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Gardening with Dad: Lessons, not Dreams, From My Father…

Inch by Inch, Row by Row;

Gonna make this Garden Grow

All it Takes is a Rake and a Hoe

and a Piece of Fertile Ground…

-The Garden Song, Dave Mallet, (c) 1972

Dad is a born gardener, even if he never lived on a farm.

He loves to think about the good, rich earth, and how he can work it, how he can make it better . His whole life has been dedicated to growing, advancing, husbanding. From his early days helping his Dad till his meager Victory Garden, to raising four boys, to starting and nurturing and growing businesses, to building, and re-building cottages and homes, Dad has been fascinated all the days of his life with the fruits of one’s hands and one’s mind.

Of the many lessons Dad imparted to me was the simple joys of growing a vegetable garden. Nothing big, just basking in the knowledge of a day’s work done well, and enjoying (quite literally) the fruits of ones’ labor.

I moved my garden this year. My old plot was losing it’s daylight due to an adjacent jack-pine that seemed to have added forty feet to its height in the last two years, and the soil was infected with some sort of fungus that has lately been ruining my tomatoes. So, I tilled up a new parcel in the empty lot (empty, except for the taxes on it I pay, and the rocks I discovered), and have been working it now for a week or two.

I’ve been raking, and tilling, and plowing in new topsoil and manure. I’ve been sowing seeds, and planting sets. One hopes that, come September, it will be resplendent with opulent produce– not choked with rankling weeds. So, I work and work…

All the while, I can see my dad; that is, I see him as he was forty years ago, when I was a small boy: in his corduroy shorts and ruined MacGreggor oxford gardening shirt, tilling up the soil, raking out the rocks and trash, setting up the RainBird sprinkler. And, of course, his ever-present smoking pipe was going full blast, chocked full of Sir Walter Raleigh smoking tobacco. Usually, we were serenaded by the dulcet tones of Ernie Harwell, telling us over the radio the latest exploits of the Detroit Tigers.

Dad would methodically rake, and re-rake, and re-re-rake each patch, getting as many stones and rocks out as he could. He’d plant Endive, and corn (which always developed borers), and radishes, and cucumbers, and squash. He’d show me patiently how to plant the tomato and pepper sets. When his boys would tire of the work, he’d labor on.

Then, in between remodeling the house, or coaching Little League, or building a cottage, or muscling his business forward, Dad would weed the garden. Weed, weed, weed. Out in the garden, puffing his pipe, hoe in hand, chopping, bending, weeding.

Dad’s mind was truly of singular purpose: To work hard toward a goal . Oftentimes, those goals were highly personal, and unspoken: But always, ultimately it was this: Realize the bountiful fruits of his seemingly endless labor. Work like, well.. Working twelve-hour days to create a business that allowed him to retire early. Go to Church every Sunday, to better understand his life and his God. Buy a small lot on Lake Michigan, and build a tiny cottage, all for about $5,000 (–that today, they say, is worth some three-quarters of a million dollars). Dad worked, and worked, and worked–, and he continues to work to this day, at the age of 86.

When I was taking a nap, as high schoolers often are wont to do, back during those years, he said casually as I awoke in front of some mindless pap on the television: “All I can tell you is, brother, when you’re dead, you’ll sleep a long time.”

Lessons , not dreams from my Father.

Lessons, like: Put a can of water at the base of each tomato set as you plant it. Only plant carrot seeds about a quarter-inch down. Mix in lots of nitrogen rich compost, manure, if you’ve got it. Wake up early. Nobody will earn equity in you like you. Entertain yourself, don’t pay others to do it. Give to the church– they’ll always pay you back. Have respect for the cattle, and don’t cook the steaks more than medium rare. Run for public office: It’s a treasure to be cherished. Paint pictures, enjoy the quiet life. Play golf when you can, when everything else is settled. Measure twice, cut once. Serve your country, it’s served you.

Dad never went to Harvard. Dad went to war. And the education was far more priceless.

Unlike Barack Obama Senior– who did go to Harvard– my dad wound up laying in an Army Field Hospital in North Africa when he was 19. Christmas Eve, 1943 found him staring at the corner of the hospital tent near where he lay, his right leg torn to pieces and turning to hamburger, watching the snow blow in under the tent-flaps. How could it be so cold in a desert, was his main Christmas pondering that year.

President Obama’s dad, when he was at that age where other young men were plucked to serve their country, was sluicing around the streets of Honolulu, trying to find out where the good beer and women were. All the while, he was contemplating what was wrong with American Imperialism, what was good about whiskey, and whether or not he should stick around for the kids he’d sired from three women. He’d long since abandoned the Catholic church that had given him is broad educational path, taking up instead the allures of Islam and changing his middle name to “Hussein”.

Compliments of the likes of Sidney Poitier and Jackie Robinson and John Kennedy, Obama Sr. was receiving a fine education that terminated in the streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts. In contrast, my Dad came home on a 30-day furlough to Lansing, Michigan after V-E Day with instructions to report back for duty in Alabama in the fall of ’45 to prepare for the invasion of Japan.

Dad’s childhood was, by orders of magnitude, more hardscrabble than Barack Obama Senior could even dream of. Being in a tent for a hospital was nothing new to Dad by the time he arrived at one in Tunis: He’d lived in a tent for a year in 1935, when his dad lost their house. My grampa, Dad said, called it “camping”, but it was pretty darned permanent, there in the depths of the depression. No government program parachuted in and reworked Grampa’s mortgage for him.

Dad once told me that chewing tar that oozed and congealed from the railroad ties was as good as Beechnut, and all the kids he knew would search out such goodies along the tracks. He had one pair of underwear, and one pair of pants.

Uncle Sam scooped him up in 1943, shoved a rifle at him, and told him to march. “Oh, hell,” he once remarked, “We were all just cannon fodder. We barely even had names”.

Barack Obama Senior passed onto his son a legacy of gilded education, a sense of churlish entitlement, misogyny and alcoholism. Dad passed on to me –and my three brothers– a tireless quest for unspoken and quiet goals, and the absolute knowledge that, in America, you could achieve them… if you don’t mind working. If you don’t mind the tilling, the spading, the raking, the weeding, the hoeing.

Working in the garden these last few days has set before me the rubric of John Edwards trope of two Americas. But, they aren’t the two Americas that the now-deposed randy senator thought they were: The two Americas I was observing are the two Americas where one works , and the other doesn’t . Where one aspires to goals, and the other conjures malicious entitlement. Where one starts at the bottom, yearning for the top, and the other settles for the middle, as long as no one else rises above them. Where one plants, and sows, and weeds, and the other insists on their fair share.

Gardening is hard-ass work, at whiles. The rear-tine tiller I used to plow up the new space was like wrestling an iron-clad compactor with square wheels, bouncing, banging, digging. My wife gives me a small budget every year to do all that needs to be done in the garden, making sure to not spend more than the produce itself would cost at the supermarket. So, I weed, I thin, I hoe, I water, I fertilize, all summer long in those spare moments. And, right around election-time, I enjoy fresh salsa, and beautiful stir-fries, and crisp carrots..

A week from this Sunday is Father’s Day. I love you, Dad. I thank you for the gardening tips– And all the other Lessons.

And allowing me to come up with my own dreams.

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