Dinner with My Father
My father wasn’t an easy man. He had an intensity about him. You really just had to be up for the challenge of it. You could ask him almost any question, and he’d know the answer. He could fly anything with wings or rotors, dive to the depths of the ocean, fix an engine, put out an oil fire, decipher Latin, and fill our freezer with meat within a day or two of going hunting or fishing. I admired him, and loved him, but the first time I saw the Hollywood version of a warm, fuzzy doting dad, I cried.
My dad made it clear that he didn’t care about education or wealth or where you came from, but, if you happened to have engine grease under your fingernails, or mud on your boots, he’d like you better. He was accepted to Princeton, and then thrown out for taking the clapper out of the school’s bell and hiding a bottle of moonshine in the headmaster’s toilet tank.
From there, he moved west and worked as an oilfield roughneck, shivering between shifts in his Model T while the snow blew sideways across the Wyoming plains. Spring came and his younger brother Fred wrote him to come to Texas where the two boys rented a rig and started their own business, Hamilton Brothers Oil. They worked hard, and got lucky, and did well in Texas.
Some years later, while pondering the why of things in his morning shower, my father invented the first semi-submersible oil production platform. It would one day successfully produce oil amid the tumult and fury of the North Sea, and thus the two Hamilton Brothers would effectively usher in an era whereupon the United Kingdom became self-sufficient on oil.
Intensity has a way of wearing things out, and sadly, my dad died young, at 59, from the same heart ailment that nearly took me at 48. Before he left, he taught me some incredibly valuable things simply by sharing moments from his workday at the dinner table. I loved this story then, and I still love it now.
The Heart of the Deal
One day a man came to my father’s office to speak with him. He sat down, barely perched on the chair, with his hat still in his hand, as if he would lunge out the door at any moment. My father knew the man but hardly recognized him. He had at one time been a very successful distributor of oilfield pipe, but the year before, a bigger company had undercut him on two of his largest accounts. Losing those critical customers had knocked his business to its knees. The man had come to offer my father an unthinkable deal on pipe for his next few rigs. My dad was incredulous.
“How can you stay in business with a deal like that?” The man said that it would barely cover his costs but that he had to make the deal. My father considered for a moment and then refused the bid.
“Please,” the man said, “I can do a little better than that. I’ll do whatever it takes to get this deal with you. You see, things are worse than you know. I have an appointment this afternoon with our loan officer at the bank, and if I do not have a deal in my hands, I will have lost the company.”
“Look,” my father said, “If you want to do business with me, you’re going to have to rewrite that damned bid, and for God’s sakes, don’t write it any lower! Write it like you would have a year ago when your business was thriving.”
The man was aghast. “I can’t do that! You’ll always know that you could have had a better deal. You won’t be happy about that.”
“No,” my dad said, “If I take the first deal you offered, your business will suffer, and you and your people will suffer. I’ll always know that I was the guy who made a bad deal when I could have just as easily made a fair deal. Raise the price, I’ll sign it, and you can take that to the bank.”
I was about nine when my dad told us that story at the dinner table. Back then, I was more accustomed to the harsh trades made on playgrounds, or between warring siblings. To not take a screaming deal and skip a little as you ran away seemed like a vain bit of folly then, but time and experience have a way of etching things into a heart like nothing else can. Thanks, Dad.
I would love to hear from others who are thinking about their own dads this week leading up to Father’s Day.