Yesterday I wore a pair of dress shoes to work that were previously owned and worn by my late father-in-law, Melvin Mues. He loved practical, comfortable clothing and shoes, and when Mel passed away six years ago, the family passed along some of his shoes and coats and clothes. The Ecco shoes I wore yesterday morning were part of that litany.
But something funny happened yesterday that meant the end of the Eccos. They had a blowout on both sides of both shoes. During the day I actually noticed some chunks of rubber below my desk chair. It was brittle, granular rubber, the type that typically flakes off the arm of a desk chair arm. But there was no new evidence of that on my new chair, which did lose a chunk a couple weeks ago. That sucked. But yesterday was a busy day at work, so I did not dwell on what might be going on with my chair. Things to do, you know.
Yet this morning when I went to retrieve the Eccos from the living room where I’d shed them the night before, I picked them up and noticed a hole in the side of the shoe near the heel. Obviously, the rubber that made up the bulk of the shoe had suddenly decided to give up the ghost.
I took the shoes straight out to the garbage because there’s nothing that can be done for shoes in that condition. No sane shoe repairman will touch them. You can’t fix aged, crumbling, rubber. It will decompose at will.
They lived a full life, those Eccos. As did their previous owner. My father-in-law was a gracious, kind and intellectual man. He was a graduate in biology from the University of Colorado were he spent his undergraduate years chasing insects to identify up in the hills above Boulder. At one point while talking about his love for the outdoors but his disdain for the formalities of the sport of golf, he smiled at me and said, “Nature is my country club.”
Now that is the title of a book I’m working on and expect to have completed by late this year.
Mel and his wife Joan made an annual trip during the summer to Glacier National Park. They always took the same route, driving up from Illinois through Wisconsin and Minnesota to link up with Route 2 in North Dakota. Then they drove straight across the top of the lower 48 states and straight on through the long stretch of Montana to reach Glacier. They visited the park for more than 20 years, then announced they’d had enough. Their hiking days were through.
Yet the nature of that trip explained how the man lived his whole life. He was one to focus on the present and appreciated the little things as much as the big things in this world. He was brilliantly informed about the structure and makings of the universe from his studies as an amateur astronomer. He owned a big Celestron telescope through which you could see the rings of Saturn and moons of Jupiter as clear as day. In 1996, we all made a family trip out to Cortez, Colorado in league with the Adler Planetarium to study the archaeoastronomy of the Anasizi Indians one summer. It was the best summer vacation we ever took together as families, filled as it was with pre-dawn trips to view solar and solstice events in Four Corners region of the United States.
Despite his chill dude attitude, Mel had his share of tensions, for sure. At his funeral it was revealed that he kept a half dollar in his pocket that was rubbed smooth from years of him fingering it in his pocket. That was his stress relief. No drugs. No drama. Just a half dollar in the pocket, rubbed daily.
Mel only saw me run races a couple times. Fortunately, I won a couple of those races, which might have gone some distance in him trusting that I had initiative and believing in my character. But one can never be sure. He was not a person who was big on frivolous exercise, preferring to walk more than run.
His true favorite hobby was sawing up wood in the form of tree branches that fell from the oak and hickory forest in his large backyard. That’s what he was doing the day he collapsed from some sort of heart issue, falling face first into the sawdust. His wife shook him back alive, but the next year was spent trying to cure the side effects of surgery and other problems, and he never fully recovered. As a guy who generally avoided doctors most of his life, he once spent a couple weeks leaning on a portico near the front door because his back hurt too much to sit or lie down. His philosophy was stoically German and rather inane, if you ask me. “Most things go away in a couple days if you wait them out.” Well, it didn’t always work.
Mel was simply one of the hardest workers you could meet, and applied that ethic in everything he did. Some of that “work” was organic to his occupation. During multiple decades of managing Northern Hydraulics, the machine manufacturing company he owned more than forty years, he made thousands trips up and down the steep stairs from the second-floor office down to the plant floor. “That kept me in shape,” he once told me. And he was likely right about that.
But his formative years helped explain his real-life ethic. Part of his persona was that he also loved to tell stories about living on the family farm out in Nebraska where he was raised. He was one of eleven kids, if I recall, and had to fend for himself on a lot of fronts. That included living in a farmhouse where there was no heat in the attic where he slept. The outhouse also was unheated. So the choice to visit the bathroom late at night during subzero weather toughened the child as well as the adult. And at some point in his elementary school years, he contracted some sort of congestive condition and the doctors performed a tracheotomy to keep him alive. The scar was still visible on his neck.
He loved telling country-living stories such as shooting squirrels out in the big cottonwood forest down the lane. “Sometimes they’d get stuck up there in the crotch of a tree after we shot them,” he’d chuckle. “That always made me mad.”
The emerging ethos
That was his way of telling us that life does not always go the way we’d planned. Generally, he was patient and virtuous in all respects. But there was an anger that sometimes boiled beneath the surface. Mel was a deeply conservative man in the traditional sense. He read the National Review religiously and believed enormously in self-sufficiency. It angered him to watch spoiled professional athletes mumble about their problems on TV. He’d sometimes mutter and curse at the TV during post-game interviews.
As Fox News emerged as a conservative news force, he fell into a pattern of aligning his views with their talking points, and that sometimes vexed our family. His kids would roll their eyes and this son-in-law frequently bit his tongue rather than attempt to contradict the patriarch.
Yet no one really blamed him for a bit of frustration in life. He’d earned his right to complain about the world, having been sued for ridiculous reasons having to do with companies that removed the safety arms from the hydraulic machines his company manufactured. A worker somewhere would get their fingers or limb chopped off and turn around to sue the maker of the press. It was an unjust outcome, and Mel had to put up with that and other absurd vexations that afflict business owners.
The American Way
Ultimate the company floundered not from lawsuits but because the American manufacturing sector was fading from existence as American capital and manufacturing operations migrated overseas. That left men like Mel holding onto thin shreds of the machining and repair market for existing products still in operation. Then for a while, he hired a Korean salesperson who was ordering machines for the Asian market. But soon enough, that market dried up and blew away too. Those companies could get cheaper products made on Asian soils.
I deeply admired how he handled himself through all that. One can only imagine the pressures and nightly worries as he strove to keep the company afloat and took no income himself for years. There were eight or ten machinists on the payroll. Every Christmas the company would host a wonderful little Christmas party for everyone who worked there. Bonus checks were handed out even in lean years. The staff was largely loyal and intensely devoted to doing a good job.
We all wish that world could have been sustained here in America. It was built on the backs of World War II vets and the GI Bill that educated so many and fostered growth and prosperity in America following the war. At one point, manufacturing was more than 40% of the American Gross Domestic Product. But not any more. It’s closer to 9% these days.
Keep on keeping on
Yes, there are still great companies making things here in America. Perhaps some of that ingenuity and manufacturing business really can be brought back onto our shores. That’s the promise that’s been made to Americans voting for Trump. But it may be unrealistic in a global economy where emerging countries have labor forces ten times the size of the American population and willing to work for wages that are perhaps less than half what an American worker needs to make to survive.
I think about Mel frequently when I read the promises being made these days. I genuinely wonder what he’d have thought of Donald Trump. I do know that Mel despised the shallow instincts of contemporary society. Perhaps that explains it well enough.
All I know is that the legacy of the man I knew, who taught himself how to engineer and design hydraulic presses all on his own volition. I’ll repeat: He taught himself how to do the drawings used to design those machines. That is real genius.
Born on the 4th of July
Mel was also born on the 4th of July. That was another big day of the year for all of us. We’d gather in the backyard and in some years, Mel made hand-churned ice cream in a wooden bucket. We’d all take turns churning it until we could churn no more. Then we’d slather that tasty stuff on the apple pies he’d make in autumn and store in the freezer until he hauled them out in the heat of summer. He’d sport bright 4th of July clothing in red, white and blue and one year even wore star-spangled boxer shorts, a rare concession to his wild side. It was epic, I’ll tell you. We all just shook our heads, lit a bunch of illegal fireworks and sat out in their dark front yard with the fireflies and mosquitos watching the Addison fireworks show over the park a mile away.
So it prided me to wear Mel’s Ecco shoes. The man was a testimony to honest beliefs and earnest living. They were the echo of a man who was kind and loving and endured my pontifical dreams and plans even when they were stupid or didn’t work out. He knew that I loved and cared for his daughter and his other children. And in the end, that’s what matters most to a father or a mother. He was a doting grandfather to my own children and taught them many life lessons they’ll never forget. I loved the man, and still have another pair of shoes, a solid pair of Timberlands that are wearing out these days, but should last another couple years.
This is the type of dedication love that drives this world. It echoes through all of us, if only we’ll listen.