Asphalt Jungle

My Dad turned 60 today – so as a birthday tribute I thought I’d write a little about him.

Now my Dad probably wasn’t the perfect father, any more than I’ve been the perfect son. Seems like we take something away from every relationship in our lives. When I think about Dad there is one thing, more than any other, that I think he instilled in me that has made a significant impact in my personal and professional life. Dad is a strong believer that all men are created equal – actually that’s not quite true. He has always been a strong believer that he was any man’s equal.

Growing up we were financially poor. Not dirt poor like my grandmother was during the depression, but poor enough that there weren’t many luxuries around. We always seemed to have more time on our hands than money, so if my Dad wanted something he’d build it. He figured that if somebody else was smart enough to create a particular item he could build it. One of his favorite sayings always was “if somebody put it together I can take it apart”. This attitude prevailed throughout my childhood. As a result I laid carpet, rebuilt cars, welded, framed, landscaped, wired, you name it we did it.

My personal favorite anecdote about my Dad’s building skills stems from the time he decided to pave the driveway. We lived about 10 miles outside of town on a little dirt road about a mile long with 3 other houses on it. Our driveway was probably 100 yards long or so and when it rained or snowed the whole driveway and yard was a mudhole. When Mom and Dad first moved there, not long before I was born, it was terrible. Dad hauled gravel in and it gradually got better, but what he really wanted was an asphalt driveway.

My grandparents lived closer in to town and not far from their house was a dump of sorts. On summer in the mid 80’s a road construction crew dumped some used asphalt from a road project in this dump. These days it seems like the paving companies try to grind up the old asphalt and recycle it. Back then they would just rip up huge chunks and dump them. All these big pieces of used road gave my Dad an idea.

During the summer we would often go to my grandparents and help farm their land and a neighbor’s place that my Dad rented. I was probably 13 years old and would spend every day helping out. That summer, at the end of the day, we would go down to the dump and load my Dad’s 69 GMC half-ton pickup with these pieces of asphalt. Often the truck would be severly overloaded and we would have to drive about 15 mph all the way home.

Once we had accumulated a large enough amount of used road we would pile it up and heat it. The most efficient means of cooking the asphalt was to use our weed burner. Those of you not from an agricultural background probably don’t know how a weed burner works. Basically it’s a large lawnmower engine mounted on a large fan. When you start it the fan blows air down an aluminum tube about 10 feet long. A large barrel feeds diesel fuel into this fan and down the tube. Once everything is going a piece of cloth dipped in diesel and attached to a wire is lit on fire and poked up the end of the tube (I usually got to do this). With a woosh the burner would light and shoot flame out the end. We would take this farm implement (on the hottest day of the summer no less) and heat all of our accumulated asphalt to soften it. While I heated it, Dad would take his tractor with the blade and spread it down our driveway.

At the time it seemed like it took forever – in reality it was probably only a few weeks. It took many loads of heavy used road and many hours of cooking and spreading, but by the time we were done we had a (somewhat) respectably paved driveway. Sure, it wasn’t nice and smooth like it would have been if it was done by professional pavers, but like I said we had more money than time. It sure made an impression on my. Now, 20+ years later I can still remember that summe vividly. Loading the rough, heavy asphalt until your hands bled and the truck wouldn’t hold anymore. Standing out in the heat cooking down the used oil. Not an easy thing to forget.

I’ve got many, many stories like that. Summer days working in the truck, piecing 50 year old farm equipment back together since there was no way we could buy anything newer. Spending fall Saturday selling potatoes and a flea market to make ends meet. Irrigating, moving sprinkler pipe, chopping wood in the winter since it was our only form of heat. Building fence, loading cattle, it was a small time operation and we did what we had to do to keep it going. Through it all Dad never once let on that we were any worse off than anyone else. In fact, he managed to convince me that we were smarter and stronger than most. If we couldn’t build it, it wasn’t worth happening. For that (and many other things) I’m truly grateful.

Happy Birthday Dad.