Dad at the LatheMy father died twenty-four years ago today.

As I drove to the airport this morning — I’m on a short trip to San Diego — my mind drifted back to him and what he was like.

I don’t think of Dad often anymore, and when I do it’s mostly superficial stuff: Dad was fat. His hair was wild and wavy. He could be gruff. He was funny and had a contagious laugh. Sometimes he wasn’t a very nice guy. Sometimes he was. But it’s tough to remember what Dad was like as a presence, you know?

What I remember most about him was how Dad could do anything he set his mind to. This isn’t nostalgic hero worship. It’s how he actually was. My father could teach himself to do anything he wanted. And he wanted to do a lot.

A Self-Made Man

I’m not sure where my father’s love of learning and experimenting came from. His parents were a simple, devout Mennonite couple.

When I knew Grandma and Grandpa, they managed a small farm. They had milk cows. They raised blueberries. They grew and canned vegetables. Grandpa cut his own wood. He’d been a janitor at the local high school, but by the time I was around, he was retired. Every night, he and Grandma sipped Sanka and played Scrabble. Their existence was simple, ordered, and serene.

My father wasn’t simple. His life wasn’t ordered. He was not a serene man. He was complex. He was messy. He was boisterous. He was a force of nature. (I come by my ADD honestly.) He had many interests, and he liked to indulge them all.

  • Dad wanted to be a pilot, so he took flying lessons. In his twenties, he became a flight instructor at a small local airpot. When my brothers and I were young, he’d sometimes take one of us on a joy ride to Salem or Eugene. He stopped flying, though, after crashing his Cessna while practicing touch-and-go landings in the field behind our trailer house.
  • Dad wanted to sail solo to Hawaii. Throughout the 26 years that I knew him, he nearly always owned a sailboat. (The only times he didn’t were when our family was mired deepest in poverty.) When I was very young, he built his own sailboat following instructions in borrowed library books. My family didn’t travel for family vacations; my parents took us sailing down (and up) the Columbia River.
  • Dad loved electronics. He built a lot of his own gadgets, designing and soldering circuit boards. When I was old enough, he helped me build a radio so that I could listen to Portland Timbers games and old-time radio dramas on local stations.

Dad built other stuff too. He built so much stuff that projects were often abandoned half-finished.

He ground mirrors to build his own telescope — then left them lying around in a bedroom drawer for years. He constructed a windmill, but something about his math was off and the thing collapsed from the weight of the canvas sails when he tried to mount them. He constructed outbuildings on our two acres, and then built an addition to the back of the trailer house — an addition that was never really completed.

In high school, I took over Dad’s car — a 1982 Datsun 310GX. (Looking back, I’m not sure how this happened but it did.) The car “blew a head gasket” one day. Rather than pay a mechanic to repair it, Dad tore the engine apart himself, found and fixed the problem, then re-assembled everything. He taught me how to change the oil and the brake pads and the headlights…but there’s no way I could ever pull apart an engine!

When personal computers became “affordable” in 1977 — looking back, they were the equivalent of $11,000 in today’s dollars! — Dad bought one and taught himself to program it. (And I taught myself to program it too.)

My father could play guitar, fly an airplane, sail a boat, build a boat, build a computer, program a computer, build a radio, build a greenhouse, build a house, repair an engine, write fiction and poetry, build complex machinery, build a telescope, start a business (or six), and more. And he taught himself how to do almost all of these things.

A Serial Entrepreneur

As I’ve mentioned before, my father was a serial entrepreneur. He was always starting businesses.

He programmed accounting software but could never find anyone to buy it. (It was 1980, I think. He was a few years too early.) He built a greenhouse complete with automated watering system, then tried to start a nursery. Nobody wanted to buy his azalea and arborvitae. He mowed lawns. He sold chocolate bars.

Most of his business ventures failed, but twice he hit paydirt.

First, he built a business called Harvest Mills, which first manufactured wheat grinders, then added food dryers to the line-up.

Little Harvey

In 1985, eight years after he sold Harvest Mills, Dad founded Custom Box Service, a company that produces small runs of corrugated packaging. Dad designed and built all of the machinery himself. Those machines have been in constant use for thirty-three years. They haven’t been completely trouble-free, but come on! These are machines created by a random guy from rural Oregon. That’s pretty amazing.

A Modern Homesteader

When I was in second grade, my parents decided they wanted to move to Canada. For once, they were flush with money. My father had sold Harvest Mills to a bankruptcy attorney in Utah and was to be paid $5000 every three months for the next fifteen years.

When Dad had money, he liked to spend it. If he had money, he’d buy a sailboat. Or an airplane. Or a hi-fi stereo. Or a personal computer.

This time was no different. This time, though, he wanted to use the money to buy twenty (or forty) acres in rural British Columbia. I don’t know why. (He was always afraid of nuclear war, though, so this could very well have been a way to escape the “blast zone”.)

Vanderhoof, British Columbia

Mom and Dad piled us three kids into one of our two beat-up Plymouth Valiants — we called one “dirty white” and the other “dirty red” — and drove us fourteen hours north to Vanderhoof, a small town that’s pretty much what you’d expect to find in central B.C. so close to Alaska. There, we spent a long weekend in real-estate offices and visiting properties.

I remember driving down dirt roads and strolling along swollen streams. I remember wandering around farmyards. I remember watching a war movie in our hotel room. But I don’t remember any of the houses we visited, and I don’t remember why we never moved. My guess is that Dad didn’t have as much money as he thought he did. Or perhaps Mom had objections to moving to the middle of nowhere?

Instead, he bought twenty or forty acres near the trailer house and tried his hand at being a wheat farmer. It was hot and dirty work, but it was another thing that he could teach himself to master. Unfortunately, he had no way to master the national economy, which didn’t have a high demand for wheat when it came time to sell. He abandoned that venture too.

An Inspiration

One of my favorite exercises is trying to trace a financial family tree. What did my parents teach me about money? What attitudes did I get from them? What habits? And what did their parents pass onto them? Did I get anything from that generation?

Dad was self-reliant…and he wasn’t. He could do almost anything…but he seldom did. He was a dreamer…but he rarely pursued his dreams.

For many years, I thought of myself as “not like Dad”. I don’t know if this was a conscious decision or if I simply believed that I was different. In any event, I didn’t think of myself as a DIY guy. I couldn’t build a windmill or a sailboat or a telescope. I couldn’t repair an automobile engine.

In recent years, however, I’ve been very aware of just how much I picked up from my father, how much he influenced my money blueprint. I can see where I got many of my ideas and habits and values.

I’m intellectually curious. I’m entrepreneurial. I love travel and adventure. I’m drawn to the idea of living somewhere remote — just me and Kim and our zoo. And lately I’m learning to love DIY.

The older I get, the more I see my father in me.

15 Replies to “A self-made man”

  1. Greg says:

    “but there’s now way I could ever pull apart an engine!”

    JD – great post! Typo above. Should be “no” way.

  2. Joe says:

    Your dad sounds like a very interesting guy. It’s pretty amazing he taught himself to do all that stuff. Sometimes, I feel like you do too. My dad made a lot of mistakes when I was young and I couldn’t understand the choices he made. Now that I’m older, I understand him a bit better. Life is complicated.

  3. Papa Foxtrot says:

    My grandfather was a very DIY person himself. He fixed a broken bumper on my car. I think that is why he became a contractor.

  4. Honey Smith says:

    let’s be real and acknowledge that hobby-hopping/challenges with follow-through may run in the family as well. It seems to be a common difficulty with intelligent, curious types who are interested in many things.

  5. EM says:

    Nice post, but don’t be too quick to simplify your grandparents’ lives. Managing a small farm required many DIY skills that have been lost by subsequent generations. I’d bet that your father’s ability to problem solve was heavily influenced by watching your grandfather sort out problems around the farm.

  6. One Frugal Girl says:

    Your dad sounds like an interesting guy. I admire those who can successfully tinker with stuff and make it work. Not so long ago I took apart my ancient dryer and figured out how to replace a broken temperature switch. I had so much fun unscrewing the parts and putting it all back together. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn any of this from my dad. I don’t think he even owns a screwdriver. He’s amazing in many other ways, but he uses duct tape to solve all of his problems.

  7. JoDi says:

    Your dad sounds simultaneously like a very interesting person and very hard to live with. It must have been a bit of a rough ride for your mom to be married to someone who was always so full of ideas and tough for you as children too!

    “He could do almost anything…but he seldom did. He was a dreamer…but he rarely pursued his dreams.”

    That bit confuses me because it sounds like he learned (and did) a ton of things – more than most people ever do in a longer lifetime, and he started a lot of different businesses, even though they didn’t all succeed. He pursued more dreams than most people even have and created 2 successful businesses in his short adult life. Your definition of seldom and rarely must be different from mine!

  8. Kristen says:

    Teaching yourself how to do things was a whole different thing in those pre YouTube days!

  9. stellamarina says:

    A very thoughtful piece of writing. This and the article you linked to about the dad who had a lifetime pass on American Airlines both show how complex people are and remind us to be gentle in judging our parents and ourselves.

  10. fatdaddy says:

    “I don’t think of Dad often anymore”

    Man, as a father to small children, that hit a nerve.

  11. JanBo says:

    If you look at the families of genius men they often have very scattered family lives. In fact that your father stayed around is pretty good for the age and time. I think your father was much more like the WWII people then the generation he ended up in. I am sorry you no longer have him to hang out with. These men tend to be great elders to be around.
    My father was much like yours. His “advantage” was a father who gave money instead of time. He did not know how to take things apart and put them back together because he was raised in boarding schools. The check was always there though.
    Dad was impulsive. I remember coming home to a jet ski—in our swimming pool! He built a bomb shelter in the 1960’s next to our house. He started several businesses, wrote poetry and collected poster art. He indulged my mother’s need for space and traveled a great deal in his 50’s and 60’s without her. She complained about it later, but it was her choice in the beginning. I consider my childhood a good one filled with travel, adventure, hiking, bartering and planting–along with some hits with a belt, screaming matches and hyper competitive sibs.
    The one thing I have learned is that we always think someone had a better family then us. Some do. Most do not. We are who we are because of who we were raised by and what we do with that raising. Right?

  12. Sandy says:

    OMG I laughed at the “practicing touch-and-go landings in the field behind our trailer house”. Your dad sounds like a real character and I mean that in the nicest way. He sounds adventurous, interesting, motivated and focused when he wanted to be…. but unable to stay focused to finish many of his ventures and that sounds perhaps like a manifestation of impatience/depression/anxiety/ADHD? Not an easy mix for children especially to understand and live with. Some of the smartest people generally have a complex problem with ‘what is the point of it all’ and that seems to be a major stumbling block that prevents fruition of the original idea because obviously the plans grind to a halt. You absolutely have inherited your dad’s vision and drive, probably along with some of the other problematic ‘stuff’ too, as have many of us, your readers, from our own upbringings which is why we can relate. Anyway, it’s good to read about your dad’s successes too and the fact that the machinery is still in use at the box factory is amazing indeed! Many people don’t have the first clue about breaking down and rebuilding an engine either. He sounds like a bit of a genius to me actually.

  13. Kimberly says:

    This post reminded me of my husband’s father. My father passed away when I was 7 so I don’t have very many “father type” memories. When my husband and I started dating and I met is parents, I was in awe of his father who seemed to be able to do anything he set mind to. He built guitars and taught himself to play, learned to paint vehicles and repaired any and everything. He was also a voracious reader. His family was from the Mennonites in the Lebanon, OR area. He moved himself and his young family north to work at a brewery- which caused a lot of strain with the rest of the family. He worked hard all his life and was an awesome grandfather to our boys.
    Thank you for reminding me 🙂

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