I grew up with a hippie/alcoholic father, who couldn’t have stayed put in one place had he been chained down by Hercules himself. My father was one part Ginny’s dad from Forest Gump, one part Homer Simpson, one part David Thoreau, two parts Dick Van Dyke from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and who knows how many parts MacGyver. A brilliantly creative man, who had the raw ingenious power of a downed power line, but often the focus of Nemo’s friend, Dory.
By the time I was 12, we had moved 17 times, and my dad had changed professions and college degrees more times than I could count. Construction, jewelry making, engine rebuilding, handyman repairs, real estate, cell phone tower sales, pre-medicine, and a half-dozen (amazing) inventions that never saw the light of day.
Growing up in that environment clearly has its cons, but remarkably, if you look hard enough, many pros too. Three in particular:
1) It exposed me to sheer, raw, unbelievable creativity.
2) It wired me to perpetually be skeptical of “normal” and to not only ask “is there another way?” but to quickly become comfortable with unconventional “new” normals.
3) It taught me that creativity and ingenuity are not once-in-a-lifetime, catch lightning in a bottle games of luck, but rather the repeatable results of a persistent questioning.
There was the time his 1958 Dodge pickup truck’s fuel pump went out half way between El Paso and Tucson – long before cell phones – and NEVER was my dad going to pay for a tow truck. Not only did he not have the money, tow truck drivers would gouge him and besides he could fix the problem.
He could fix the problem.
I still remember very vividly to this day, in the hot summer of 1988, as we coasted to a stop on the shoulder of I-10, engine sputtering and struggling to stay alive, then dying, how he went to work. It started with a long sigh, followed by a few attempts at cranking the engine and playing with the choke handle. As semi-trucks barreled by and we swayed in the aftermath of their 65 mile per hour turbulence, the official prognosis came: “must be the fuel pump.” Waiting for a break in the steady stream of semis barreling west, he began fiddling with his fingers, as if he were drawing or tracing over the mechanical engineering plans for the fuel system, while whispering under his breath – what sounded like a series of questions and answers – hypotheses asked and simultaneously challenged, then modified on the fly as if in response to what his fingers were telling him about the mental schematic he was outlining. If you think this is too outlandish, you’ve actually seen this before. Just think of Ralphie’s dad in the Christmas Story, when he’s troubleshooting the buggy furnace and tracing the clog in the system, before erupting into a Eureka! moment of jubilation, when he, believes he has identified the problem.
And so it went with my dad. A solo-consortium of engineering and mechanical plans piecing together a solution to a busted fuel pump on his 1958 Dodge pickup. When a break in the traffic came, he quickly said, “stay put” and darted out the driver’s side door to the back of the truck. For the next 15 minutes or so, he rummaged through various tool boxes and trashbags containing who knows what, then, when another break in the semi traffic came, he jumped back in the driver’s seat. He brought with him: one tennis ball, one clamp, a utility knife, rubber cement and an old inner tube from a bicycle. With these five things scattered in his lap and on the seat next to me, he looked over (with that monstrously creative, incredibly piercing spark in his eye) and declared: “Son, these will get us back to Tucson.” Of course, as a 9 year old at the time, I had no clue what he was planning, and on the inside, I remember a sinking feeling, along with the thought, “welp, we’re gonna be here for a while.” I began to bristle and think about the old Atari waiting for me at our rental house in Tucson. About the hose in our backyard that I could go cool off in, were we not stranded because our car was a total piece of crap! Then, as my dad was cutting the tennis ball in half, and filleting the inner tube to his mental specifications, a truck pulled up behind us, and stopped.