A few years ago, I wrote an essay on the roots of my family’s ethical principles. My family has deeply ingrained ethics, that have resulted in a group of people, each of whom is good but not perfect. My brother, Johnny, probably comes the closest to perfection. He eats right, exercises daily, is a hard worker, caring husband and grandfather, and keeps a house so clean you could not only eat off of the floor in the house, you could eat off of the floor in the garage; but don’t, because you might get them dirty.
We are a thrifty lot, hopefully without being greedy or selfish. We learned thrift from my Dad. He made sure that we knew the cost of everything, including leaving a light on (perhaps this was part of my motivation to get solar). He told us of a makeshift stationary bicycle he had as a child that he would peddle to produce enough energy to power a radio. Today, people pay a gym to peddle a stationary bike and listen to music (with a mask on, of course). Thrift dictated our diet. Instead of milk, we drank Kool Aid with every meal (sweetened with cyclamates). Lunch was ALWAYS a peanut butter and grape jelly sandwich. To this day, I cannot tolerate grape jelly; however, I do prefer that my wine taste like Kool Aid (sweet and fruity – grape jelly is sweet and fruity too – but it’s bad). Excessive thrift can result in a very unsophisticated palate.
Back to the family ethic. As I look at it today, it is full of the politically incorrect; and perhaps, the unethical. For all of that, here it is.
I grew up listening to the stories of my family’s life as homesteaders in the Estancia Valley of New Mexico. Memorial Days were spent driving the sixty miles from Albuquerque to Estancia to tend the family plots. It was hot and dusty, but always entertaining. My Granddad was a natural storyteller and had many stories to tell. His life and character were shaped by the difficulties encountered while working to “prove” their homestead.
Their first years in the Valley, while they were building their home, were spent in a three-walled dugout. This was during the first decade of the 20th century and land disputes were common. My great-grandfather, John Block, was somewhat of a legend in Torrance County. One of the stories my grandfather would tell involved the hard feelings held by many earlier settlers towards homesteaders. It was during the time of the Estancia Valley Land War – a classic case of sheepherders verses cattle wranglers ending in shootouts. A final determination by the New Mexico Court of Private Land claims declared the land involved to be public and open to homesteaders. In the story, as told by my grandfather, a settler who had married into one of the families involved in the land-war shootouts along with his three grown sons, came to visit Mr. Block. The visitor told Mr. Block that he and his family shouldn’t waste any more time building a home, as they wouldn’t be staying. According to the story, my great grandfather, who was well over six-feet tall, grabbed the man by his collar, pulled him off of the buckboard and gave him “a good whooping.” He then set the man back on the buckboard and invited him to Sunday dinner saying, “You and your family would be welcome to Sunday dinner seeing as we’ll be staying.” The lesson: stand up for what you believe in, fight if you have to, but don’t hold it against those who believe differently.
Lot’s of the stories involved “whoopings” which surprises me because I can’t imagine my grandfather taking part in whooping-worthy behavior (at least not intentionally). He told of a time when he hid in an attempt to avoid an inevitable whooping. When he was found, he got the whooping of his life. He taught us that when we did something wrong, we would have to pay the price, but if we did something wrong and tried to hide it, or blame someone else, the price paid would be greater. The lesson: always accept responsibility for your mistakes and don’t ever try to hide them or blame someone else.
In the forties, the price of pinto beans, the Valley’s main cash crop, dropped to near nothing. Many families, including mine, had to sell off their hard-won homesteads to pay their debts, including property taxes. There were years when it would cost more to bring in the beans than they would bring when sold. Although it was painful, they truly felt that they had no alternative but to “sell up.” When all they had was their word, they were not willing to devalue it by not paying their debts. They left the Valley with their reputation and good name intact. The lesson: the only thing in an individual’s life that he or she has control over the value of is his or her word. Don’t underestimate the negative impact of manipulating the truth.
Some of the principles that governed family beliefs and behavior resulted from not one experience, but from day-to-day hard work. Everyone in the community worked hard and did their share. They accepted help when needed, because they had given help when needed. The lesson: never ask more of anyone else than you’re willing to do yourself.
These were plain-living people (I have the pictures to prove it). They avoided the appearance of pride. I never heard my grandfather talk about his accomplishments or successes, but he was quick to acknowledge other’s accomplishments. The lesson: give credit where credit is due – your own accomplishments should speak for themselves.
There you have it. My accomplishments speak in a low whisper. No Twitter-worthy accomplishments or tales of personal-perfection in my resume. I lack the courage of not only my ancestors, but the greats of our day, like John Lewis, who we lost this month. What I do have are GREAT friends and a great, if imperfect, family (and a house with solar – telemarketers can quit calling me). Life truly is good.