STORIES MY FATHER TOLD ME WHILE MY MOTHER SLEPT
My mother—now 84—fell down and broke her hip, her leg in several places, and perhaps
a bone or two in her foot, if stitches tell no lies. But, she’s handling it well. I mean she’s
certainly handling it better than I would. Of course, she’s had more experience than I’ve
had when it comes to medical tragedy, and, strangely, it is her innocence that has buoyed
her against the relentless, ever-emerging maelstroms of her life. So, in a way, Life had
prepared her. However nothing had prepared her for two Percocet.
And, nothing had prepared us either.
From the moment those pills kicked in she was obstinate; the answer to everything was
‘NO’. For several hours, she flatly refused to leave her wheelchair for the comforts of bed.
It appeared to be nothing more than sheer belligerence. She admitted to being tired; she
complained about suffering greatly from sitting so many hours in that wheelchair, but
absolutely refused to go to bed. It took the singular and combined efforts of my father,
myself, and more than one kindly (long-suffering) staff person, to eventually persuade her.
Meanwhile it went on like this, for hours:
“Do you want us to call someone and have them help you back into bed?”
“Didn’t you just say that you’re tired?”
“Didn’t you just tell us that you were sore from sitting in that wheelchair all day long?”
“Yes, you did. You told us you were sore…”
“No, I did not.”
“Yes, you did. So, why don’t you let us help you get into bed, where you can relax a little?”
It was the Percocet speaking.
After several hours of this, she finally gave in. Under protest she was hoisted out of the
chair and back into bed, and went immediately to sleep. Did she remember any of this
once the Percocet had worn off?
And, when we told her about it, she thought we were joking, though why we would conspire
to joke about a thing like that I cannot imagine.
My father, a wonderful combination of common sense, endless caring, and keen wit, had
the common sense to immediately instructed the nurse to never again give his wife more
than one Percocet. After my mother had nodded off, we were left alone to talk.
In the hotel business, where I work, answering a question directly is considered offensive
behavior; giving a guest an answer they don’t want to hear is an even greater offense of
course—it’s considered rude. And, in this French hotel, we are expected to begin every
answer to any question with something that might be found printed, with a flourish, in gold
ink, on the inside of a greeting-card… but much longer and a lot more cloyingly. Naturally
then, I am always delighted to hear that an arriving guest is an engineer, because my
father—an engineer—prefers a direct answer to a direct question. So, I told him that I feel
a sense of relief when an engineer stands before me, waiting to check-in. I know that if that
engineer asks me for a brochure, I can simply hand him one, and that’ll be the end of the
transaction. I also take some comfort in knowing that if he asks a simple yes-or-no
question, and I answer in a mono-syllable, he won’t stomp out of the office in an
aristocratic huff, or run directly to the owner to pout about how rudely he’s been treated.
My father, whom I admire and respect, laughed, shook his head, snorted derisively, and
replied: “If two engineers meet in a hallway, and the only thing they have to do is say ‘good
morning’, at least one of them is going to fuck it up.”
I laughed so hard I could hardly breathe.
In a single sentence he completely destroyed my life-long belief that all engineers were like
him. “Not only that,” he continued, “but engineers have no sense of humor. If you told an
engineer what I just told you, they’d just look at you blankly. It wouldn’t mean a goddamned
thing to him.”
I was a bit embarrassed because I had never heard my father use the word ‘fuck’ before,
under any circumstances, and when I admitted that, he laughed and said, “I can’t hear that
word without thinking of Dr. Maurice Stacy.” He told me that Dr. Stacy was a Harvard
professor, highly noted, greatly honored, author of articles and books, and, with every
advanced degree attainable, the recognized, leading expert in his field. But, according to
my father, “If Stacy uttered a sentence of seven words, four of those words began with
The very first time he found himself in the presence of Dr. Stacy (my guess, early 1950’s),
they were on a train with a vice president from Universal Atlas Cement. “A Vice President!”
my father repeated (just as if that title meant something to either one of us). Then he went
on to explain, “In those days there were only about three or four vice presidents for every
working man.” So, this vice president, and Dr. Stacy, and my father were going somewhere
to look over some land the company was interested in leasing for its mineral rights, and
the VP casually asked Dr. Stacy, “Tell me doctor, how do you go about determining if there
are minerals under the surface on a piece of property?” Rather than launch into a
discourse on topological formations, escarpment analysis and eluviation, Dr. Stacy,
Harvard professor, with every advanced degree attainable in any aspect of Geology,
highly noted, greatly honored, author of every article ever written on the matter and
several, exhaustive, definitive books on the subject, looked at the VP for a bit, then said
this: “Ya’ drill a fuckin’ hole.”
If my father’s imitation of the good doctor’s response does it any justice, Dr. Stacy said that
somewhat snappishly, and with some force... as if talking to an idiot.
Both my father and the VP were, naturally, completely embarrassed, because everybody
in that railway car overheard that statement and was standing up, craning their necks, to
see who had used that word so openly, in the dignity of a public railway car. My father told
me he wanted desperately to act as though he wasn’t with that guy, but—in a passenger
car, on a fast-moving train—there was nowhere to hide.
Later on, during that same trip, while walking around on the land the company was
considering, the vice president was, inevitably, forced to ask Dr. Stacy another question.
Apparently, with some hesitancy he quietly asked Dr. Stacy if he thought the company
should purchase the rights to that land. Stacy replied, “If ya’ did, you’d be steppin’ on your
own fuckin’ dick.”
The VP, confused by that answer, humbly asked, “I’m sorry, Dr., but, I don’t understand.”
Dr. Stacy snapped, “It’d be fuckin’ painful for you, and no one would benefit from it.”
This story somehow led to Barney Meyer.
Barney Meyer was Head of Onsite Materials and Supply (or something of that sort). His job
was to see that everything people like my father needed, in order to build whatever they
were building, was there, on site, wherever that might be, when they needed it. Apparently,
Barney Meyer was a jovial sort of fellow and commonly heard saying things like, “Don’t you
worry, my lads, you can count on me, if you need it, you can rest assured that it’ll there,
waitin’ for you when you arrive!” Unfortunately, Barney Meyer was also completely
incompetent, and it was like pulling teeth to get materials on site in time to begin
construction. There was always something which was not there waitin’ for them when they
arrived, and usually something of fundamental importance.
In the midst of this tale, my mother re-surfaced--though she was still under the influence of
the double dose of Percocet--and my father--who has a dry throat on occasion--got up to
retrieve a piece of hard candy from the pocket of his jacket.
“Where are YOU going?” asked my mother.
“I’m going to get a piece of hard candy.”
“Well, what are you going to do when you get to Heaven?”
“What am I going to do when I get to Heaven?”
“Yeah, just what exactly are you going to do when you get to Heaven?”
“I have no idea what you mean.”
“I mean that in Heaven there is no hard candy. So, what are you gonna do then?”
“How do you know that in Heaven they have no hard candy?”
“THEY are tellin’ me that,” said my mother, pointing lackadaisically in the direction of the
ceiling, and rolling her eyes Heaven-ward..
“Who is telling you that?”
“THEY…” Here, again she made a Heaven-ward gesture with both hands, “They…”
“Really?” said my father good-naturedly, “What else are they tellin’ you?”
“No hard candy for the white guy!” she blurted out.
We all laughed.
“Is that what they’re saying?”
My mother laughed, “Yep. ‘No hard candy for the white guy!’” She laughed and winked at
me, and then she fell instantly back into sleep.
I don’t think either my father or I had much to say after that, for a very long time.
“Seems they have some pretty strict rules in heaven,” I observed.
“Apparently,” said my father.
“You were tellin’ me about Barney Meyer,” I reminded him.
One evening… Did you ever meet Jim Baker?”
“I think I may have met him a couple times, briefly.”
“Jim Baker was one of the nicest guys you would ever want to meet; always a gentleman,
always proper, always nicely dressed; just one of the nicest people you could ever meet.
Courteous, quiet, just a nice guy. So, one evening there were a few of us out to dinner; Jim
Baker and me and maybe another engineer, I forget who—we were all working on some
project out of the Pittsburgh office—so there was probably at least one vice president
involved. It was the end of a long day and we were having dinner in a nice restaurant, so
we were talking about anything but that project. Then somehow somebody mentioned
Barney Meyer. And, you know, I guess good old Jim Baker had reached his limit…Anyway,
somebody mentioned Barney Meyer and Jim Baker blurted out, “FUCK BARNEY MEYER!”
And, everything in that restaurant came to a complete halt. There was nothing but silence.
If you looked around, you could see the same question on everybody’s face, ‘Who’s
Somehow I had a perfect picture of that event, and I began to laugh. “Really,” he said,
“You could see it on their faces—Who’s Barney Meyer?”
I must have laughed for 20 minutes. I could see all those fine diners, forks frozen midway
between plate and lip. "Who’s Barney Meyer?" written on every startled face.
I laughed so hard I could hardly breathe.
“Please, Dad…” I begged, “please don’t say another word for a moment.”
I needed time to catch my breath.
While my mother slept, we slipped away to go get something to eat. And on the way there
my father told me this tale.
“One time, a vice president handed me a letter from the President of American Bridge to
the President of US Steel, saying, ‘Read this and tell me how you would respond.’ So, I
looked at the letter, and it said something like this…
My boys are telling me that your boys are raising a ruckus, saying we don’t have enough
steel on the ground at the upstate site. My boys tell me they have 5000 tons of steel on
the ground, including:
Trusses and Channel.
Maybe you can tell your boys to back off and get to work.
(My father then said…) So, I sat down and wrote this:
Your boys are correct, they do have 5000 tons of steel on the ground upstate, including:
Trusses and Channel.
But, since we can’t build this structure in the air, hang it from a cloud, and slide the
baseplate and columns underneath later, our boys cannot get to work.
Maybe you can tell your boys that our boys will back off when your boys supply them with
the goddamned baseplate and columns they need in order to do that work.
Next time they met, my father handed his written response to the VP, and the VP said,
“Good heavens, I would never send a letter like that to the President of American Bridge.”
My father said, “I know you wouldn’t. You asked me how I would respond. And that is how I
I laughed and said, “Directness seems to be a family trait.” I thought about it a bit and
added, “The only advice I can ever recall getting from Grandma, your mother, was when I
was just a very little boy. I don’t know what I was doing or what I had said but, she took me
aside and told me sternly, “Say what you mean, and mean what you say.”
“And she lived by that too,” said my father. “And everybody knew it.”
Then he told me this story:
“There was an ‘Animal Control Officer’—a dog catcher—one time in our back yard. That
was one of those appointed positions—he’d done somebody a political favor—and that
gave him license to go around catching dogs and hauling them off to the pound. Then, the
owner was forced to come in and bribe the man to get their dog back.
So, one time, my mother looked out the kitchen window and there was a man in a suit
dragging our dog, by the collar, toward the alley. In the alley was a panel truck with the
back doors wide open. My mother went out onto the back step and said, ‘What are you
doing with my dog?’ The man showed a badge and said, ‘I’m taking him in. So-and-so,
down the street said your dog was on his property and tried to bite him.’ My mother said,
‘That dog has never left this property, and you’re not taking him anywhere.’
See, our dog had a long chain to his collar, and it didn’t reach beyond the edge of our
property line. ‘Well, he’s going with me,’ said the man.
‘Wait, just a minute, please,’ said my mother, and she went back in the house.
The man waited willingly of course, thinking he was about to be paid off.
When my mother emerged again she had a double aught six—a shotgun—cradled in her
“Was that a single barrel or a double barrel shotgun?” I asked.
“No, it was a double barrel.”
“Oh, one of those things with two barrels side by side?”
“No, over and under,” he said.
“So,” he continued, “My mother said, ‘You’re gonna chain that dog up just like you found
him, and then you’re gonna get off my property.’ And the man did just that. He had no
doubt whatsoever that my mother meant every word she spoke. She’d always been that
“You’re certainly that way,” I observed.
“We’re all that way,” said my father.
At that moment I felt a familiar glow within. I was kinda proud to be part of a family that,
when we speak, nobody, who has any sense, has any doubts whatsoever whether we
mean what we’ve said.
I don’t know how that led us to Bill Miller, a professor of engineering at Purdue, but it did.
My father told me that the first five minutes of Bill Miller’s engineering class (1945 or so, I
guess) was etched into his mind forever. More than 60 years later he could, and did, tell
me what that instructor said, quite possibly word for word.
Bill Miller walked into class on that first day and said this:
“I’m not taking roll today and I won’t be taking it any time in the future. You’ve paid to take
this course, and whether you attend or not is entirely up to you.
I will be giving short tests from time to time. You may take such tests or not; that’s entirely
up to you. If you take the test, I’ll correct them, so you’ll know where you went wrong.
At the end of the course each of you will be given a problem to solve. You will each have
your own problem…you may work on them together, if you wish, but you’ll be responsible
only for your own; bear that in mind. If you solve that problem by applying what you’ve
learned in this class, you will get an A. If you fail to solve that problem, you will fail this
That’s the way it works in the real world.”
Those few words, quite possibly, encompass the most refreshing and enlightened view I’ve
ever heard concerning advanced education. Attend or not, take the tests or not; in the
end, we’ll test you to see if you’ve learned anything. If we think you’re ready, you’ll be free
to go out into the real world.
If I owned a university—I don’t even know if you can own a university, but if you can and if I
did—that would be the foundation of all the classes given there.
(Yeah, I know, my wife saw that same flaw in it.)
Still, I really wish that actually was the way it worked in the real world. It isn’t.