away until joined by another ring. These denote both the strong and lean years of Dad’s life, some tales remaining a bit unfinished or simply trailing away into obscurity, and others boldly imprinted with its rich history clearly waiting to be revealed.

Friday, October 30, 2009

A Whopping Big Oak

This newspaper clip shows my father standing inside a big oak tree that he discovered one day in Conneaut, Ohio. My dad was always on the lookout for big trees.Just a curious outgrowth of his profession, I guess.

The caption underneath the photo mentions that dad (who contacted the Erie Times News about the tree, and Ken Fromknecht, the man in charge of publishing a list of big trees in the area "peer out from inside a giant red oak tree" near Conneaut Creek, not far from the Ohio border. The tree "is big enough for ten people." The writer, Evelyn Anderson, who writes a weekly nature column, goes on quote the two men: "a group of four or five could play poker at a table inside, which looks like a big room, with a ceiling possibly ten feet high." That comment had my dad written all over it. But apparently, Ken made that remark. This must have been in dad's reformed days!

Ken predicted that this was indeed the largest oak tree in the state of Pennsylvania, as it looked at least as large as the states biggest Northern red oak, which grows along Main Street, in Wattsburg, Pa. Ken pulled out a tape measure and measured its diameter; it was two feet larger than the Wattsburg tree.

Although this record needed to be verified by Tom Erdman, a state forester in charge of verifying such information and giving it official credence) it appeared there there was a healthy, whopping oak tree which far surpassed "any oak anywhere else in the state."

This oak was found hidden behind a bunch of scrubby bushes; my dad had to have gotten out and investigated in order to find it. Not too bad for a local tree man named Don Bovaird! He had a keen eye for any tree out of the norm.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Dad's Old Leather Gloves

We started up the wood stove a few weeks ago during a cold spell. We don't burn it every day but we do try to keep mom warm when the temperature dips lower. As always, it brings back vivid memories because the wood stove was dad's department, and he kept it on his turf: the basement.

~ ~ ~ ~

I picked up my father’s old work gloves to tend to the firewood. I always use Dad's old leather gloves, though they now have small holes in two of the fingers. My mom isn't sentimental and earlier this year, she bought a new pair of work gloves. She was ready to toss out Dad's gloves when I stopped her.

"Hey, I use those for the wood stove!"

"What? They have holes in them. They're no good anymore."

"They're okay. The leather is still good."

In fact, I loved the feel of the leather. It was ground smooth by the constant contact with white-hot ashes, the course bark and burnt embers. I took them now. The gloves, some dirty shade of faded red, held my own fingers which felt like mere twigs inside as I gripped the warm, matted cotton that once fit my father’s hands so snugly. As I grasped a well-seasoned piece of kindling, I bent my fingers to lift it and noticed deep creased crevasses permanently etched into the gloves where my father’s own fingers had curled around the wood. I threw in a few pieces of firewood and firmly closed the door to the wood stove.

Before I left the basement, I put the gloves aside behind a coke bottle, so that mom would not be tempted to toss them out any time soon.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Coming Home

“So when do you have to go back to that place?” This time.

“Oh no, dad! I’m not going back! I’m home for good!” I assured him, smoothing the blankets around his feet.

“You don’t have to go back?”

“No, I’m home now,” I said, firmly.

“Good.” And in that one word I could sense relief, forgiveness, and peace.

I was still jet-lagged from the long flight home from Dubai. It usually took about a week before I got my days and nights turned around. The first couple of days I was always wired to see everyone and get back into some kind of routine. So going like some kind of wind up toy, I’d be in a frenzy to be everywhere at once, and then suddenly stop and be dead to the world. But dad’s illness changed all that. I couldn’t waste a single moment. I had to be there for him.

I remembered back to when I first decided to go away. Even though I’d graduated from college, I still went to my father to advise me on the big decisions in my life.

“Dad! Guess what!” I launched into my story without giving him a chance to answer, “I’ve just been offered a job in Colombia!” Colombia.

He halted, a piece of firewood in his hand as he turned to stare at me.

“Yeah, dad! I can start in a few weeks! Can you imagine? I’ll be teaching at a primary school! I’ll be working with missionaries but able to support myself!”

He resumed stacking the firewood, listening to me bubble over with details. “Hmm” he grunted.

“Well, what do you think?” I finally asked, “Should I take it?”

“How long have you been working for the telephone company?”

“Just a few months. It’s something anyone could do!” I forgot for a second that getting that job had felt great, a big accomplishment.

“I’d stick with the phone company if I were you. They have good insurance. You can go places there, work your way up.” His sister was firmly established in a position for Bell South in Florida.

“But, da-ad!” It wasn’t Colombia. A real teaching job! At 24, I longed for something other than living in a small town; I longed to use my college education. I wanted to see the world. Speak in Spanish. Talk about God. Make a difference.

“I can always try it, and if it doesn’t work out, come home, don’t ya think?”

He shrugged, and only now do I realize what it cost him to nod his head and give his approval.

That decision altered the course of my life forever. Because after Colombia came Costa Rica. Then Indonesia. After that, I moved to Texas, which led to a couple of moves to Japan. Taiwan. Egypt, again and again until I even married there. And finally, to the Arabian Gulf in the Middle East where I’d lived for the past nine years

It cost us a lifetime of being apart, frantic visits home fitting in as many people as possible in a short time every summer, talking of places to which he’d never been nor could relate to. His world, which I’d soon rediscover, was so much more stable. Firmly-rooted. Just like my father.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Wayang Golek Puppets

Wayang Golek Puppets
Originally uploaded by EthnoScape
When I see these wayang puppets, I think of my time in Indonesia. This is from my friend's Flickr site.

My Father's Early Years

I'm trying out different ways to begin writing about my father. Most of the facts in this post were taken from my grandmother's diary, which my aunt kindly made available to me. I just want to see how a chronological approach comes across to readers... will it be interesting only to family? Will those who knew my father want to read this kind of background? What about strangers???

~ ~ ~ ~

I feel almost as if my father were born as a teenager because it’s then we begin to hear of his exploits, especially with the cars that he tinkered with. But naturally, my father came with a past that goes further than that.

My grandmother kept a diary of facts about her children so it’s here we discovered the most interesting nuggets of his early years. My father, Donald Thomas Bovaird, was born on December 17, 1928. In her carefully written, distinctive script we found my grandmother’s comments, “Baby Donald Thomas weighed 10 lbs. at birth, 12 at 3 wks., 20 lbs. at 4 mos.” At 4 months, he was learning to sit alone. The third of as many boys and seven children total, he was the first to start teething. “At 5 months, he got his first tooth and his second at 5½ months. By 6 1/2 months, he had gotten 5 of his teeth and at 8 months, 8 teeth.”

As a baby, he loved to eat and my grandmother wrote that he was “awfully fat” as a toddler. Dad retained this enthusiasm for eating his whole life long. Because he always worked very hard, he kept trim although he stubbornly ate whatever and however much he wanted of any given food. Mulish about his eating habits, it is how I most remember him. He liked just about everything and he almost always had seconds. A few years ago when doctors thought he had a heart attack, they checked the fat content of his heart and to their astonishment, found only 5 % blockage. He was by far one of the healthiest patients his age they’d ever seen. In the end, they determined he hadn’t suffered a heart attack at all. He’d simply pulled a muscle!

Grandma Florence also recorded that my father sat alone between 5 and 6 months old but that he still didn’t know how to “catch his head” when he fell. She commented that he didn’t creep much, but pulled himself up by his knees in his bed and carriage. At about 8 months, he started to creep, first on his stomach then on his hands and knees, finally hands and feet “and he surely can fly the last way!” At 10 months he started walking. “He goes nearly across the floor before losing his balance” she wrote. My father loved to “figure things out” by trial and error, it seems even as a baby in learning to walk.

I think my father has always been both independent and content. My grandmother’s remarks confirmed what I’d always thought about him. “I feed him and put him in his bed at about 11 am and he goes to sleep by himself. Sometimes I leave him sitting up in bed playing and he lies down himself. The other boys would never do that.” My father always seemed in calm and in control of his world.

On July 15th, 1928 both my uncle Byron and my father were baptized by Reverend Tait at the nearby Presbyterian church. In an account that seemed to both exasperate and amuse my grandmother she writes, “As usual, Rev. Tait made a mistake. Called Byron “Donald Kearney” [using my grandmother’s maiden name] and the baby – Donald Thomas.”

My grandmother described my father as a “home boy” and wrote “He’s so much better at playing by himself than the other boys were.” Perhaps it’s this ease in being by himself that led him to accomplish the goals he did in his life, building up unusual businesses. My father developed fortitude at an early age.

“He tries to say nearly everything if I insist on it,” she annotated. I noticed he also developed leadership traits at an early age. After watching my father try to put wood in the family woodstove, my uncle Alan, then just a year old, imitated him. My father loved to take charge of things.

On Sept 15, 1933 my father started school. He joined the ranks of his two older brothers while his younger brother, Alan, 2 ½ and 1 ½ year old sister, Mary Jane waited anxiously for their return. Mary Jane, the first girl in the family, was the sweetheart of all her brothers.

Dad’s early years were busy ones. He was an active child, always had something to do and places to be. But when he went to sleep, he slept like a log! My aunt Carolyn recalls the many times my grandmother had to trail through “the girls’ bedroom” to get to “the boys’ bedroom” where she’d attempt to wake my father up for school. He slept deeply like that until just before he died. No matter what was going on in his life, he had the ability to throw it off and serenely get a good night’s rest before tackling the demands of the next day.

Monday, October 26, 2009

All Season Pass - Part 1

It came to me today how much Dad looked forward to what each season had to offer. He would have loved a day like today and gone out to rake leaves and enjoy the sunshine. Age never slowed him down.

~ ~ ~ ~

Some people have season passes to baseball games. Others have them to football games. In our town, the YMCA has a big following. Music lovers buy them to the philharmonic and thespian wanna-be’s buy them for the playhouse. Everyone is enthusiastic about something, but it takes a real die-hard fan to be involved in something to the extent they purchase an all season pass.

My father was no less enthusiastic about the four seasons here in Pennsylvania. He always looked forward to the change each season brought with it. Dad remained a fan for life. He never even considered moving to any other state.

Dad always mentally prepared for the new season long before it arrived. New seasons meant new plans. He’d think about the projects he wanted to begin, set down tentative deadlines, write out what he needed to reach his goals, and talk it out with friends and family—either in passing or as his plans unfolded. Dad got on the ball and made things happen.

You could say he had a brand new season pass four times a year. He loved variety and looked forward to the promises spring, summer, fall and winter held for him.

Mom always said that she and my dad viewed our childhood as the best time of their lives. Having four different seasons to share with us kept it lively.

“These kids are gonna grow up before we know it,” dad would say, “Let’s enjoy ‘em while we can.”

And they did.

The fall season brought its own pleasures to my family. Each parent had their special role in our fun. Mom did the practical, everyday things with us. Although dad seemed very busy, he carved out time for us, too. Whether it was traditional or spur-of-the-moment activities, we looked forward to spending time with him.

When the leaves fell, Dad made a game out of raking them up with us, and he’d goad us into making a huge pile, then throw one of us in and the others would cover us up. Carving jack-o-lanterns was always his department, too. He’d set out newspaper on the front porch or the work bench and set up all our tools in a line—a special carving knife, a big serving spoon to remove the seeds and a charcoal pencil to make hideous faces for us to cut out. We loved doing this with him. But how we looked forward to the last big activity!

As Halloween approached, we would keep reminding him about his one-of-a-kind box man costumes.

“Dad, don’t forget! We need to get the boxes!”

He would nod and finally remember to stop off at Platz’s supermarket on the way home from work to pick up some food packaging boxes. The weekend before Halloween, he would go to work and custom-design his trademark “box man” costumes. These consisted of two gigantic boxes and one smaller one with the flaps wired together so when they were finished, they would consist of a body, neck and head - twice the size of one of us. After they were connected, Dad would shoe polish the boxes in white, then he’d use black or brown to create bizarre facial expressions for each box man. He used different color shoe polish for original but wacky clothing, too. These box men towered so high that he had to cut eye holes in the neck box in order for us to see when we walked.

it was a lot of work carrying those heavy boxes around trick-or-treating but Dad was so pleased with his creations that I wouldn’t have it any other way. Now Mike, he opted out for the hobo Dad put together—light, easy and quick to move from house to house. Of course, he had a real stick with a handkerchief tied to it!

Dad made sure we participated in the Halloween costume "march" contest at the Girard fire hall as well. We loved that, too. Every year one of us won a prize for a box man costume. I still remember drinking the pungent, sweet apple cider and eating Mighty Fine doughnuts beteen competitions. When our age group was called to be judged, we walked in a circle with our oversized boxes as the judges conferred on the best. Soon, I (or one of us) would be pulled aside. We’d always win first or second prize! These were special occasions with my parents, especially since the brainchild costume was a creation Dad put together. Later, I’d see him chatting to the fireman with a big grin on his face. He'd give me the thumbs-up sign.

I also remember one special celebration in autumn one year. The year I turned eleven Dad put together a hayride for my birthday, which comes in October. I must have been in fourth or fifth grade then.

“Dad, that’ll be the greatest!”

I could hardly wait for members of my class to arrive after school that day.

He used his long boat trailer as the wagon and filled it with bales of hay. Then he hitched it up to his dump truck, which he would drive first through our town, and then down all the side roads and back home again. As it turned out, Dad took on a whopping two-hour ride, which is amazing if you knew how small Girard was back then. What I recall about that year was that he enjoyed taking us on that hayride as much as we enjoyed being part of it. We all itched from the hay, but had a great time. Afterwards, my classmates and I ate birthday cake. Mom had baked a cake iced with chocolate frosting and served it with vanilla ice cream. I felt like the most popular kid in my class for like a week after!

As we got older, Dad’s activities changed with us. He made roaring bonfires instead, and we invited our friends to those gatherings. My niece remembers one in which the fire got so high, her friends had to back up for safety! She still talks about that bonfire today.

Dad continued to give hayrides to my nieces, and then kids in town after we left home. He also kept raking leaves. In addition, he winterized his bushes and around Halloween, rigged up electric pumpkins on the front porch to welcome the trick-or-treaters. He would remove the storm window and hand out candy along with my mom. He’d always make faces and joke with the kids. My parents got so they kept a running tally of how many trick-or-treaters came each year.

In 1990, Dad started a new tradition when autumn arrived. He started working on his antique cars to make limousines and as usual, he drew everyone close to him into his new world of creating. The tree workers, laid off for the next six months, expanded their skills and learned how to work with motors, paint, grills, and everything else dad used to make his newest passion come alive.

Like I said, Dad had an all season pass for autumn every year. He never wasted it. Dad was a big fan of local life, and threw himself into an ever-changing array of activities that kept the season exciting to him.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Golden Carpet of Dreams

On such a beautiful autumn day with the brilliant sunshine and the leaves looking their optimal best, I am reminded of another day quite awhile back when I worked for my dad on the tree crew. He sent me out to a great job. Looking back on that day once more, I have learned even more valuable lessons from him.

~ ~ ~ ~

I got out of the truck and stared at the front yard of our customer. In the center of it stood two birch trees, their white bark a mixture of smoothness, yet weathered—with black lines and creases that showed how well they had endured over the seasons. For a moment, the birch trees reminded me of two fine ladies, arrayed in all their splendor. They had gorgeous yellow leaves, most still attached to their white slender limbs. But in a perfect arc that encircled the garden below lay the leaves like a golden carpet of dreams, untrampled. The sun highlighted the yellow warmth that spread out from the center of the arc, and I couldn’t look away. It was breathtaking. I shielded my eyes to look up at the trees but the sun blinded me as it shone through the leaves. Very naturally and delicately, a few leaves swirled to the ground. One landed on my head, and I reached to hold it in my hand and then let it gently careen in its path to add to the carpet below.

“Hey Amy, you comin’ or what?” Charley, our main climber, called out to me.

“Yeah, got the chain saw 'n' am headed there now.” Ouch! I stubbed a toe as I rushed to drop off the gear to the crew.

“Well, shake a leg. Can’t wait all day for that saw!”

“You guys! Look at this!” I cried. A pond lay before me with sizeable, round rocks stacked upon one another. A fountain of water trickled down into the smooth, natural pool below. A dozen red and gold fish swam in the water, in and out of lily pads and natural barricades.

“Yeah, your dad said you’d like that.” Charley grinned. “Looks like some kinda pond in the Orient filled with those fish. Where’d ya live? In Japan?”

“Exactly! The carp! They’d swim in these same kinds of pools in front of the shops and businesses and near the ancient, stone bridges I would go by every day. It is like being back in Japan." For a moment, I was transported to the autumn I spent in Kobe, and the koinobori, leaf-changing season, I witnessed with the beautiful momiji, that is, the maple, trees.

The damp earth in the yard where I was working was filled with dark, very aged, ceramic pots all of which held white flowers of varying heights. Japan. I ached for the simple days and traditional beauty I had found there—the ancient temples, shy glimpses of Mt. Fuji, Japanese calligraphy, the rivers, the countryside—me in my desire to drink it all in.

My life back then was like the pure, bright carpet of leaves that I’d witnessed just moments earlier as it lay, undisturbed by any footsteps in the front yard. That was my golden carpet of dreams that lay before me. I remember thinking one day in Japan that I would continue to see the world, and experience the wonders of the many cultures that existed within its perimeter. Life could not be any more beautiful. My dream was so simple and I had my whole life before me.

“Hey Amy! Quit dreamin'. Headache!” Charley tossed down a can of tree paint. I ducked. Fortunately,it fell a few feet away. I picked it up and tossed it in the wheelbarrow with some rope and chunks of wood he’d dropped earlier from the tree.

As I worked throughout the day, I silently gave tribute to those dreams. Every time I trampled from the backyard to the driveway to do my job, my glance would stray to the birch trees in front. The leaves still left me spellbound as they tripped down to the meet the circle of leaves below. It looked like an arena, some kind of splendid rink before me, its natural beauty bathed in a yellow glow. I'd pick up a rake and start back to work.

At the end of the day, one of the men on our crew took a leaf blower to gather up the leaves. He disturbed the natural scene I’d envied for the past four hours. I realized that the sun was temporary and the leaves would get dark and moldy when the rains eventually pounded them at some later point. Such perfect moments last but a second in our lifetime, so we need to gather warmth from them. Then, gaily toss them back out like so many leaves scattered from our arms and get on with our life, crunching a pathway through the center of our own arena as they rustle up against our pant legs. Our dreams can be fulfilled every day as we touch the lives of those God brings us into contact with.

~ ~ ~ ~

My father never traveled much of anywhere and yet he left an indelible imprint on those right in his midst. His golden carpet of dreams got crunched time and time again; even so, he continued to throw out his arms and invent new dreams, all the while widening his circle and sharing his warmth. I can learn a lot from his style of life.

Lord, help me to welcome new people into my life and not to hold too tightly onto anyone. Help me to continually set new dreams that will keep me fresh and alive. Let those dreams bear the fruit you would have me to bear. Thank you, Lord, for this beautiful day and time of reflection.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Best Employer

After I wrote the last story about Kristie and me, I decided to track her down to see if she remembered our legendary feat.

"Hey, Kristie? Do you remember Don Bovaird, The Tree Man? This is his daughter, Amy. A long time ago you used to work for my dad. Do you remember that? I'm calling to...."

"Oh my! How long has it been? Like forty years?!


"Loading the truck up by ourselves...?" she hesitated, trying to dredge up the memory.

“No I don’t remember that. Your dad never even questioned what I could or couldn’t do so that’s how it affected me. You were all very sure of yourselves and I just picked that up. He never made a big deal about anything. He would give you a task to do and have the confidence you would do it, so you did it. He was extraordinary in that way.” She paused, recalling other tasks she carried out “I remember having to back up his ONE truck over a lake bank. He never stood over you, making you nervous, no matter what job you were given. He’d just let you at it. Your dad had a subtleness about him but with such a character! He was the best person I ever worked for in my life.”

We chatted on a bit about other memories and family, then our conversation drew to a close.

"Well, Kristie, what are you doing now?"

“I’m trimming shrubs. Isn't that a hoot?! I went from trees to shrubs. I have a simple life, and in Florida can work the year round. I never did do well indoors.”

Kristie’s probably the one summer worker who took on shrubs as a lifetime career move. Had he known, my father would have said to her, “Kristie, you ‘done real good’.”

The thought came to me how fun it would be to interview as many of his former employees as I could find to see what they remembered about him. I've already interviewed four people who have worked with him, one of whom also said he was the best employer he ever had; another wrote us a letter saying the same thing. What was it about him that made him such a memorable employer?

I started making lists of people to interview ... this might be a worthwhile lead and follow up for my book! Maybe I can also look up longtime customers ... what made them so loyal to my dad's business? Will they have any stories? I can hardly wait to begin!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Ya Done Real Good!

My father grew up in a generation that valued hard work and he applied this standard to himself his whole life. Generally he didn’t have too much to say about people but he had his own rating system when it came to work and his crew. He reserved his highest praise for “hard workers” who won his admiration for reliability, skill and ambition. “Steady workers” rated just below them with less skill but who showed up to work every day and did the best they could. Finally came members of the crew “who hardly worked at all.” Dad used to often joke, "Ya workin' hard or hardly workin'?"

Of Legends and Lasses

My father’s work ethic stood out as if against a vivid blue sky among his contemporaries. Upon his passing, one customer wrote “There goes another legend.” Dad shaped us all with his old-fashioned expectations, but none more than on the occasion of a day when two lasses got fired up and surpassed even his desires…

Known for her humor and easygoing ways, Kristie Kibler and I made a good team. At fourteen, I thought she was probably the coolest worker on the crew. She had just turned eighteen the summer she worked for us. When most people her age preferred cars, Kristie cheerfully opted for a healthier workout. Every morning she’d pull up to our house on her 15-speed sport bike exuding health and vitality, beaming with an infectious smile. Always ready to pull her weight, she worked as hard as any man. On the job, she had a variety of tasks. She drove the truck, gassed up and ran the chainsaw; I was the ground man, pitching brush into the truck or jumping up and down on the brush to tamp it down, and raking up the debris.

That day began like any other summer day on the job. I squinted into a blue sky at the noontime sun. Waves of heat hung in the balance, and sweat trickled out from under the bridge of my glasses, making them slide forward on my nose. With a backward swipe, I pushed them back leaving a mixed trail of dirt and sweat grating like sandpaper on my shiny skin. Kristie raised her tanned, muscular arms over her head in a long stretch, slowly cracking her knuckles before wiping her sweaty palms down the sides of her faded blue jeans. She threw her head back and took a long, deep swig of ice water from her green army canteen, “Thirsty? Want some?” she called over to me. Between the dirt, sawdust and sweat, I longed for a cool taste but suddenly shy to drink from the same container, shook my head “no,” Kristie replaced the lid, screwing it in place before tossing it aside.

The only two left on the job, we slowed down a bit. “Hey you wanna take a break and eat now?” I asked her. She thought for a moment, “Nah. You?” I shook my head. If she didn’t want to eat, then neither did I.

We’d worked hard that morning and had all the brush out of the way. Only the big cuts of the tree trunk remained. I eyeballed them. They looked much too big for us to load. “Hey Kristie, can you give me a hand with this one?” I pointed to one of the smaller chunks. “Sure,” she said and with the help of a cannuk, together we rolled it over to the truck and somehow lifted it. Our success spurred us on.. As if by tacit mutual agreement, we continued to work, slowly maneuvering the larger pieces toward the truck and somehow onto the vehicle using a lot of “elbow grease.” We never set out to be “superwomen” but during the space of that lunchtime break, we managed to load up the truck by persistent Herculean force – it took us forty-five minutes.

Not long after we finished, my dad drove onto the site. “Where are Kirk and the rest of the crew?” he asked, looking around.

“They're on their lunch break. We're the only ones here.” I said.

“Where did the guys go after loading the wood?”
Kristie and I looked at each other and laughed, “We loaded it.”

He looked from the truck to us, and back again to the truck. “You girls loaded that wood up all by yourselves?” He rubbed a hand through his wiry crew cut, “Well I’ll be darn.” At my nod, he just shook his head the way he did when startled. “You girls ‘done real good’.” That’s all he said.

You done real good. Although my dad joked around like this, he was very articulate. He could speak to multi-million dollar corporate heads with as much ease and credibility as he could a stick-picker like me. That ability to shift his speech to better relate to people was a natural part of his personality. I loved it about him.

With sweat oozing from every pore, my clothing caked with dirt and sawdust, I looked down at my scratched arms and suddenly felt extremely proud of myself. We had won my father’s highest praise. Just then he turned to me, “Don’t let your mother know you did this. She’ll shoot me for letting you lift those heavy pieces!”

Looking back, I’m sure Kristie shouldered the brunt of the work. But at just ninety pounds, I carried my fair weight. Together we earned the limelight to shine in my father’s ‘Hard Work’ CafĂ© and become part of the tree lore and legends he would speak of for the rest of his life.

Some thirty years later, in the wee hours of the night just a few weeks before my father passed away, desperately needing to connect, I turned to him, “Dad do you remember when Kristie Kibler and I loaded the truck up with all that wood up by ourselves?”

Suddenly lucid as if the whole cloud of morphine simply had vanished from his body, my father responded clearly. “I couldn’t believe you girls did that.”

I smiled as I realized that while legends may pass on, some memories never do. They still have the awesome power to connect two people.

My Father's Passion

My grandmother kept a diary of her children’s early days. About my father, she wrote of how “things” fascinated him at a very young age. He was tenacious, even then, at trying to figure out how these things fit together and worked. He could entertain himself for long periods when it involved his curiosity.

My father was also a leader and very sure of himself. As a child, he helped look out for his younger siblings. When he became old enough to work, he moved away and got a job. Feeling a strong sense of responsibility, he sent part of the money he earned home to his family to help make ends meet during the Depression years.

Growing up, I remember my father being very passionate about work. He worked three jobs at a time. One of them included a side business of his. He built up a name for himself as “The Tree Man." He painted his logo, the best tree fellers around on the side of his truck. Dad kept adding to his clientele; he rarely lost any of his existing customers. Word about town was that he knew his stuff. Our Sunday routine after church consisted of making a couple of stops where dad would look over new jobs and chat with the owner. He always headed back to the car with a smile, which let us know he’d gotten the job.

Dad's business started out small with an old rickety dump truck, where we kids had to sit on the brush in the back of the truck to keep it from flying off. One of the tree fellers would drive it through town to dump it when it got full. Some of his strong and able-bodied friends, the McDonald brothers, served as tree fellers along with my dad. Even old Uncle Roy McDonald worked for a time.

My brothers, my sister and I all thought summers were the greatest working for dad. It was hard work but he always started with a break early in the day. For us kids, we gobbled down doughnuts and of course, for the climbers, there was always coffee, too. Depending on the customer, we’d have cookies and lemonade or coke on some blazing hot afternoons. We also made pretty good money working for dad. My brother never cared about that, though. He remembers when he made a quarter an hour along with Kirk, the neighborhood kid, who swears he worked for dad since he was seven. They'd spend their money at McCartney's, a local drug store with root beer floats, after work. Whether the money was a little or a lot, my dad made working for him worth our while.

As Dad’s business grew, the design of his trucks improved. He boxed them in and bought a wood chipper to make cutting brush easier. He designed his own trailer with compartments all around to hold better quality tools. He purchased specialty instruments to calculate where a tree would land, and at which angle it should be cut to land in the right direction. Dad learned more and more about his profession. His easygoing ways won customers over from subdivisions in nicer areas with names like Whitehall Village and Lawerence Park.

My father never lost any of his passion; he just added to it. For example, his love for trees grew to include specialty trees called arborvitae, and that branched into a very unique display of bushes in our front, side and back yard. In fact, the local news station often used our property as a backdrop for the local weather forecast.

My father used to go out every day and work with his creations. He would patiently train his bushes to grow in a specific manner and direction. Suddenly, there would be a lush, green archway with flowers hanging down from the center. He’d split up a bush and tease tiny segments of it to look like an oriental piece of art. On other days, he’d stand up on a step ladder and quietly trim the many bushes to look their best. He always had a wave and a smile, or tale to tell about his creations. People often stopped to compliment him or ask his advice. They’d end up talking about local life, and catch an earful of one of dad's many stories.

Life felt very good as I observed my father live out his passions. He taught me if a dream is important enough to you, then you have to be willing to invest yourself in it to succeed.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Start of a Working Man's Day

Don slipped on his faded blue jean jacket but made no effort to button it. Then he fished his cap off the hook and slapped it on his head, adjusting it against the thick shock of white hair underneath. He made his way up from the cellar to the garage where Elmo stood waiting in the back of the truck. With clumsy, arthritic fingers, he pulled the pin and lowered the tailgate so the dog could jump down. Thrusting himself at Don, Elmo, whose body weight exceeded that of his master, got pushed back. Years of hard work had given Don muscles that even old age and a bum knee could not weaken. He cursed his knee—doctors swore the operation would help—but that just made it worse. Now it always ached like the dickens.

Don slid the can of dog food under the can opener, then turned the can upside down, shaking it until the meat plopped into the dog dish. After gobbling it down, Elmo sprang back into the truck and Don slid the bolt into place, securing the tailgate. Don limped over to the cab of his ’39 Ford pick-up and opened the door. Holding his bad leg straight, he inched his way sideways into the small cab.

The truck started up with its peculiar snorts and huffs. The garage door, itself old, rattled into motion. He grinned. These old things sure lasted. As they got moving, he glanced into the rearview mirror and saw how Elmo leaned into the wind, his black ears flapping behind. Don shook his head, amused. With a smile perched on his face, he thought, My pals’ll get a kick out of that. Life is good.

Together, they headed into town. At the stoplight, he honked, Aaoogahh. Nothing like an old horn! His tanned, leathery face broke into an easy grin, as he waved. Everyone knew Don and his little Ford pick-up.

At McDonald’s, Don parked the truck, looking forward to a chat with his car pals. Highlight of my day. He gave the door a good slam to ensure it closed. Out of the corner of his eye, he observed a scowling woman march his way.

“That dog shouldn’t be in the back of the truck. He doesn’t even have any water!”

Don lifted a brow, “Neither do I and you don’t see me complaining.”

“That’s not funny” she bit out the words. “I’m gonna call the cops!”

He shook his head. He couldn’t believe such ridiculousness.

Inside, he ordered his usual—coffee, two creams, two hot apple pies—then slid into the booth where his cronies awaited. Between gulps of coffee, Don reported the exchange that had just taken place outside, drawing laughter and guffaws from the others. “Guess it’s time to go and make a buck,” he sighed.

Outside, he opened the box and tossed Elmo his daily pie ration. Elmo’s tail whipped back and forth in pure joy. “Dumb dog,” he mumbled, affectionately. “Let’s get a move-on.”

This is my father, Don Bovaird. He had a passion for old vehicles, Ford and GMC motors, his dog, McDonalds and the town where we lived. I'll post more about him as we go along.