Sunday, January 24, 2010

Where This Old Dog Learned His Tricks...

I mentioned in a previous post how I owe my love of the open road to my dad and the road trips he “foisted” on us kids in our formative years. Since his 82nd birthday is just a few days away, I’ve been thinking about all the other ways that he has affected my life and how much I owe to him. My dad recently told me how much he enjoys reading my bloviations. I suspect that the satisfaction he takes in my overwrought ramblings is as much driven by the vicarious pride that fathers take in observing their sons (and daughters) as it is by pure journalistic appreciation. In any case, I began thinking about how I could thank him for the lessons he’s taught me, while providing more grist for his reading mill. There were a lot lessons and they have shaped the way I act and, in many ways, have made me the man I am.

Art Cushing was an x-ray technician until shortly after I was born. Then he decided to build houses, so he bought a set of blueprints and did just that. With no training, with little help, he just up and changed his career because he wanted to. And he didn’t do it half-heartedly either. He became one of the leading developers of our home town, even getting interviewed on the radio for his contributions. We all sat around the living room listening to the disk jockey compliment Dad on his company slogan “Every Home a Work of ‘Art;” and then signing off with the classic line of all time, “Lay a brick for us, Art.” Lessons one, two and three: 1.) you can do anything that you put your mind to; 2.) if you’re gonna do something, do it right; and 3.) you can’t take yourself too seriously.

I was a pretty boisterous kid growing up. Always in trouble; always breaking things; the second kid is always the wild one, right? Growing up in a more practical era when the rod was not spared in order to spoil the child, I had my fair share of spankings with the ol’ Pratt & Lambert paint stir stick. But, either the punishment wasn’t severe enough, or I was just incorrigible, because I know my folks got pretty tired of how often they had to discipline me. One day I broke out the window in the front door right after I’d been told to simmer down. Sent to my room, I knew I was in for it and I steeled myself for the worst. But I didn’t feel the stir-stick sting that day. Dad came into the room shaking his head and said, “What are we going to do with you? Believe me son; giving you a spanking hurts me more than it hurts you.” I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I think it must have been some sass-talk. Then Dad said, “You have to see how hard this is. So, I’m not going to spank you; you’re going to spank me.” He then handed me the paint paddle and bent over the dresser. Oh boy, I thought, now’s my chance to get back! But, I couldn’t do it. I cried harder from that punishment than I ever had from the piddly paddle sting on my own bare butt. I can’t remember ever having another spanking after that (except for the principal’s belt I got in the 7th grad for fighting, but that’s a different story.) Obviously, it wasn’t that I suddenly became a perfect kid, but I did begin to see the importance of minding my parents. Lesson four: it really does hurt your parents more than it hurts you.

Summer nights in the sixties were spent outside. We ran through the spray of the mosquito truck as it rumbled down the alley behind our house. (Insert your choice of a long-term-effect-on-my-brain joke here. We used to play with a vial of mercury too, so feel free to draw your own conclusions, but kindly keep them to yourself. We’re quite happy in our little fantasy world here…) We played hide and seek in the pitch black back yards of our neighborhoods, (without cell phones to keep track of us.) In the fading light of our ½ acre back yard my dad hit grounders and fly balls to my brother Stan and me, coaching us to use “Two hands! Two hands!” and not try to be cool by catching the ball with one hand – which really meant being lazy. A good lesson in and of itself, but the lesson that really stuck with me is the one to go all out. Give it everything you’ve got. Work hard, play hard. That lesson was driven into us night after night, hit after hit. A phrase that predates Nike’s “Just Do It” by 30 years and that our family still uses to this day when we talk about really going for it: “Dive for that, Cushing!”

On Sabbaths, the only approved fun was Bible games and nature rides and hikes. Any games were a blast with our family – we love to play. But our favorite after-church activity was taking a drive “uppa-mountain” and a hike through the mountains west of town. We were very lucky growing up that Rocky Mountain National Park was just uppa-mountain from our home in Loveland. This little slice of heaven is arguably proof to even the hardest core atheist that there is an intelligent design to our world. We were taught that God is in everything and has entrusted man with this amazing Earth; that we shouldn’t take our stewardship lightly; that we should appreciate all of nature. Whenever I feel the need to spiritually rejuvenate, I just get outside. I believe that God speaks to us through the sounds of nature. He whispers through the sighing of the Ponderosas; he shouts through the roar of Ouzel Falls; he speaks through the shrill of the Whistle Pig on Trail Ridge Road, and holds his tongue so we can meditate surrounded by the silence of the aspen grove. The bite of the thin air above 11,000 feet clears your mind and brings you closer to heaven, if not into heaven itself. The wildflowers on the tundra are the decorations of heaven. I’ve learned to appreciate and protect these things and they bring me peace.

Friday nights were a time for music, but we weren’t listening to the Beatles or the Beach Boys (that was every other night of the week, but only through the transistor radio under the covers once the lights were out.) Friday music was either classical or homemade. Beethoven was the classical composer of choice. We listened to beautiful sonatas and exciting overtures played on the old Hi-Fi. The 5th symphony and Eroica were musical pieces that would literally transport me, and still do. I would close my eyes and “watch the movies they created in my head.” On more energetic evenings, we’d strike up the Cushing band – Dad on the marimba, Stan and Lisa on the clarinet, me on the trombone, Janis on the piano, Roger on the drums, and Mom singing along. Oh what a joyful noise we made! We were taught that it was a special talent to be able to make music and appreciate music, and to use the talents we were given.

That’s not all I learned from my Dad. I learned to shingle a roof, pour concrete, pound a nail, fix a washing machine, restore an old car, ride a motorcycle, drive a stick, mow a lawn, ski on water and on snow, carry a handkerchief, a knife & Chapstick at all times, and, yes, lay a brick. I learned to appreciate Alfred Hitchcock and Rod Serling on one end of the spectrum, and Carol Burnett and Red Skelton on the other. I learned how to play volleyball and mumblypegs, Rook and chicken foot. I learned how to break a sweat and keep my cool. I learned how to give to those less fortunate than me and to not complain about what I have. I learned how to laugh at myself and to be careful how I laugh at others.

I learned to not waste – that if something was broken, you don’t just throw it away and buy a new one; you fix the old one! I learned the value of a dollar and that saving is better than spending. I learned that while money can’t buy you happiness, it can buy you cool stuff; and that if you accumulate too much stuff, you can put it out at the end of the driveway and someone will haul it away for you – for free!

I learned how to love my wife and be faithful till death do us part. I learned that the greatest success I can ever have comes from being able to watch my children grow and succeed. I learned that loving your family and spending time with them is the greatest joy I can ever hope to have.

Thanks Dad – for these lessons and all the others that you’ve taught me. Happy Birthday!