Dad’s Wise Walls

The Letter

My father built my entire house. I still remember being 5 years old, seeing the huge box freshly dozed right out of the side of the hill. I just looked up at this huge wall of dirt, not even knowing that my father had carefully engineered it to protect us from both tornadoes and floods.

He’d talk about the foundation, how the outer cement walls became extra thick and extra deep. He explained reinforced concrete to me many, many times. He never ran one single scenario about why a house needed a foundation. “That’s how you have to build it or you’ll have some kind of problem,” he’d say. “You can’t prevent every problem on earth.” The whole house could get lost in a random sink hole. But, people have been building for thousands of years and we’ve learned a few things. Thanks to my father, I learned something very important as a child: Don’t try to outsmart the Romans when it comes to building things that don’t fall down easily.

I remember him pulling out a home building construction book. “See how the rooms in the house are one giant box sitting on top of another?” he’d ask. “The floor goes all the way through the wall. The studs in the wall stop between floors. That way, a flame can’t just run all the way up the inside of the wall. Not ‘if’, but ‘when’ there is a fire, a fire in the basement must burn all the way through the ceiling before it can get to the floor above it. Hopefully, that gives you just enough time to escape. If you did the electrical wiring correctly, and you follow other common sense rules, you might get lucky and not even have a house fire.”

Mom’s dad built his entire house too. He dug out his basement with a shovel. Yeah, grandpa helped dad build my house. While mom always badgered us about our dirty shoes, dad and grandpa always badgered about keeping the door closed. “There just isn’t enough fire wood! I don’t care what the eco-weenies say. We can’t melt the snow in January. CLOSE THE DOOR!”

When he was insulating the walls, the inspector asked why he was putting in R-16 instead of the standard R-14, “Because I can’t get R-18 to fit,” he said. Insulation is supposed to keep a house warm, not lukewarm. “I can’t plug up every single hole in the entire house,” he explained while wrestling the huge roll of insulation between wall studs. “But, I gonna’ do a good job everywhere I can and stack the odds in my favor.”

By trade, dad was a teacher. Once, he taught a shop class. “See that!” he said on the first day, holding up all ten fingers. “That’s not an accident. Many shop teachers have only nine. You have to follow a lot of safety rules if you like your fingers. Those rules can be annoying, but not as annoying as trying to do math in base ten with less than ten fingers.”

Dad was also in the Military Police, where he met my mother’s cousin, which was how I got here. So, dad was Army-buddies with his in-laws. Christmas and Thanksgiving always had knives and guns, tools, hunting, and talk of the latest construction projects. I went with dad to the shooting range. They had rules that don’t need explaining. Never point a gun at anything you don’t want to shoot. Hand a gun or a knife to someone by the handle while you hold the sharp end—never take a knife or gun from anyone until they carefully present the handle to you. Many times, dad would sit there with his hands at his sides and ask for the handle, waiting for me to do it correctly.

“We don’t need a reason other than ‘it’s a knife’,” he’d say. “I could slip, the chair I’m sitting in could suddenly break—because chairs do that—there could be an earthquake even though we’re in Michigan, a kid could throw a ball at us from across the room, the cat could jump, I could get butter fingers or go into a spontaneous epileptic seizure even though I don’t have epilepsy, an uncharted comet the size of a golf ball could fly through the roof—anything could happen, especially the unlikely stuff. It always gits us by surprise. I just know that if you point sharp objects at people enough times, eventually you reach that magic number and that’s when someone gets cut. So, I’m going to point sharp objects at people as few times as possible in hopes that I die before ever reaching that magic number, and I pray to the dear Lord that your mother and grandpa pray to that you understand and die before you reach that magic number also. Pointy ends cut things. If you want me to take the knife, offer me the handle, not the pointy end.”

Guns were no different. “A gun can go off just sitting there,” he once said. “But, it’s highly unlikely. Once you touch a gun, you have increased the chances of it going off by about 99.9%. Check the breach, at a range we put a flag in it. Look for daylight down the barrel from where the bullet goes in, never look from where the bullet comes out. Have you ever seen your mom play that trick on your cousin with the garden hose when he thinks it’s not working? Never point the gun at a person, even after you know it’s empty. Practice safety. Then, give it to me by the handle. We just solved 99% of the problems of people getting accidentally shot. We’ll just have to hope and pray for the remaining 1%. If we practice the safety protocols, maybe God will smile down on us and send His angels to save us from our stupidity.” Dad didn’t believe in God at that time, except when he handled guns.

Dad was also a driver’s ed instructor. So, safety often came up in the family car. “Did you see that!” he’d suddenly snap. “She pulled out and didn’t even look. How does she know I’m not a semi-truck or that a mouse hasn’t been chewing my break line? Breaks are more likely to fail when you slam on them hard. I check the breaks regularly, but mice love to chew on things. We never know. That’s why you wear a seatbelt, because of people like her.”

Then, there was his lecture on “following distance”. “You need your seatbelt for the same reason you need to stay ten seconds behind the car in front of you. Ten is good. Twenty is better, but not always practical. It’s not ‘if’, it’s ‘when’ something goes wrong. ‘When’ you have a really bad day and the semi in front of you falls into a spontaneous sink hole, and your breaks go out trying to stop, you have ten seconds to decide where to roll your car over so that your seatbelt is enough to protect you. That’s why we have rules. They don’t always work. But, we’ve been making mistakes for thousands of years and have learned a thing or two. We make rules in hopes that things won’t go quite as bad as they did before.”

Dad wasn’t much of a fan of air bags. “You have to be wearing your seatbelt anyway or the air bag won’t do much good, they’ve sent a lot of ten-year-old heads sailing through the back window,” he’d say. “Some people over-do it on the safety. We need to just give it our best shot and follow the rules we have. If everyone followed the rules we already have, most of us would be a lot safer. If you really want to be safe, everyone should wear helmets in the car. But, that’s not practical. We have some good rules. We need to follow those rules and hope for the best. Most people don’t follow those rules. There are a lot of idiots out there on the road. Don’t be one.”

When dad was in the Army, he raced front-wheel drive cars on frozen lakes in white-out blizzards. So, as kids, sis and I felt safer sliding through snow than driving straight. Dad was in control. While fish tailing around turns, mom handing out apples without skipping a beat, he’d say, “Skill is the best safety. It’s not speed that kills, it’s that sudden stop at the end that gets you every time—it’s speed differential that kills. That’s why rude drivers and slow drivers are the real danger. Obstructing traffic is dangerous. I was a policeman. Police should be on the road, with the cars, enforcing politeness, not hiding behind corners with radar guns playing ‘gotcha’.” Dad had a particular irritation for people not signaling or traveling in the left lane. In 2016, the Michigan State Police finally started enforcing the left lane traveling law—if dad could only have lived to see it. Fortunately for his life goals, cancer killed him before he reached that magic number of “pointing sharp objects at people”.

Dad also rode a motorcycle, having completed several “Iron Butt” runs. He raced in desert motocross. The last time he ever spilled his motorcycle was at 16 years old. “Don’t loan your stuff to people,” he told me. “Every time those motocross racers swapped bikes, that was when they would crash. Now, they have a problem. I never swapped bikes, so I never had that problem.”

Dad was also a mechanic. “Every machine breaks,” he said. “This morning, our ten year old Chevy got a cam shaft through the oil pan. That’s what they call ‘catastrophic engine failure’. Good thing we were wearing our seat belts and keeping our ten second distance. All you can do is keep the oil changed, check your fluids, keep an eye on your gauges, and hope for the best. I’ll never forget the day you were three years old at the baby sitter’s. Another mother drove up in her car really fast, then quickly slammed on the breaks right in front of her two year old son. He laughed, she laughed, while your baby sitter and I grabbed our hearts and gasped for air. Have you ever heard of ‘break failure’ lady!? A car is a machine. It will break. It’s not ‘if’, it’s ‘when’! And, you don’t want your two year old son in the way when it happens—and you may not tempt fate with my son in the way.

“I can’t make enough rules,” he must have told me a hundred times over my life. “God gave you a brain. Use it.” That was still before he believed in God. He actually bent the knee to Jesus when his motorcycle kept breaking without explanation in the desert of America’s bread basket. We follow basic rules, but the rest is up to our Creator. Protocol and mechanics were dad’s languages, right up to his own “come to Jesus” moment.

I live a relatively safe life. I drive fast, but I mind my road margins and don’t blast around blind curves. He still echoes in my head, “I know you’re in a hurry. But, if you cause an accident, then it will really take a long time to get there.” Of course, in the house I grew up, “cause an accident” was an interesting choice of words. “Accidents” are unintentional by definition, but we certainly do cause them by not following time-tested protocols.

I asked dad how he was so safe and didn’t get in car accidents. “You can’t avoid all of them. Just yesterday I was hit by a lady talking on her cell phone. She was stopped to turn left with her turn signal on and decided at the last minute to hit the gas without looking and plowed into me. Of course she thought it was my fault. Talking on your cell phone while driving is called ‘distracted driving’ and doesn’t need a special law to be illegal, but the city police didn’t figure that out and I got the ticket. The best way to be safe on the road is to drive like everyone is out to get you…” because—so I learned from dad—everyone one is already trying to crash into you, whether they know it or not. With all the people sipping on their cappuccinos, talking on their cell phones, staring at their GPSs because they never learned to use a map, arguing with their kids or joking with their friends, and all the basic rules that they think aren’t fun—everyone is already working very hard to paint a big old target on their backs saying, “Devil, devil, whack me. I’m begging for it.”

One time, we got in the car to go out for dinner and dad said, “I’d better take an umbrella.” I asked him why, since it wasn’t raining. “See those clouds. We need to take an umbrella so it doesn’t rain. Your mom’s boss doesn’t believe in house insurance. They built three houses and each one burned down, each without insurance. They never learned their lesson. The devil loves to mess with the people he can have more fun with. Not having insurance puts a big old target on your back. If it rains, we’ll have our umbrella; worst case, we come home with a dry umbrella. If we don’t take the umbrella, it will rain for sure and your mom will complain about all the wet clothes in the laundry.” Dad didn’t believe in the devil at that time, unless he was buying insurance or taking an umbrella on the family trip to dinner.

I remember dad’s favorite lecture about bicycle helmets. “I see people buy these expensive, fancy, pretty bicycle helmets. They fall over, it gets a crack, and they cry when someone tells them that they have to throw it away. Bicycle helmets work by breaking. They break so that your head doesn’t break. Your head is more important. Not if, but when you have a crash and your bicycle helmet breaks, then it worked! It’s supposed to break. If it doesn’t break, then you’ve got a problem. It can only break once. Don’t pay a lot of money for something that works by breaking.”

Just the other day, I was with a young Asian kid on the motorcycle when the wind took his helmet off. “You didn’t have it buckled?” I asked.

“No,” he said.

I happily turned around and retrieved his newly-scratched helmet from the middle of the street. He got lucky and it landed right on the double-yellow line. “Do you know why you need to buckle your helmet?” I asked.

“Safety?” he asked.

“No. It’s about making up your mind. We wear helmets because things fall. If your helmet won’t fall off your head then you won’t fall off your motorcycle and you don’t need a helmet. Figure out what you’re doing and make up your mind.”

“I see,” he said. “I have to think about what I’m doing and decide.” He’s buckled his helmet ever since.

After college I decided I wasn’t safe enough and decided to get trained as a life guard. The trainers didn’t teach why we don’t run at the pool. They didn’t need to. With my father’s wisdom it just made sense. So, why don’t we run at the pool? It isn’t because you might or might not slip. Pools are for swimming. If you want to run, go to the track. We don’t run at the pool for the same reason we don’t swim at the track—of you do the right thing in the wrong place, soon or later, something will go wrong.

If you didn’t get common sense and safety rule badgering from your father as a child, you might think basic safety sounds “mean” or “angry” when you hear it for the first time. People who don’t grow up around protocol-driven fathers are easy to spot: They have lots of very small problems that flood their lives like rain drops in a storm and, above all, when they encounter basic common sense rules that would make their lives a lot more the way they want their own lives to be, they misinterpret those common sense rules as “mean” or “controlling” or “not fun” or “prejudice”.

There are a million and one reasons we have the protocols we do. There are a million and one scenarios that could, but probably won’t play out. Safety rules change a little with time, but not much. I’m still here, alive and well, without a lot of problems in my life, because I do many of the things I do merely because “safe protocol” says to do them that way. Safety and common sense protocols have a background philosophy. If you don’t know the reasons why—not all rules, but—good rules are good, you may need to pause and do some research on a concept called “wisdom”.

I remember in 2005 when everyone was in an uproar about building a fence at our southern border. “It’s a border,” dad said. “I don’t have to be angry at anyone. It’s a border. It needs a fence. We live on 40 acres and it is mostly well-marked. It borders the road or has a property boundary marker of some kind. Borders need to exist for the same reason we have fire-safe walls inside the shelter I built for our hospitable, welcoming family that I love. I put a wall around your bedroom because I love you. I also put a wall around our guest room because, not all but usually, I love our guests as well. If anyone wants to stay at our house they are welcome, as long as they close the door and don’t point sharp objects at people. But, we need walls in order to have a house to welcome them into.”

Now, America has a president who, somewhat like my father, has a background in construction. He thinks like many home-builders do, that walls are a matter of common sense. Walls don’t solve all of our problems, but they reduce some normal problems so we can focus on the bigger problems that need our attention.

Sure, we don’t want kids trespassing on a border farm, having a bonfire party just inside Mexico where they become hostages of a drug cartel. We don’t want a safe path for human trafficking. Yeah, most bad guys come right through the Customs line anyway, but a common sense wall sure wouldn’t hurt. Of course, we could set up patrols to watch an empty desert, but a wall is easier to patrol. We could use machines and computers instead of a wall, but there is one important thing to remember about machines—they all break; as for computers, the last thing anyone wants at the border is the “blue screen of death”. Walls, especially if built to code and on a good foundation, don’t usually break if left to themselves. An invading army could punch right through a wall, so it won’t stop the next Antichrist from crossing the border, but a wall won’t make his efforts any easier. Sure, there are tunnels that circumvent the wall anyway, but we can’t focus on those tunnels until we have done what common sense says we should have done a long time ago. No, building a wall properly in your house isn’t going to prevent a house fire, but not preventing a house fire is no reason to not put walls in your house.

There are lots of small reasons why a wall may or may not be necessary. But, we don’t need any list of reasons or guessing scenarios to back up the thousands of years of wisdom that say when and where walls should go. We probably should have some kind of wall at the northern border, but Canada is such a good neighbor that a northern wall hasn’t gotten too high on our priority list. To build a wall, we don’t need to be racists or bigots or whatever-phobes or hateful or paranoid or idealists or think that a wall will solve all of the world’s problems—we just need to know how basic life protocols work to keep everyone safe. Some places just need walls because the place just needs a wall.

I don’t know what skills your father had or didn’t have. My father could have learned a lot more than he did, but he learned a lot more than most. So, take it from the Military Police Sergent – motorcycle desert racer who didn’t crash since sixteen – frozen lake race car driver – semi-truck driver – drivers education instructor – shop teacher with ten fingers – car and motorcycle mechanic – Cessna pilot – welder – metallurgist – home owner-builder – hunter – husband – father – and all-around good guy; take it from my dad. If you want to tempt fate behind the wheel, let me out of the car first and then I promise I won’t yank the keys when you do.