Going the Extra Mile: A Father’s Lesson in Work Ethics

In 1983, my father was permanently laid off from the Ford Motor Company in Mahwah, New Jersey. At the time, we were living in the projects and this news had our family clueless as to what our next move would be. I grew up in and old-school household where the man brought home the bacon, and the woman seasoned it and cooked it. This is how it was with many of the families in my neighborhood.  One thing I can say about growing up in the 70’s & 80s is that fathers were there. Apart from about three families, all my friends had a father in their household. This commitment or buy-in to the nuclear family enabled mothers to stay home and tend to all their kid’s needs.

When my mother broke the news to us, she made it clear that there would be no mention of my father’s predicament. For reasons that I fully understand now, my sister, my brother, and I were under strict instructions to not mention anything about my dad’s unemployment to anyone.

The unusual thing about my dad’s unemployment was that he never talked about it or acted as though he was unemployed. My dad would wake up every morning at the same time and leave the house. Where he would go, no one knew. So, if my mother didn’t tell us about his unemployment, we probably wouldn’t have noticed anything different. I would later find out that my dad was out looking for any odd job that he could find. He worked for a trucking company, parking 18-wheelers. He worked with an owner of an apartment building, helping folks move in and out, and because he had a lot of time on his hands, he started a neighborhood tenant patrol group that helped to keep our neighborhoods clean and safe.

The Entrepreneur

When my dad’s unemployment check stopped coming in, he finally faced the fact that finding another secure job, like the one that he had at The Ford Motor Company, just wasn’t in the cards, and after one year of searching, my father stopped looking and decided that he would “work for himself.” This new revelation, had us more confused than ever. One day, out of the blue, my dad came home with a beat up, 1975 blue ford truck. When he pulled up in front of the house, I remember how proud he looked. As he stood there smiling, my initial thought was that this truck looked like a piece of shit. It was old and busted up. The passenger seat was tied down with string, and there was a hole in the floor of the cab that was so big, you could easily see the street. To make matters worse, only one windshield wiper worked, (the driver’s side) and the heater was broken. This truck was a lemon and whoever sold this truck to my dad is probably still laughing to this day.

Following Your Vision until it Hurts

My dad had spent the family savings—all $500 of it—on this truck with a vision of starting his own trucking company. With pride, my dad created a sign and nailed it to the side of the door. This made it official, The H & H Trucking Company (H & H stood for Harry and Hattie) was in business and ready to carve out its piece of the apple, and no one could tell him that this was not going to work.

I wish that I could tell you that shortly after purchasing this truck we were on easy street. Unfortunately, this did not happen. For five years, my dad drove his truck up and down Broadway without making a dime. I remember my mother telling me that there were times when my dad would move folks in and out of their apartments for free. I’m not sure why my mother selected me to be the one to talk to about these things, I can only assume that she was extremely worried about the fate of her family, and back then, you didn’t share your troubles with neighbors. You just lived through them and prayed that tomorrow would be better.  

My Wakeup Call

One day, my dad told me that he would need my help with a moving job. We would be leaving the house at 4 o’clock in the morning, so I would have to go to bed early on Friday. At 3:30 a.m., my father banged on my door and yelled out, “Boy, get up right now! It’s time to go! When I stepped out of the room, he was fully dressed. I quickly put on my clothes and at 4:00 AM. we were on the road.

During the ride to New Jersey, my dad told me we would be moving furniture from New Jersey to New York. My dad’s truck wasn’t large, so I wasn’t worried about the amount of work that was in front of us. When we arrived, my dad introduced me to Mr. Kenneth. I looked him in the eye and shook his hand firmly as previously instructed. Shortly after, my dad and I started moving Mr. Kenneth’s furniture into the truck. After about two hours of work, we had finished packing the truck. Mr. Kenneth gave my father the keys to the New York apartment, and we agreed we would meet him there.

When we arrived at Mr. Kenneth’s New York City apartment, he was nowhere to be found. Luckily, we had the keys, so we started moving the furniture into the apartment. After two hours of back-breaking work, we finished. However, Mr. Kenneth was still MIA. After about 30 minutes, Mr. Kenneth arrived with multiple Macy’s bags in hand. He looked around the apartment and was so happy that everything had been delivered. Mr. Kenneth then reached into his pocket and pulled out a one-hundred-dollar bill and gave it to my dad. In addition, he handed me a twenty-dollar bill. I assumed that it was a fair price since my father seemed happy about it. (I know I was.) Dad shoved the money deep into his pants pocket, pulled his hand back out, and vigorously shook Mr. Kenneth’s hand. My dad then picked up his dolly and said goodbye to Mr. Kenneth. I did the same as we both headed for the door.  

Going the Extra Mile

Before reaching the door, Mr. Kenneth sighed out loud. “Oh, my God. How am I going to assemble this bed?” The pitch of Mr. Kenneth’s question was simultaneously high enough for my dad and me to hear it, and low enough where we could ignore answering his question and not be considered rude or disrespectful. And here lies our moment of truth. The burning question that needed to be addressed was, should we step back into the house and help Mr. Kenneth? Or should we ignore him and go home?

I was leaning toward the latter. But of course, I was totally wrong. As I continued to press forward, Dad turned back toward the entrance of the door and we ended up bumping into each other. Dad annoyingly pushed me out of the way and headed towards Mr. Kenneth’s bedroom.

I, sighed as I heard him ask, “What’s wrong, Mr. Kenneth?”
“Oh Harry,” he said, “I’m a bit overwhelmed, I don’t know how to set up this bed.”
My father looked over at me and ordered me to pass him a Phillip screwdriver and a pair of pliers. “God-damn-it”, I thought. Next thing you know, my dad was on his hands and knees putting the bed together. After about an hour and a half, the job was complete.

Mr. Kenneth was so grateful that he reached back into his pocket and pulled out a fifty-dollar bill. My father shooed him away and proudly said,
“We’re square Mr. Kenneth,” and with that said, we were now officially on our way.  I must admit, I was upset with my dad for not taking the additional money. We had worked hard that day. We earned it. But on our way home, my dad explained that when you are working for someone, you always make sure that they are satisfied with your work. He said that the fifty-dollar bill that he decided not to take, was an investment that might or might not pay off. Dad said that if you consistently plant seeds like this, eventually it would pay off. Then he told me to stop stressing out because I now had $20.00 more than I had when I woke up this morning. I must admit, I had forgotten about the $20.00 in my pocket, and in a matter of seconds, an overwhelming smile graced my face. My dad looked over at me and laughed. He then told me something that I will never forget. He said, son, if you stick with me, and learn what I’ve learned, there will be many more days like this. Suddenly, the blue busted up truck didn’t look so bad.

Capturing the American Dream…Twice

About three months later, Mr. Kenneth told a factory owner about my dad’s work. Instantly, my dad’s life—our life—changed. This factory owner became my father’s first major account. My dad didn’t have a job, he had his own business with a major account, and with this account, my Dad, President of H & H Trucking, would go on to owning three trucks. His business became a huge success. Moreover, we went from living in the projects to moving out and owning two houses, one in the Bronx, and one in South Carolina.  This all happened because my dad made sure to provide his customers with more service than required. In everything that he did, my dad went the extra mile.

Not too bad Mr. Asbery. Not too bad at all.

Photo by Joseph Asbery Studio1

Photo by Joseph Asbery Studio1

Harry Asbery (My Dad) Captures the American Dream...Twice! 

David AsberyComment