When I was about 11 my father decided I needed a job. Actually it was a conspiracy between my Dad and his best friend Ben. They were a formidable pair, being 6 foot 6 and 6 foot 7 respectively, and were both intimidating uniformed cops who kept me respectful and on point with a combination of huge smiles and manly presence. When they came into a room it seemed the room gave them space. I did too.
On the appointed day in the late spring in Colorado Springs I was delivered to Ben’s house to do the lawn. My father shook my hand had a knowing smile for me, and in a serious tone said “See you at dinner, we’re having chili, I’ll make you a big bowl.” Dinner was hours away and how did he know I’d be really hungry? The wry smile was the clue to my fate I figured out some years later. Quickly I found myself alone in the backyard with Ben and his dog Gus, a massive boxer who obeyed Ben exactly and looked at me as he might a Rag doll. Ben quickly explained to me that the yard was to be done to perfection. Every detail was spelled out, and Ben was very clear that his inspection would cover every one of his guidelines and preceded payment. The last thing he said was that a job preceded mowing that involved a gunny sack and the picking out of the yard Gus’ accumulated poop for the week. He said “poop”. It was the 50’s. My head was spinning with the details of what I used to think was cutting the grass.
Ben promptly handed me a gunny sack and a special shovel then spun on his heel and departed through the backdoor into the house.
Like lightning Gus grabbed the other end of the gunny sack, pulling so hard that I dropped the shovel while he dragged me clear across the yard. I managed to get to my feet and hold on for life as Gus shook his head up-and-down and side to side growling and pulling so hard that I nearly came out of my shoes. This went on for seemingly 10 minutes until I finally got the sack wrapped around the clothesline pole in the center of the yard cinched it up into his teeth which were forced open against the metal and I got the sack away from him. At that point, much to my surprise, Gus just went over and sat and stared at me from across the yard. I knew I had not won; he just knew that Ben wanted the yard mowed. I believed Gus was planning his moves for the next match. I was correct. I wasn’t able to plan my next battle getting oxygen was all I could manage.
Holding the sack like the prize it was to me I breathed deeply, knocked off the grass and mud from my clothes, got the shovel, cleaned up all the massive droppings in the yard and got the mower to begin my task. The moment the mower started to sing as it cut the grass Gus proceeded to chase the wheels, growling with a deafening roar that scared me and surely the neighbors a block away. I thought I could see that some neighbors and Ben alike had watched this entire affair for the last half an hour from the windows or various viewing posts along the alley between the houses. It was clear to me that I provided entertainment to all. It was 1957, so entertainment was hard to come by, I reasoned. It was also clear that the audience would not go away and that I had to proceed under their watchful eye through the chaos Gus created to complete my task. Eventually I forgot the audience was there. Maybe the audience was just in my mind, I needed some support in this titanic battle. Gus was huge. I was just potential.
I went from dreading going to Ben’s every week and my inevitable losing battle with Gus to miraculously, some two years later and 50 pounds heavier, finally defeating Gus in a straight up match over the gunny sack to the ringing cheers of the neighbors in my head and in fact a respectful smile and nod from Ben. I understood that I had thereby achieved one of my first triumphs over superior forces.
I learned that the job was secondary to my father and Ben’s plan to teach me to work hard, overcome the odds of unexpected obstacles and to do the job right. Ben also never paid me until he did an inspection to make sure the edging was clean and straight and that the yard was properly mowed in a quilt pattern. He always let me find and correct my errors giving me the feeling that at the point of inspection we were partners conquering the lawn. When Ben finally paid me he always did so with a beaming smile, a rustling of my hair and a firm manly handshake where I clearly knew I was earning his respect. This I ultimately valued above all else.
The lessons I learned from Ben guided my approach to students and to being a professor during my career and proved to be universal whether I taught in the US or abroad in China, Nepal, or London. Clear expectations, rigorous inspection, and appropriate rewards given with respect and warmth build character and make the person taught able to stand on their own. Now that Ben and my father are both gone I stand in awe of their clever conspiracy and the lasting effect such powerful lessons have on life.
I wish I could share a bowl of chili with Dad and Ben today. Just thinking of Gus makes me hungry.