“Paint with the grain, son!,” my father reminded me for what seemed to be the umpteenth time. I had been assigned the task of painting the picnic table and benches.
I wasn’t a lazy kid. But that Spring day was one when no one needed to be going any place or doing any particular thing — especially work — in a hurry. Yet there I was with brush in hand, painting back and forth, back and forth, and trying to finish the job as fast as possible.
I was reminded constantly of my plight. The smell of spring was in the air and the flowers were blooming. It was one of those afternoons that you didn’t need to worry about overexerting yourself. You knew in a few months, though, the situation would be different.
I’d rather have been three doors down, playing soccer in Brian’s backyard with the neighborhood boys. (His mother complained that she never could have a manicured lawn, but she let us turn her backyard into somewhat of a miniature desert, anyway.) Maybe she thought God wanted that particular spot to be the neighborhood pitch. It was like He had placed the two Longleaf Pines, more or less 10-12 feet apart, to be used as a natural soccer goal. It was that type of day, when I could have been scoring goals past the outstretch arms of that kid — I’ve forgotten his name — who wasn’t afraid to play goalie and dive and land on the barren soil in between those sappy goalposts. But there I was swishing a paintbrush along the wood grain.
It was that kind of Spring day, when I could have walked with Lenny into the woods and spent a couple hours at the creek searching for and catching crawdads. It was an ongoing game of juvenile one-upmanship. Squatting by the creek bed, we both knew the best hiding places. Of course, my mother always feared I would find something else — a snake. I knew that was possible, but I was too young and having too much fun to seriously factor in the risk.
My friends and I could have been racing our Huffy dirt bikes — no Schwinns or Mongooses for us — up and down the narrow roads in the adjacent tobacco fields. You wanted to make sure that you took an early lead before the first turn and then blocked your competitors. If you couldn’t take the lead, you wanted to be as close to the leader as possible. The farther back you were in the pack, the more it seemed that you battled primarily a billow of dust. If you didn’t have the leg power to steam-pedal by others, one by one, to the front, you patiently worked and tricked the guy (or gal) and passed them. (Now that I think about it, it’s funny how an unspoken honor code evolved among us.) An afternoon at the races must wait. I had a job to do, and it required an essential skill — to “paint with the grain.”
As a young boy, I soon learned that the picnic table and those two benches enhanced my life. They seemed to call me when it was the sort of day suggesting I might learn something if I sat down and heard the hoot of the owl or the song of the annual cicadas in the woods. I learned much when it was the kind of day compelling me to pour a glass of sweet tea, sit down, and talk with my family.
As I think back on that Spring afternoon, I remember a lot of things. What sticks out now in my mind and what I value most is that I learned to “paint with the grain.” Thanks, Dad.