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Early Years
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My stepfather was a red-headed Italian, a wonderful man with a great sense of humor and a grounded, practical approach to life. During my teen years when I tried to become too self-important, self-absorbed and self-righteous, he was always able to put things in perspective for me without putting me down or belittling me. We'd end up laughing at the absurdity of it all. I loved him unreservedly.

He was a plumber and an electrician in a small town in Connecticut. Small New England towns take their heritage very seriously and many noses were out of joint that a Connecticut Yankee like me should have an Italian father. I cared not one whit and never even really noticed the comments if there were any. My mother, of course, noted every slight and whisper and agonized over them.

Besides teaching me to shoot [see the bucket hanging on the woodpile? aim for it. Uh-oh, your mother's going to kill us], he also enlisted my help as a plumber's assistant. Since I was smaller than he, I got to crawl under houses on my back in the cold mud and spider webs and frogs and such to find the leak that was threatening the foundations. Needless to say, becoming a professional plumber was down near the bottom of my choices for a career.

He and my mother and I gradually improved that old 18th century house on Ragged Hill Road. We put in electricity, hot and cold running water (bliss!), tore out the ceiling and exposed the beams, tore up the linoleum and sanded and finished the floors. We also stripped about 20 layers of paint and repainted, caulked and puttied and cleaned ourselves to a standstill. However, we never did get rid of the ghost of three-fingered Jack.

My mother and my stepfather had opposite but complementary ways of teaching. My mother worked from the specific to the general; my father gave me general principles and challenged me to apply them to specific instances. Their approaches were complementary.

My mother was an intellectual. Her method of instruction on handling life’s vicissitudes was to give me several examples and then let me abstract to the theory on my own. Once I had the theoretical construct, I could apply it at will.

My father, equally intelligent but lacking formal education, worked the other way. He would first discuss the rule involved; for instance, "Never deal with electricity when you’re grounded. Use one hand and work with insulated tools." Or, "Unplug electrical tools like the table saw when they are not in use." One of his favorites was, "Never put your hand where you can’t see." (When you live in a part of the country with stone walls and black widow spiders and water moccasins, that advice makes a lot of sense.)

Anyway, my father’s favorite admonition when you were about to do something stupid or dangerous, was, "Hold it newt, you’re headed for the rhubarb!"

Dear friends, I have no idea where it came from or who the heck newt was. And why was he/it headed for the rhubarb? But what you did when you heard him say it was to stop dead in your tracks and look around, applying the rules for danger he had given you. Was there electricity? A snake? A patch of nettles? An uncovered well? He left you to your own devices to perceive for yourself where the danger/problem lay, giving you the ability to deal with it on your own. Though he’s been dead 20 years, I still react to danger the same way--some lessons run deep.

I didn’t realize until I was older that at the time, while he was making me deal with the problem on my own, he was also ready to jump in and protect me if I didn’t see it for myself what was wrong. At the time it felt like my survival depended on myself—my wits and my training—so I didn’t look for outside help or advice. His instruction certainly stood me in good stead down the years—I’ve often been in situations where I had only my brains and my experience and my instincts to guide me.

I wish I’d had the chance to thank him. He was a wonderful father, my *real* father.

NOTE: One of my blog readers told me Charlie Ruggles uses this expression in the 1936 classic comedy "Ruggles of Red Gap"--I never knew where it came from until now.

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