Foghorn Leghorn, the animated rooster, was given some of the pithiest lines in cartoondom. Things like, “The boy’s got a mouth like a cannon, always shootin’ it off” regularly flowed from his beak. His take on common sense was equally blunt: “The boy is about as sharp as a bowling ball” and “That boy is as sharp as a pound of wet liver .” My dad was particularly fond of saying, “He doesn’t have the sense the good Lord gave him” in reference to someone doing anything that didn’t display a good deal of common sense. Most humans are not born with common sense. Why else would we touch the hot stove top that mom just told us not to touch? No, common sense is not an innate, human trait. It is one that must be learned. If I managed to collect any, I know right where mine came from: mom and dad. Common sense also doesn’t arrive as a dump truck load of knowledge. It is collected in small bits until one has accumulated enough pearls of wisdom that they can apply them to everyday life or pass along to others (like to our kids!).
As the youngest in the family, I got to do plenty of the ‘go help your father (or mother)’ chores when my older brother and sister were off doing their thing. During these times as the helper (as in ‘baker’s helper’ or ‘carpenter’s’ or ‘bricklayer’s’ or ‘wood piler’. . . you get the idea), it was my secondary duty to absorb as much knowledge as I could. It must have worked because some of these pearls are still popping out of me fifty years down the line. Even when I was still single, cooking wasn’t a big mystery because my mother made sure I was well armed for the battle of the kitchen.
I recall asking my dad if he had ever played on a real baseball team when he was a kid. He said he played on a team back in the day, but he kind of benched himself for showing up the coach. Apparently he complained that someone playing ahead of him wasn’t as fast as he was, but the coach wasn’t buying it. To prove it, he decided to wait until the guy starting ahead of him got a hit and then he raced him to first base, beating him by a stride and a half. The coach was so steamed that he never let him off the bench again. Without actually saying it out loud, the message dad passed along was absorbed: “Even if you think the coach is wrong, showing him up isn’t the ticket to getting on the field.” This lesson reaches beyond the athletic field right into the workplace because the same logic applies if one wishes to either a) keep their job or b) advance to a better one. The boss may not always be right, but how one dances around the subject can have a very large impact on how things work themselves out in the end.
When dad was still in the State Police, our dinner table conversation often centered on what he had encountered at work that week. Whether it was intentional or not, I can look back and see that dad never lectured us about things he wanted us to know as much as he told us stories about his job. Gun safety was important as my brother and I were both hunters. We got the usual introduction to firearms safety, but we didn’t get the lessons repeated over and over again. If we were off to go bird hunting with a friend, dad would recall working a case where two friends went squirrel hunting. One friend ended up shooting his buddy in the head. The victim made the fatal mistake of going behind a tree to scare the squirrel to the other side and then he peeked from behind the tree just as the shooter fired. “What a terrible thing to carry around with you the rest of your life,” was how he summed it up.
A trip to jump shoot woodcock along a farm field brought out numerous stories about the unfortunate consequences of snagging a gun while crossing under a barbwire fence. Duck hunting on Huron Bay was framed with all the ways one should not handle a gun in a boat or duck blind, replete with stories about accidents to illustrate them. I especially remember the duck hunting story because dad would always say, “When you have an accidental discharge of a gun, you will be glad you learned the habit of always having it pointed in a safe direction.” Note he said ‘WHEN’ and not ‘IF’ you have an accidental discharge because if you use firearms, it WILL happen. My accidental discharge happened after a day of duck hunting.
We parked the boat inside the boathouse when we came in at dusk and went up to camp to have dinner. Afterwards, I was dispatched to get the guns and decoys out of the boat. We were using pump action 12 and 16 gauge shotguns that day and as was my normal habit, I racked each gun to make sure the chamber was clear, then pointed the gun at the ground and pulled the trigger to clear it. The last gun I cleared didn’t just go ‘click’ – it went ‘ka-boom’ and sprayed the water just outside the boathouse door with shot. When my ears stopped ringing (try firing off a shotgun indoors sometime and see how that sounds), I heard footsteps hustling down the dock. Dad stuck his head in the door, spied me standing in the boat with a surprised look on my face and said, “Good, you’re not dead. What happened?” The first thought they had in the camp was me reaching down into the boat from the walkway and the gun going off in my face. The fact that the pellets had made a big splash on the river outside the boathouse door made that seem less likely. I said, “I racked the gun just like I always do, pointed it over the motor toward the river and pulled the trigger to clear it.” Nobody was more surprised than me when it had a shell in the chamber after I had racked it with the pump. Later we joked that it was a good thing that I didn’t have it pointed at the motor or the bottom of the boat, but the habit of never pulling the trigger unless the gun is pointed in a safe direction kept me from sinking the boat or blowing up the engine. Only when I got back in the camp did I realize that there had been genuine concern that I had made a fatal ‘oops’. I took in stride and reminded everyone that we had been taught the right way and never took any shortcuts when it came to gun safety – common sense like that can prevent a life of regret.
Drinking and driving was another topic that we were never lectured on. When dad recounted the number of tragic accidents he worked during his career, we listened. It was never a case of, “Oh, that only happens to other people.” Dad emphasized that a good number of the fatalities happened to people in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like the hunting accident stories, the main deterrent here was, “What would it be like to live with that for the rest of your life?”
I got in the habit of reading the police reports in the paper around the time we were taking driver’s education. During the years I was driving home from band gigs in the early hours of the morning, I passed more than my fair share of pile ups. Reading about them later and realising a body I had seen covered by a sheet on the side of the road was someone I actually knew added many exclamation points to what dad was trying to tell us with his work stories. Dad’s common sense about driving extended right into his old age. Having seen too many people trying to drive after their eyesight and reflexes had dimmed too far to be considered safe, he wasn’t going to be one of them. When his eyes started getting too poor to drive, he gave the keys for his vehicles to my brother and was content to be chauffeured here and there.
In between his post Michigan State Police career and his later job as an Investigator for the Department of Licensing and Regulation, dad worked for Campus Security at NMU. The security officers at NMU were only armed with flashlights and nightsticks so common sense was the weapon of choice when dealing with a host of problems. Like any university campus in the late 1960s, Northern had occasional rallies and protests. Some were about the war in Vietnam and some concerned issues on campus. There had been an altercation at a bar in town that resulted in an African American student having his leg broken by a bouncer. The rumour mill said that the African American students were planning some sort of action, but nothing concrete happened, at least not right away.
A few nights after the incident, dad was working midnight shift when one of the Resident Advisors (RA) from a dorm on the western edge of the campus called to report that there was an unauthorized gathering taking place in the basement recreation room of his dorm complex. With two men on duty, dad left the other guy manning the phones and he drove over to the west side of campus. After getting the scoop from the RA, dad went down the stairs and opened the door to a pitch black rec room. When he turned on the lights, he found the room was full – the ‘unauthorized gathering’ turned out to be the African American Student Association holding a secret meeting about the broken leg incident from a few days before. He figured they heard him coming and turned out the lights hoping he would just go away when he unlocked the door and saw a dark room.
One imagines that a security officer who had watched too many John Wayne movies would have turned on the tough guy act to clear the room. Armed with a nightstick and his 30 years of police experience, dad used the common sense weapon mentioned earlier. Quickly scanning the room, he spied Ted Rose, one of NMU’s basketball players (who was hard to miss at 6’7” and 270 pounds). We motioned him over and they stepped into the stairwell to talk. When he asked Ted what was going on, Ted told him about the AASA’s secret meeting. Dad said, “Well, Ted, I have to go upstairs and call this in. If I don’t, my partner back in the office will figure there is a problem and you will have half the city police force here in ten minutes. The best thing would be for me to call in, come back in ten minutes and find an empty room.” Ted simply said, “Okay officer,” and dad went upstairs to use the RA’s phone. The RA was ready to call the local police, but dad told him that when he went back to check the rec room, if he wasn’t back in five minutes, then he should call.
When he went back downstairs, all was quiet and the room was deserted. I asked him what he would have done if they were still there and he laughed and said, “I would have closed the door and gone back to the office and called for help. One officer with a nightstick vs a room full of upset people would not have been a fair tussel.” Interestingly enough, the African American Students did stage a march later in the week. They walked into every bar in downtown Marquette looking for the bouncer (who I am pretty sure took a quick vacation out of town) under the careful scrutiny of Marquette’s finest, but nothing else happened beyond this show of solidarity. From that day on, every time Ted Rose spotted my dad on campus or at the fieldhouse working security for basketball games, he made it a point to come over and greet him.
I am not trying to paint my father as a saint because he did get his dander up from time to time. He had a minor altercation with a student he caught trying to sneak out of a girl’s dorm after hours. The perp should have been satisfied with getting a warning, but he somehow made the connection between my dad and my sister who happened to be in one of the perp’s classes. She had mentioned that some creepy guy had been hitting on her on campus so dad told her to just steer clear. Several nights later, in a remarkable display of stupidity, the same guy made a couple of loud, less than polite remarks about my sister as he was leaving a dorm lobby that my dad was in the process of locking up. Dad told my mother, “I had him on the ground and was considering how hard I was going to dribble his head on the floor when I realized that perhaps I should find another line of work.” Mom agreed. Suffice to say that the perp never bothered sis or dad again (possibly the only thing he learned that semester). Dad followed up on his thoughts about other employment by signing on with the Department of Licensing and Regulation where he worked for another eighteen years in a different kind of public service.
Here is to common sense. I like to think I learned mine from my mom and dad, one lesson at a time.
Top Piece Video: Not knowing any real songs about COMMON SENSE, a little search found this – okay, it is about POLITICAL COMMON SENSE (now THERE is an oxymoron) but in these troubled times . . .