Today, March 14, 2011, would have been my Dad’s 57th birthday. My gift to him is to write a little about the greatest gift that he ever gave me. He gave me what I feel may be the greatest gift that anyone could receive from a parent, but far too few seem to in this day and age. My father bestowed upon me the gift of honor and a strong work ethic.
Like many children born in the 1950’s, my Dad was born to a working class family of humble means, where his father went to work and mom stayed home to take care of the kids. My Dad was the second of 4 children. He grew up in a small midwest farm town that is much the same today as it was then, a place someone may stop to get gas on the way somewhere else. In 1971, at age 17, he dropped out of high school to serve his country, as all the Wilkinsons before him, and joined the US Navy, figuring he may end up in Vietnam. The next 3 years were spent between San Diego, Ca and the waters of South East Asia, where among the trials & tribulations of war, he finished his High School Education. In 1974, he returned to the midwest, where he met and married my Mother. Soon after is where this story of my early childhood lessons begins.
Like many veterans in the midwest in the mid to late 70’s, my Dad worked whatever blue-collar jobs were available, construction, packing houses and truck-driving just to name a few. My Mom worked too, mostly in clothing factories where the day’s end for both of them brought bloody fingers and stories of pain, sweat and misery. Those hard days and rthe tolls of their labor also brought home the paychecks that put a roof over the heads and food on the table for my two sisters and me. There is no doubt or denying, my parents were not without their flaws and vices, as all people have, but they weren’t about to let anyone say they weren’t doing their best.
I am not ashamed to say, in fact I carry it as a badge of honor, that I grew up poor. I can say, that while I could not stand powdered milk, I still don’t think there is anything better than government cheese. I know, while most kids I knew couldn’t understand why we didn’t have a phone or a color tv, I was too busy camping, hunting and fishing with my Dad to really care. I also know that when a time came that my parents had to resort to food stamps, it hurt them to the bone. Years later, during a conversation with my Dad, he told me “nothing has ever hurt me more or de-valued me as a man, as not being able to support my family”…
When I was 8 years old, I told my Dad I wanted a leather jacket (like my favorite singer at the time, Michael Jackson). My Dad made me a deal. He said he would buy a bunch (around 150) of baby chickens, and for every one that I kept alive until the end of the summer, he would give me a quarter. In 1983, that was a lot of money, especially for an 8-year-old. When it came time to butcher the chickens, I had lost a few, but I was an 8-year-old with 30+ dollars to spend. I no longer wanted the leather jacket, but after playing baseball that summer wanted a new baseball glove. I asked my Dad, “Is it OK if I buy a baseball glove instead of a leather jacket?” He told me, “it is your money, you earned it, if you want a baseball glove then that is what you should buy, but that means you don’t get the leather jacket.” I bought the baseball glove, and that is the summer that I learned that working meant I could get what I wanted.
When I was 10 years old, I told my Dad I wanted a motorcycle. I knew that there was no way my folks could afford to buy me a motorcycle, but I thought maybe he could steer me in the right direction. My Dad laughed, and told me, “get a job.” Well, I didn’t get a job, I got three. Every morning before school I started delivering the Sioux City Journal, every Tuesday afternoon I delivered the Golden Shopper, and every afternoon, Mon – Fri, I cleaned the lint filters and vacuumed the lobby at Bogaard Cleaners. It wasn’t long and I went to my Dad and said, “I want a motorcycle,” and handed him $125 in cash. We looked around, and I got my motorcycle.
By the time I was 16, I owned a truck, a car, 2 motorcycles and I always had money in my pocket. From the time I was 10 years old, I can not think of a time, other than a few minute number of days, when I have not been working for the things that I have been graced by God to have. My Father, as his father did, God rest their souls, worked up to the day they died, many times doing jobs that took a tremendous tolls on them both physically and upon their souls, but they didn’t feel it was up to anyone but them to take care of them or their family.
At 35 years old, I reflect upon the lessons I was given by my Father, and I am grateful. I have had great successes and great failures in my life, but the lessons that I have received from my Father will assure that I have a positive future. Without having the freedom to fail and learn from those failures, one can never truly have the freedom to succeed. While the job that I currently have, that I incessantly hate, as it causes me great pain physically & takes its tolls upon my soul, I do because I know that I am doing the right thing by taking care of my family.
My Father, Robert LeRoy Wilkinson (3/14/1954 – 1/8/2010), was a man of honor, for the traditions and the work ethic that he has passed on to me are of insurmountable value, without which I would not be the man who I am, or the kind of person who I wish every American could be. It is because of the lessons of my Father that I have been able to live the American dream…