The large wrapped boxes were immaculate, and fully taped to carefully conceal the presents. Our hopes as boys were for things we longed for, powerful things, things of adventure and masculinity. When we opened the presents and saw the wooden butt of a Red Ryder BB gun, or the familiar yellow of the Tonka truck, we squealed with joy.
The big yellow trucks and tractors back then were solid metal. We had cranes and dump trucks with working parts that picked up dirt and dumped it across the patio. Hour after hour went by as the back yard underwent construction, day after day. The summer heat topped 100 but still the job site stayed alive. Those days would be formative in later years in ways I never expected.
Hurricane Carla was a historic disaster on the Texas coast in 1961, a category 5 hurricane. High winds and rain ruffled our little GI home in southwest Houston. I remember that we sat inside away from windows and electrical outlets as the storm raged. But then, there was a brief time when it got eerily silent. The eye of the storm was over us, and we went out on the front porch to inspect the damage. Shingles laid all about, dead birds and broken branches scattered the yard. We rolled our big yellow trucks out onto the front porch and began playing, only to be ushered back in as the rain and wind picked back up. Our desire to be guys, rough guys, truck and tumble dirt-moving guys, never ended. The hurricane barely phased our mindset. My main memory of the event was not one of fear or high winds, but the time with the big yellow dump truck on the porch.
Growing up, we never had lots of money. We were an average middle class family, living in an average home, going to public schools. But Dad was a smart guy. Yes, he made a lot of mistakes, and my younger brothers and sister missed out on almost all of him due to his drinking and the divorce. But my older brother and I got some good pieces. His hands-on projects influenced me the most. He built things – electronic, wooden, and mechanical things.
Dad built a full out playhouse in the back yard that was incredible. It had rafters and siding, windows and doors. I want to say it looked a lot like our little GI home. We spent hours in that marvel of wooden craftiness… until the day I ventured into the rafters with a box of ‘strike anywhere’ matches. I lit a rafter and watched the flames until they were out of control. By the time I dropped to the floor and ran looking for water, it was too late. The fire department was called. Over the next week Dad dismantled and hauled off the burnt debris.
He built a beautiful brick patio behind the house. He leveled the ground then set each clay square into place by hand. Between each brick was sand mortar. On the outside edge, he built flower beds of brick to hold soil and shrubs. Cattycorner to the house, he built a brick smoker and bar-b-que pit. It was magnificent. All this he built painstakingly by hand; he was good.
I remember the garage work bench that Dad built. Every tool had a place, everything organized. He built a storage unit with wooden cubbies that fit cigar boxes perfectly. The boxes had the lids removed and wooden handles installed on the end. They were drawers and each held a wondrous surprise for a boy. Screws, nails, wired switches, and things I did not recognize. It was a joy to go out and sit on the workbench taking each drawer, opening it and checking out the contents. I must have done this a hundred times and never got bored.
Once Dad took an old wagon, the engine from a gas edger, some gears and chains, and built us a go-cart. It was a mechanical marvel. Sadly, it only ran down the driveway and a few yards up the street before it quit and never started again.
Our family did a lot of camping. We travelled to every national park on the map and stayed for days experiencing the wonders around us. At one point Dad built this amazing trailer for those trips. It was single axle with wooden walls maybe 36 or 48 inches high. He created storage areas for each item needed on our trips. The tents, lanterns, coolers and cooking gear all had a specific place where they fit perfectly.
Dad worked on radios and toasters and other electronics, but not for work; he did it for pleasure. He had electronic meters and clips, wires, and soldering guns. He bought us kits for Christmas that we would assemble and solder, which turned into radios or a buzzer. I was fascinated by it all.
For a time he worked in a lab for Shell Oil Company and he would take us there on Saturday when everyone was gone. We got to see dry ice and liquid nitrogen for the first time. It was a pure, full-out science lab, I was in awe of my dad.
Somewhere along the way, in my early teens, mom and dad divorced and I was on my own running the streets. I acquired a powerful stereo system by some dubious means I won’t try to remember here. One day, I was in a bedroom some place I was staying, I’m not sure where. I was blasting some rock and roll, and I had the thought that if I took the back and top off of the stereo I might could find a way to fine tune it. I disassembled the cover and began looking at all the intricate wiring, soldering and transistors. One of the transistors had a screw type slot on top of it. My though was if I turned it I might “enhance” the sound. It was only a quarter turn or so before the explosion, sparks, and deafening silence. The stereo never worked again. I thought, “Now that was dumb.”
As a young man on the streets, I found that just wandering around would not feed or provide shelter in the long term. I never thought about a handout or panhandling, ever. I never considered government programs or asking about them. I walked onto a homebuilder’s job site one day and I asked for a job. I learned to carry 2x4s and keep the job site clear and organized. I got yelled at when I walked carrying too few boards; I was expected to stack them on my shoulder as high as possible and run. I was expected to be one step ahead of what the guys needed. It was hard work but I loved the smell of the fresh cut wood and looking back at the end of the day at what we had accomplished.
Eventually, I learned enough to do some small projects for money on my own. I got in over my head lots of times and the learning curve was pretty sharp. I built a pretty good business over the years with my hand tools, wood and an old pickup truck. Eventually I had employees and an office and staff. I enjoyed almost all of it.
A few years ago a friend of mine finally gave in on my constant barrage of requests. He had an old abandoned Bobcat skid steer tractor behind his office in a field of tall grass and car parts. I have never owned a tractor and knew nothing about them. My first lesson was that Bobcats are fully locked and brakes on when the key is not turned “on”. My little Dodge pickup struggled to pull the tractor from where it sat for all those years… my next lesson was about tow chains. “Pow!” the tow chain exploded, leaving the tailgate of my truck looking like it was hit by a heavy load of bird-shot from a 12 gauge. Chains break? Who knew?
I eventually got the Bobcat to the house where I have been learning about hydraulics for two years now. One of the things I began doing in the wide-open area in my front yards was digging a hole. A big hole, a pond, is what I quickly decided was needed (you need to dig stuff if you have a tractor). The hole got to be 30 feet round and six feet deep. It now has a liner and a dock and fish. I borrowed a posthole digger for the Bobcat from a friend and put big poles on the corners of the dock with poles for hammocks. The posthole digger was amazing fun.
Recently I was on a trip and it required a lot of windshield time. The pond is my most current project and so I was thinking about waterfalls and floating plants. And then it hit me, I had this amazing revelation about the ole tractor, the wooden deck, the wires and lighting I had planned. It was Tonka. I have always loved the digging and dumping, and now I had a life size Tonka tool, well, a Bobcat. All those things I loved as a boy were still with me. The things I learned and loved and were amazed at when I was a boy are who I am today, where I get many of my pleasures. The mountains, outdoors, wood, construction, wired things, a tractor, the science of water.
I am far from a great mechanic. As a carpenter, I can be a hack and I don’t know much of the technical elements. As a matter of fact, I am not a master of any craft at all. But what I have found is that God has blessed me with my heart’s desires in so many ways. He trained me as a young man to do the things that later would please me and be used to care for my family. Those things that gave me pleasure to see in my father are with me today. Even though Dad left us for a bottle of rum. Even with all the hard things that happened to me as a 13-year-old kid on the street, God comes and uses the hardships for His good. He gives me the chance to minister to men and boys from broken places, the very places I came from. My heart is very tender for them.
Almost everyone has a story of hardship or pain from our youth. We have things that gave us joy as a kid; we may think we have forgotten them, but we have still them. What are the joys and the stories in your life? God has trained you perfectly for ministry and He wants you to experience joy. Ask Him what those things are. Spend some time with them. He knows our heart’s desire. His plan for you may not be what you think; it can often be the one thing you never considered.
I have finished my tractor work on the pond and it came out pretty good. Now I am thinking, what next? Can you build a real Mountain?