My Father's Success
The impression forces itself upon one that men measure by false standards, that everyone seeks power, success, riches for himself, and admires others who attain them, while undervaluing the truly precious things in life.
When my father lay dying of lung and brain cancer in a hospital room in Durham, North Carolina, my mother and I sat vigil by his bed. After a long period of silence one day, she said to me, "You know, your Dad never really felt like a success". I was shocked. I had always thought of him as a tremendous success in every way.
Growing up on a farm, Hugh Thomas Morris had developed every skill little boys admired. He made beautiful sling shots from the limbs of dogwood trees, carved, baked, decorated with a wood burning iron, and shellacked to a glossy finish. I spent many hours helping him attach long, wide rubber bands to the two prongs and to the rock pouch, made of old shoe leather. I then marveled at his shooting ability. He could throw cans into the air and hit them on first try. He once shot a lizard off a friend's shoulder. I even saw him on one occasion place a wooden match upright in a crack in the picnic table in our back yard, walk off twenty or thirty big paces and light the match with his second or third shot.
This was a man who could build a snow fort that looked like something from a movie. He designed and constructed model rockets that awed everybody at my elementary school. He invented toys all the time. A rubber band rifle. A "Rollo Wheel", the sort of toy that kids played with in the nineteen twenties and thirties, and big kites made from newspaper and reeds that would disappear as pin dots into the sky. I recall long afternoons holding the string, squinting to see the symbol of our achievement. He built jumping boards, old fashioned, two foot high see-saws that we would use standing. One kid would balance on his end and the other kid would jump on the opposite side, shooting his partner into the air. Landing, he would launch the other guy, and so on, until somebody crashed. Good thing we had never heard of legal liability.
My dad built a clubhouse that was the envy of the entire neighborhood. Every kid I knew could fit into it. It had a regular roof and a linoleum floor. And he even installed an old short wave radio in there that could pick up China! At least, that's what we all thought when we turned the big dial to a scratchy station with a foreign language we didn't know. After all, he had instructed us on how to stretch radio wire all across the back yard back and forth to make a huge antenna. We wouldn't have been surprised to be the first to pick up aliens invading the earth.
H. Tom would take us on hikes through the woods and along the banks of beautiful creeks that were as exciting as any adventure to the Andes or the Himalayas. Half a day could be spent exploring territory where no human being had ever been. I'm surprised I never came across a National Geographic reporter or photographer. Our team of neighborhood wanderers would have made a fine focus for a feature story. And this was all a few minutes walk from my house, at the edge of the city limits, where Durham, North Carolina met the Great Unknown.
The leader of the pack was also an amateur champion horse shoe thrower, and a consistent badminton player. He grew sunflowers so high we worried about low flying planes, and he was always quick with a joke. He told the little boy across the street that he was bald because during the war he jumped out of a plane and it took too long for his parachute to open. He got going so fast and the wind resistance was so fierce, the hair slid down the back of his neck. To prove his story to the incredulous young man, he pulled down the neck of his shirt and showed him all the hair that wasn't where it was supposed to be. The kid ran home and breathlessly recounted the tale to his parents, resisting their correction and insisting to the point of tears that it was true, all true.
I won't even talk about the art work, the arrow heads, the go-carts, the skate scooters, the BB guns, the fishing poles, the giant keg of marbles by the thousands he once brought home, and how he broke his leg trying out the new high jump he set up in the back yard. The wooden swing set he custom built for the grandchildren stands to this day. And he did all this while managing a radio station, starting an advertising agency, inventing toys, manufacturing, and learning the real estate business. How could he not feel like a roaring, glorious, five star success?
With his farm values, he lived modestly. Apart from a rare extravagance, and even that on a small scale, he did not live the lifestyles of the rich and famous. He did not soar on the wings of what our society too often holds out as the one and only standard for success. And all I want to say is "Good for him". He lived in a way that was good for others. And deeply good for him. And that, I think, is real success.
Too many people in our day are tyrannized by false standards and artificial expectations. They feel like failures or also-rans when they are really great successes. And there are equally people who feel like conquerors when they have sacrificed everything that really matters on the alters of money, power, and fame.
The achievements which society rewards are won at the cost of diminution of personality.
My father showed me that true success is discovering your talents, whatever they might be, developing those talents, and putting them to use for the good of other people around you, on whatever scale seems appropriate. But he also showed me that true success begins at home.
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