“Want to hear a story?” my dad quietly asks between sips of coffee.
“Always,” I say.
We sit in a small café and the restaurant noise fills the air surrounding us. Something in his tone hints at a good story and I lean in, not wanting a single detail to be lost in the clinks of cups and saucers.
We have been meeting for donuts and coffee more frequently lately and as the years roll on, I notice how we find great solace in telling stories from the past. They bring warmth and comfort and, like old friends, we enjoy sipping strong coffee while we sit with them for a while. I especially love the stories that are unearthed from my father’s side of the family. Each of our visits gifts me with an unknown piece of my history, which I eagerly devour.
An Unknown Past
He produces a picture from his wallet and slides it across the table. A small black and white photo shows a young man atop a lightly colored colt in a pasture of a famly farm. The man is my father’s father, Marvin. Being raised in middle Tennessee, I assumed that the fence, as well as the horse standing behind it, belonged to the family farm. However, my assumptions proved wrong.
The picture depicts a past with which I was unfamiliar. My dad points to the photo and says, “This is when your grandfather trained horses for Hollywood.”
The year was 1933 when an undoubtedly nervous country boy garnered enough courage to approach the father of Lena Payne. Being only 21, Marvin Wilkinson intended on proposing to the 18-year-old Lena. However, he lacked one thing: the blessing of Lena’s father, which is what led him to the front porch of George Washington Columbus Payne.
George Washington Columbus Payne created a beautiful life for his family. He and my great-grandmother, Fronnie, raised seven children together, including three girls and Lena just happened to be the baby. If his mouthful of a name alone did not scare away prospective suitors, the idea of marrying his baby girl should have been enough to send them running.
Yet in 1933 Marvin stood on the porch waiting for permission and a blessing. Wanting to make certain that his baby girl would be provided for, George threw down the gauntlet.
“Come back to me with $500 and you have my blessing,” he told Marvin.
George intended on handing the money right back to the young couple, but Marvin didn’t know that and George sought to see what the young country boy was made of first.
In the middle of the Great Depression, $500 seemed to be an insurmountable sum. Not allowing the challenge to be a deterrent, Marvin set out to seek employment that would guarantee that type of financial success.
The job hunt took him to a small town in West Texas by the Mexican border. There he found work at a ranch that specialized in breaking and training horses for Hollywood. (As far back as the early 1900s, horses played a significant part in motion pictures and the demand was high for skilled thoroughbreds.)
Marvin applied for the job without worrying about the lack of knowledge that he possessed in the training of such creatures. He saw that as only an insignificant obstacle on the road to his end goal: the requisite $500.
Armed with the combination of ferocious determination, a fierce work ethic, and a willingness to learn, Marvin eagerly accepted any amount of on-the-job instruction they offered him. He started breaking the wilder horses and soon the ranch foreman paired him with the more skilled training teams. He did not do this for a few days or a few weeks, but rather continued to relentlessly pursue his goal for three long years.
Shaking the dust from his boots, Marvin walked to that same front door. However, this time a man stood where that boy once did. Long days in the sun had weathered him and though he had not grown an inch, he somehow stood taller. Self respect now replaced the nerves that had accompanied him on that first visit to George Washington Columbus Payne. Yes, he possessed the money, but the richness of character developed through work on the ranch proved to be the most valuable of his possessions. This yielded Marvin not only George’s blessing, but his admiration as well.
Oftentimes, the surprising serendipities of hard work come in non-monetary forms. When we push forward and overcome the obstacles, we find that we stand a little taller. Every accomplished task rewards us with our own admiration. The self respect we gain outweighs the sweat equity that we contribute. Daunting tasks guide us through a growth journey with the end goal of us becoming a little better today than we were yesterday.
Self respect hides right on the other side of hard work. They walk hand in hand. To earn one, you must be willing to embrace the other. The process looks different each time, but it is who you become at the journey’s end that matters most. Ferocious determination, a fierce work ethic, and a willingness to learn will be your allies on each journey. Fear not the work. Chase down the worthy goal waiting for you at the end. You may just be surprised with what you ultimately gain.