I was about nine or ten when I learned one of the most important lessons of my life.
My (biological) Dad died when I was four. I just have a few flashes of happy memories with him: working the fields on the tractor, racing him from the barn to the house, and sitting on his lap and driving the car.
Yes, we start driving young, on the farm.
Mom remarried when I was nine. In those five intervening years, I pretty much ran wild and was as productive as a gnat. I was a spoiled little brat, and I didn’t have a clue what work really was.
This all changed with my step father.
My Dad believed that hard work was our salvation. That we were put on this earth to work. That the most important verse in the Bible was “By the sweat of your brow shall ye eat.”
You can imagine that my religion was fundamentally opposed to his.
When you are nine, however, your options for freedom are limited to what adults will allow you. My options became very limited.
I still remember the first time that I really learned what work was and how to do it. We had a number of buildings on our farmyard. One of these went by the name “The Big Garage”.
We called it this because it was bigger than the “Little Garage”.
The Big Garage was in need of a hip replacement. Hip roof, that is. Mom and Dad went up on the roof early one morning and started removing shingles. This was the mid 70s, so worry about rain did not enter into the equation.
It was the original scorched earth policy.
I watched for a while. The old shingles came off steadily and cascaded down the roof to the ground. It was sort of cool. For about five minutes. Then I lost interest and started to walk away.
“I’m glad you are here,” said Dad. “I need your help.”
This didn’t sound good to me; however, walking away from your parent, in those days, was hazardous to your health.
He crawled down the ladder and walked up to me. “We are going to burn these old shingles in the field,” he said.
This is back in the days when burning was a socially, politically, and environmentally sound way of disposing of garbage. Also fun.
“What I need you to do is take these shingles that are on the ground and put them in the stoneboat (cart). Then you can set them on fire.”
It sounded like work, but the chance to set something ablaze was very appealing. I looked at the shingles on the ground.
There were thousands. Probably – without stretching the truth in the least – at least a hundred thousand shingles.
It was impossible.
I did what I always do when I’m faced with an impossible task: nothing.
Dad looked at me with something like compassion. “Don’t you know how to work?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
“Pick up one shingle and put it in the cart.”
So I did. Then I looked expectantly at him.
“Now do it again.”
So I did.
“Now keep doing that until the cart is full. Then we’ll empty it, and you can start again.”
I knew I couldn’t say that moving one shingle was too hard or too much work. I had too much pride for that. So I picked up a shingle and put it in the cart. And another. And another.
I finally realized that if I grabbed two shingles, I’d be done twice as quick. Then three. Then a big jump to five. Then as many as I could carry.
Go to the pile. Grab shingles. Put them in the cart. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
I did that until all one hundred and twenty six thousand three hundred and twenty seven shingles were in a big pile in the field. While I was really sore and tired, I felt really good. Dad said I had done a man’s work, which made me feel even better.
Plus I got to light the shingles on fire.
It was a long time until I realized how valuable a lesson I learned that day. No matter what the problem – no matter how seemingly insurmountable it seems – you just start by grabbing the smallest part of it and completing it. Then you do the next little bit. Keep doing it until you are done.
Rinse and repeat.
It’s really easy to get overwhelmed by life. Some days I wake up and think about all the things that I can’t do anymore. Or the things that I do less well. Or that take four times as long as they used to.
It’s easy to give up and watch Netflix. If I can’t do what I used to be able to do, what use am I?
And then I remember that lesson I learned, all those years ago; one shingle at a time, Ron, and eventually the job will be done. Start with the smallest bit and keep on going.
One shingle at a time.
Thanks for that, Dad.