In 2009, I attended a political fundraiser hosted by one of Indiana’s top bundlers. After the event ended, we stayed up late into the evening sharing personal stories over bottles of wine. I told the host that my dad passed away in 2003 with ALS and that I still dream about him. He responded, “You’ll dream about him for the rest of your life.” He too lost his dad in college and described the impact it made on his life.
Ever since I moved to DC in January 2017, the frequency of dreams increased from quarterly to nearly weekly. Dreams from my dad include the many ‘teaching moments’ we had together along with nightmares of family fights and the 5-year progression of his battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease.
While my childhood memories are constantly being molded by dreams that may or may not be completely accurate, there are two themes that continue to repeat themselves at night as dad speaks to me through Hillbilly Ebonics.
- Dad was connected to the land and truly one with nature. Today, most Americans are completely removed from our ancestry.
- Although not religious, Dad was deeply rooted in a (Southern) Culture of Honor, a values system that has transcended all religions around the world since the beginning of time yet is nearly extinct in the American way of life.
He was connected to the land.
Although I was raised in the steel-mill town of Lake Station, Indiana (formerly East Gary), my childhood was far more representative of rural Kentucky. This is the ‘urban fringe’ of the rust belt because we were only 30 minutes from downtown Chicago and 3 minutes from the nearest corn field.
I didn’t meet Doug Ordway until I was four years old and didn’t have a dad in my life before that point. He had a persona representative of Red Forman from ‘The 70s Show’ combined with Jack Arnold from ‘The Wonder Years’. Despite being born in 1958, dad’s archetype was that of a WW2 veteran. He was a man’s man, built in the image of his own father, Hollis, a Korean War vet from rural Western Kentucky.
It would be questionable to wonder if I ever had a childhood because my dad never once treated me like a boy nor did he refer to me as one. He always said I was a man and he would teach me how to become a better one. It was here that my rugged blue-collar working-class roots were planted.
Nearly every memory I have with my dad includes being outside. This would be self-evident as the house I was raised in was 864 sqft and was built on a concrete slab. We didn’t have AC until high school and the furnace did not have ductwork to the individual rooms. We taped up the windows each winter and the exterior walls were ice cold because there was no insulation in them. Dad had a rule called ‘no house humping’ which meant that if the weather was nice, we should be outside. There was also no ‘running in and out’.
my peers didn’t have, I thought it was a conspiracy. While raking leaves, mowing the lawn, cleaning gutters and taking care of two large dogs were standard, chopping/stacking wood, controlled fence burns, and rebuilding engines were a notch beyond. We poured concrete, re-shingled part of the garage, installed a wood burner among many other things. We didn’t have money so when a problem arose with the heater, plumbing, electrical, we fixed it ourselves. One of his famous expressions was “Figure it out.” Like a good autodidact, his skills were developed purely through experience or ‘trial and error’. Despite being a D student in high school, he understood how the real world worked and had a level of ‘street smarts’ that are rare today. In everything we did, he said “worker smarter, not harder”. When not thinking straight, he often used one of grandpa’s saying to illustrate the point, “Son, do I have to draw you a picture?”
We had a garden just behind the garage, which included sunflowers, pumpkins, corn, potatoes, cucumbers, a variety of peppers, tomatoes and a few other things. Being small, I hated using the tiller because I could never handle it. Watering the garden was a chore and weeding it was even more of a pain. When the vegetables finally ripened, it was better than anything we had ever purchased. To complete the backyard of true southern living, we had a small barn, tin shed and ‘burn barrel’. There was a patio connected to the garage and inside a very large deep-freezer. It was filled with just about every meat imaginable. As an avid hunter and fisher, Dad wanted to spend his free time in nature. Family vacations with my mom and sister were merely camping trips out of town. A cast iron skillet and a fire were all we needed to make it happen. Outside of riding my bike around the campsite and reading car magazines, those weekends were filled sitting around the campfire making smores with the storytelling of past adventures.
Dad and I went on fishing trips that included time on small lakes in both Michigan and Wisconsin. On occasion, we went charter fishing in Lake Michigan. He really enjoyed the long days on a boat just doing nothing. If the sunburns weren’t killer enough, having to be silent for hours was nothing short of painful for a little boy. I really enjoyed learning how to tie various knots and I found cleaning fish to be an interesting experience.
We also hunted squirrels and birds but those seasons were short and dad really preferred deer to anything else. From scoping out trails, finding scrapes on the ground and ‘marked’ trees, the preseason was long followed by hanging stands. We spent most of our time on private land just outside the Culver Military Academy with a few campers set up around a ‘tipi’, or wooden frame wrapped in clear industrial plastic, complete with wood-burner of course. This was deer camp.
The ultimate discipline for a young man is sitting in a deer stand alone for hours on end in the freezing cold. Mind you, in the mid-90s, there were no cell phones or e-readers. With half the time in the tree spent at sun-rise or sun-set with thermo-gloves on, reading a book was not possible. I started driving at the age of 12 and there were times when Dad had one too many beers but he was sure to wake up at 4:30 am and give me the keys to his truck. Complete with bow, shotgun or muzzle-loader (depending on the season), I drove just a mile down the road and walked another mile into the woods in the pitch black. It was here that I learned how to endure sub-zero temperatures, a skill that remains with me today. Upon killing my first deer, I shook uncontrollably and immediately felt depressed afterward. Dad made it known that this was completely normal and that was a sign of our respect for nature and what had taken place. As long as I made a conscious effort to make a ‘clean kill’ while trying to use as much as the animal as possible, that is what mattered. While field dressing the animal was my least favorite part of the job, I found the ‘quartering’ process all the way to making sausage or steaks to be a very rewarding process.
Today, I sit here in DC as a “keyboard warrior in the concrete jungle”. There is something to be said for people who were born, raised and will die without experiencing much of nature while simultaneously claiming to know how the world works. We are disconnected from the pride of ownership, the patience and the discipline in making our own food from start to finish. The emotional impact of taking an animal’s life is something that can only be lived, not read in a book. This process has been with humans for thousands of years and we are only recently disconnected from this way of life. Dad was one with nature and it created a deep love and respect for everything around him. Since we will all return to the ground from which we came, I find the life lessons that were learned in the woods to be imperative to my understanding of the human condition.
He fully internalized a (Southern) Culture of Honor
Dad had a very distinct way of carrying himself in public and in private. Although not a religious man (until being diagnosed with ALS), he had personal rules and expected them to be followed with perfection. While I’m no advocate for authoritarian parenting, I appreciate the boundaries, structure, and order it provided me.
I heard him say many times “All a man has is his word” and he said a handshake was more valid than any signed legal document. To him, reputation was everything. He saw loyalty as the most important characteristic a man could ever have. He was quiet but carried a big stick and he knew when to swing it.
Those from a Culture of Honor are easily offended (when their code is broken) and have a high propensity for violence. When I did something stupid, dad would roll and bite his tongue which was scary as hell, followed by a ‘thump on the head’. He had paddles hanging in the house and garage but never used them.
While both products of the 5th poorest school system in Indiana with the same teachers, he demanded academic success despite his own lack of good grades. Despite finishing 8th in my class, he then said that ‘grades really didn’t matter’ and that “seat time” (experience) was far more meaningful when it came to work.
At my dad’s funeral, I heard many times by co-workers that “Doug would give someone the shirt on his back without question.” He understood the importance of making sacrifices. Shift work is very bad for human health and despite his (low) title of ‘millwright’, he never complained about the challenges of his job or the people he worked with. A Culture of Honor means that selfish interests take the backseat to the interests of the group and adversity reinforces social bonds.
He had a love/hate relationship with the International Longshoreman’s Association union. He appreciated the fight for common wages and a safe work environment but despised the idea that men who were perpetually late to work or showed up drunk would be protected. Work ethic, integrity, and discipline were non-negotiables with dad.
A Culture of Honor is the way of men. Horizontal Honor being the rules that men agree upon to become part of the team and Vertical Honor, the rewards that are bestowed based on performance against other men in that tribe. My dad’s tribe was his hunting buddies. While I was exposed to a fair amount of ‘locker room talk’ at a young age, my dad said: “Whatever happens at deer camp, stays at deer camp.” While I was not permitted to drink alcohol as a kid, I did slip in a swig of homemade wine when the bottle was passed around.
Dad was a Lifetime NRA member and took guns very seriously. He said to treat every gun as if it were loaded and to NEVER point it at anything I didn’t intend to kill. He said if I respected my gun, it would always respect me. Membership in an Honor Culture comes with obligations and responsibilities.
Despite popular media themes about how “men need to be more emotional and open up”, the fact remains that my dad and I had a very direct, open and emotional relationship. The key here is that every conversation we had was held in complete confidence, a code of conduct that few men follow today. He never participated in rumors or gossip which to me was one of his greatest assets and something that I have never been able to match.
Even though I was a ‘goodie good’ in school, there were a few times that I got in trouble. While my mom rushed to my defense no matter the situation, dad presumed that I was guilty and rendered punishment accordingly. He didn’t care if I was right and said respecting authority is important.
One summer, I was in the process of changing the oil in both the tractor and push mower but forgot to put oil back in the tractor. Just an hour later, the engine blew up. For this, I spent the rest of the year push mowing that entire lawn with a bagger which took several hours to complete. He was keen on making sure I owned my mistakes and accepted the fact that life is not fair.
He regularly preached the importance of ‘Skin In The Game’ in ALL aspects of life. When I wanted to buy something, he said he would ‘meet me in the middle’ if I could save half. He believed that collective ownership held people accountable. He said this was imperative because if he just outright bought me things, I wouldn’t respect them. He found rich kids to be ungrateful so the concept of spoiling someone was foreign to him. I never once received an allowance for all the chores I did but dad made sure all my needs and even some of my wants were taken care of.
Dad preached the importance of voluntary adversity. As my coach in baseball, he worked me harder than the rest and I was rarely rewarded in the public eye. He served as a model for anti-nepotism and went out of his way to ensure that was never questioned by any of the other parents. Dad had no problem being the only parent to show up to my basketball practices only to critique me from the sidelines. He put me in situations where he knew I would fail but the point was to teach me something new. In private, he would take me aside and say “Son, I’m very proud of you.” Honor Cultures promote taking (calculated) risk and how to learn from our mistakes/failures.
He often said: “If you’re gonna do it once, do it right.” and “You get what you pay for.” He bought as much American made stuff as possible and had a jingoistic streak like no other. One of his favorite shirts to wear in public was an American Flag that said: “try burning this one”. While one of the least materialistic people around, he always chose quality over quantity.
It is the values he raised me with that gave me the strength and mental toughness to take care of my dad during his decline. Of the billions of people who have lived on Earth, I am one of the few that can say “I wiped my dad’s ass.” This was the most humiliating experiences for both of us as men but it was done out of loyalty, duty and true unconditional love. While I received a lot of physical support from family to care for him, I was unable to trust anyone to discuss the fact that my best friend was dying. I am deeply indebted to a high school girlfriend that listened to me during this time as she serves as the only reason why I didn’t hurt myself or others during this tumultuous time.
Today, we live in a society where academics and the ‘civilized’ urbanites have all but rejected a Culture of Honor. These folks preach tolerance but its side effects have created the selfish, the cowardly, the shameless and pushed many into alienation. The Culture of Dignity that Jesus brought us became a stabilizing force where we were once barbaric. Reliance on institutions for structure/law is important for progress but dignity’s focus has prioritized the individual over the community has left people alienated and alone. This code, however, where ‘all have equal worth’ has since denigrated into the modern Culture of Victimhood and safetyism we see today. Dad raised me to be a doer, not a talker – a man of action, not of words. Strong in both mind and body. The recent shift in morality to mere virtue signaling (talkers) is the antithesis of my upbringing, faith, and values I hold dear. When properly channeled, honor promotes timeless virtues such as self-respect, loyalty, integrity, and courage. It serves to build community and promotes restorative justice in a criminal system that is in desperate need of reform.
Regardless of my own personal interpretation of religion, I find the values my dad raised me with to be far superior to any sort of secular ‘principles’ in modern-day America. Dad was a ‘live and let live’ individual and one of the most non-judgmental people around. He got along with everyone but held people accountable when they were out of line. Those from a Culture of Honor do not go out of their way to offend people but also do not accept improper condct by others. This is community accountability.
At the end of the day, Doug Ordway was just some “dumb hillbilly”, a blue-collar man from the working class. He probably didn’t even know what a Culture of Honor was or meant but he lived it every day. Despite being diagnosed with one of the worst diseases to ever face the human race, he never whined or complained. Being a victim is a choice. For my dad and family, that is NEVER an option. Pride, resilience and an unwillingness to be intimidated trump socioeconomic status….all day, every day. It doesn’t matter where you come from, it’s all about where you’re going. Overcoming adversity is the history of evolution and humans do not get exceptions.
As I reflect on the many years we had together, the timeless lessons dad taught me become ever so clear on what it means to be a man. This moment of introspection is a reminder of how I should conduct myself in society at large while also striving to help other men become who they are meant to be. Looking back, Doug Ordway was right, Honor Still Matters.