published Sunday, June 17th, 2012

Kennedy: Top 10 things I learned from my dad

Fathers have influence without trying.

Some mornings my 5-year-old son stands outside the bathroom door and watches me shave. I see him in the mirror. When you're 5, it's fascinating to watch your dad slather white cream on his face.

My father died 19 years ago this summer, yet every day I use some life skill he taught me.

Here, on this Father's Day, are 10 that pop to mind.

1. How to tie a Windsor knot. My dad was a sharp dresser who took his appearance seriously.

When I was about 10 years old, he stood behind me facing a full-length mirror to teach me the manly art of tying a necktie.

In a flurry of hand motions, he would loop, thread and tighten the silk into a perfectly symmetrical Windsor knot. Next, he would futz with the material until a perfect dimple appeared at the base of the knot.

It's a ritual I repeat every weekday morning in the mirror, and it always makes me think of him.

2. How a tire-tread gauge works. From the time I turned 18 and got my first car, a Datsun B-210, my father made sure I always had a tire-tread gauge in my glove compartment.

Lots of people carry an air-pressure gauge, but to carry a device to measure the depth of your tire tread is a bit eccentric, like paying bills with a fountain pen.

To this day, I own a tread-depth tool, and our cars are always properly shod. Seeing a nice car with bald tires is the Deep South equivalent of "big hat, no cattle."

3. How to shine shoes. It usually takes a wedding or a funeral for me to get serious about a shoeshine -- but when the time comes, I know what I'm doing.

My dad used to have one of those Dremel electric shoe shiners with a black buffer on one side and red one on the other. You could see your reflection in the toes of his dress shoes.

To shine a shoe properly requires paste polish and spit (or, if you're delicate, a spritz of tap water). The moisture puts a gleam on the shine that is directly proportional to the amount of elbow grease you are willing to apply to the brush.

4. How to pass inspection. When my dad gave my sister and me a job to do, he expected 100 percent effort.

At the end of a task, we were not dismissed until our work passed inspection. He was a former Army sergeant, so passing inspection was always a 50-50 proposition.

I don't ever remember him using the word "awesome" to describe our work. He would simply nod approval, and we would scatter. I still hate a messy house.

5. How to work hard. See No. 4.

6. How to make cornbread for supper. Dad was of the generation of Southern males who didn't think they'd eaten an evening meal if it didn't include a wedge of cornbread.

As soon as I was old enough to crack an egg, he taught me how to mix it with cornmeal and buttermilk and pour it into an oven-heated cast-iron skillet. The key was to get the shortening smoky hot before pouring in the bread batter.

7. How to read nonfiction. Every Saturday morning when I was a kid, we'd pull up to a rich man's house in our 1957 Buick, and I would run up the sidewalk and fetch a stack of news magazines from a wicker table on the porch.

I never knew exactly what Dad's arrangement was with this invisible benefactor, but they obviously shared a love of current events.

I'd read the magazines, too, and my dad and I would have discussions about culture and politics. That's probably why I became a journalist.

8. How to carve a turkey. As a young man, my father was a butcher in an A&P grocery store. So when it came time to carve the turkey at Thanksgiving, he was the expert.

I remember him attacking the bird, jabbing deeply with a carving fork for stability. Then he would shave off thin slices of breast, wielding the sharpest knife in the kitchen with the precision of a violin bow.

9. How to persevere. My father was disabled with spinal arthritis and spent about 40 years in excruciating pain.

The fact that I never once heard him complain about his fate or lose his faith was his biggest gift to me. It lifted my threshold for frustration and made me feel guilty about petty problems.

10. How to love. I never, for one day, doubted that my father loved me, even though he rarely spoke the words.

Once, when I was 12, he took me to see the movie "Patton" at the Belle Meade Theatre in Nashville. I think it was his way of showing me how combat can cauterize a man's emotions.

I know there is enough of him still in me to shape the way I am raising his two grandsons, whom he never knew.

And I'll bet you a shoeshine that would have made him smile.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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