It was a Saturday in the Spring of 1983. I was five years old. Every year about this time we loaded our Spring and Summer yearling calves from the previous year and took them to market. In the livestock world a group of calves like this is called a “calf crop.” Every year we loaded our 25 foot gooseneck trailer down with, what Dad hoped to be, a heavy calf crop. We sold them at a local sale barn in Pilot Point, TX. This is the same sale barn I referenced in another writing a few weeks ago called “The Day I Got “Hi.” Some of my most beloved childhood memories were made on Saturdays selling our calf crop in Pilot Point.
On this particular Saturday our calves ran through the auction ring selling for market prices. Dad seemed happy with what they “brought” so we left our ringside seats and headed for the lobby to pick up a check then head home. We left the lobby making our way through the maze of trucks and trailers in the dusty gravel parking lot when Dad saw someone he knew.
“Gene Walker! How the heck are ya?” Dad exclaimed. “Ain’t seen you in a long time.”
“Reggie, I know….been too long,” Gene said as the two of them shared a freight train-like handshake. “I’m fine…and you?
“Ahh, can’t complain, Gene. We need rain, but other’n that, doin’ alright.”
“I know! I know…and who is this?” Gene motioned toward me.
“Gene, this is my youngest son, Hunter.”
“Hunter!….son-of-a-gun…last time I saw you you’s in diapers, boy. It’s nice to meet you.”
Gene extended his hand to shake mine. Turning my eyes to the ground, I reached out with a limp arm. He clinched my hand with something I can only describe as having the feel of tree bark and the strength of a horse jaw. His hands were massive and forceful. He shook mine with all the tenderness he could muster. I didn’t speak, pulled away from his hand, and shrunk behind my Dad’s leg. They finished their conversation and Gene walked away, disappearing through the trucks to the door of the sale barn. We walked the opposite direction toward the back of the lot. When Dad and I got to our truck he followed me around to the passenger side where he stopped, looked around, then squatted down in front of me. He grabbed me by the shirt and shoved me up against the door of our 1978 brown and tan Ford F250.
“Let me tell you something, young man!”
I was startled. Scared. His blue eyes grew a deeper shade, piercing out from under the sweat rings of his work hat. He was trying not to grit his teeth.
“Don’t you ever…EVER…do that again.”
I didn’t speak, but the look on my face said I didn’t know what he was talking about.
“When you meet a man you look him in the eye. You speak….UP! You shake his hand. You give him the respect he is due. That man is your elder and you treated him badly, son. Don’t you ever do that again.”
He let me go in a way that both released me and sent a tremor through my shoulders. We climbed in the truck and started home. I sat staring out the window, tears streaming down my cheeks. It was several minutes before he broke the silence and things started to feel normal again. He never said another word to me about the incident. He never revisited my lack of respect for Gene Walker and never corrected me again along the lines of offering polite, common courtesy to someone you meet. He never needed to.
I realize this story may evoke all kinds of reactions. It may paint my Dad as a harsh authoritarian. Or, as a narcissistic parent concerned with how my social courtesies reflected on him. Those would be fair assessments. Dad could be harsh. And, he could be concerned—like everyone—with how he looked. With many years removed I can only reflect back on this instance with gratitude.
I am grateful for my parents. I am grateful for my Dad and the disciplinarian he was. There was no nagging about misbehavior. He didn’t scream “NO NO!” twenty times before he grounded me. There was no counting to three. He corrected me immediately, honestly, typically leaving 10 licks on my butt from a thick western belt that said “REGGIE” across the back. Then, he would hold me till I stopped crying, saying he disciplined me because he loved me…that it was all over now…that I could move forward without guilt.
This is not about discipline methods. I realize how volatile this subject is, and I am offering no directives or endorsements. Your home is yours to govern according to your convictions. But, I am going to offer a perspective here about children and parenting. I have been a parent for the better part of two decades. If there is a mistake to make I have made it, yet, somehow, I keep figuring out ways to make new mistakes. Success, failure, experience, and advice from a multitude of wise people have led me to a significant conclusion. It is a reality we must consider if we hope to entrust the world to strong, well-adjusted people after we are gone.
Children start becoming who they are going to be the day they are born.
Stay with me.
Young children do not fit in well with the hustle and pace of modern life. We are a society who can order anything, having it delivered to our doors in days, even hours. We don’t wait well. We don’t endure well. We have been programmed away from these things. This impatience has been transferred to our children—to their character and behavior. This is why you can’t look into a restaurant, airport, car, or plane without seeing children staring into the hypnotic glow of a screen. To be clear, I am not Amish. Jen and I have iPhones. We gave our 15 year old a phone when he started attending high school. Our home is technological and we understand, fully, the battle this can be. Kids get bored. Kids complain. They make messes. They disrupt. It is much easier to just pacify them with something.….to keep them quiet, safe, and occupied until later when they learn how to act, what to be, who to become. This is a devastating holding pattern. Children who begin their lives distracted but unengaged, without shaping and correction, expect much of the world and little of themselves.
Though my Dad was flawed as a parent, I could never say he wasn’t engaged and intentional. Looking back, I am happy to offer him a lot of grace. Any mistakes he made were full speed and out of love. From the day Dad made his memorable “appeal” to me against the truck all the way up to this day, I have never once introduced myself to someone without looking them in the eye, doing my best to warmly say “nice to meet you.” It is a learned, but now natural response, and, in most cases it is even genuine. This is one simple, outward, social example of fruit in my life from years of strong, intentional parenting. I take no credit for anything good about me. My nature as a child was to shrink back, to be afraid, to steal, to hide, to gossip, to be lazy. Likewise, my nature as a parent is to be disengaged, distracted, and lazy. Have you ever noticed that no one has to be taught these things? They may “grow” in them from seeing them modeled, but everyone inherently knows how to be selfish. Virtues must be taught. Even common courtesy must be taught and modeled. Early. Have you ever met someone with clear-eyed, polite children who greet people confidently and thought to yourself, “wow, I hope my kids end up like that.” Stop hoping. There is no magic age where a child emerges from some shadowy, semiconscious state and suddenly begins to take shape. Courtesy, work ethic, coping skills, and strong character are ours to impart.
The stature of an adult begins with the forming of a child. I am issuing a fresh challenge to myself. Will you join me? What is one way we can work toward this today?
Oh, and Mr. Gene Walker, if you ever read this. I apologize. It was very nice to meet you.
March 11th, 2021