By on June 11, 2012



Dad: Douglas?

Son: Can you call me Doug?

Dad: Maybe in the next life Douglas. Listen. I am very proud of you for the good grades in college. You’re really applying yourself. So I’m going to match your funds and help you buy a car.

Son: You’re kidding! You realize that my savings are well into the four figures these days and not the three.

Dad: Yes. And you realize that I am going to expect to have some authority over what you buy.

Son: You mean veto power.

Dad: And then some…

Think about what you just read… and then consider these questions.

1) Who is Dad?

2) Who is Doug?

3) Who are you?

These are not easy questions to answer because when it comes to life, most folks are a combination of Dad and Doug. Usually the currency is knowledge instead of money and the exchanges go both ways.

Allow me to explain…

Eighteen years ago I started out as a pure Doug. In fact, Dad was my own father. My daily driver had been totaled by a crazy old Greek man driving a meat truck. We both were lucky in that accident. But after seeing my life flash before my eyes and my old Celica mangled to a pulp, I wanted a long break from the rigors of daily driving.

The problem was that this was impossible. I had an internship at the Canadian Consulate and a job at a popular bookstore in downtown Atlanta. Both jobs required a car. Both positions were among those rare enjoyable jobs that are usually in short supply when you’re young.

I had to get something!

A week beforehand my parents had discovered that their lifelong C+/B- student, whose high school friends ranged between hoodlums and felons, had suddenly become an A/A- with two part-time jobs.  I had been waking up at 7:00 AM every morning and not stopping until 11:30 at night for the majority of my work days. I had been enjoying my freedom from a rough life in New Jersey. So much so that I seriously considered dropping out of school.

My work life was far more interesting. I dealt with an endless array of intelligent and genuinely nice people. Read everything I could get my hands on. I even had a gateway to a full-time job at the consulate that I thought would likely outpay anything I could find at graduation.

So I told my parents that I would be taking a year off from school. A year off to me meant, a year off. I would catch my breath. Figure out what path I wanted to take in life, and then proceed forward from there.

Except I knew my future would not involve boring endless lectures and pointless cram-filled exams. I was going to succeed… in spite of academia. The sooner the better.

There was just one thing I hadn’t counted on. Guilt. Oh boy! Could my parents smack me with a two by four of guilt. Dad lost both parents and survived the Holocaust. Mom survived a working class upbringing in the bad part of the Bronx.

Me? I was just working hard for the first time in my life. But I didn’t see it that way. I saw it as two years of hard work that would immediately lead to lifelong dividends.

Dad: “Why do you want to destroy everything you have done?”

Mom: “Do you really think that you’re going to do the same work for the next 50 years?”

My Dad had been a food importer for 45 years. So that wasn’t outside the realm of possible. I knew I would do other things as time went on though.

So who needed school?

The arsenal of reason and guilt missed their target for a good twenty minutes.

Then it happened….

Dad: “I would like to see you graduate before I’m dead.”

That line would seem incredulous to most young adults. But that line hit me hard enough to daydream about it nearly two decades after they were uttered. My father was 70, had high blood pressure, and my brother Michael had passed away from testicular cancer four years earlier. I had regrets and nightmares, even after all those years, that still wouldn’t leave my mind.

Sometimes the nightmares would take place during the day, and they would serve as a second wind of energy and a reminder that I needed to achieve all my goals in life. Because someone else I truly loved never got that chance.

“Let me call you back.” (click)… I would spend the next several minutes immersed in brutally intense and random thoughts. The type that usually lead to either a breakthrough or blind rage.

I was being emotionally blackmailed. They weren’t bad people. “Why am I being pushed? When the hell am I ever supported in this family?”

For some reason, my thoughts turned to my father’s grandparents. I never knew either one. Grandma died from food poisoning during the Depression and Grandpa fought for his country. He was even awarded several medals. Along with an all too rare promotion that was given to a Jew in the German military during WWI.

Then the bastards took a business that he built from scratch, stripped him of all his property, terrorized his children, and murdered him.

My Dad went through a real hell. What I was going through didn’t even qualify as hardship. It was opportunity. He had gone through 45 years of the same indepedent employment because he had no options. I needed to leave mine open. At the very least, I needed to honor the fact that he had a far better perspective about life than I did.

Then I saw the greater, piercing reality of it all. Both my parents had fought uphill battles in their lives. We all do. Everyone struggles. There was a book I read. I had forgotten the name, but the words that stayed with me were…

“Those who carve with mere stones must be envisioning a cathedral.”

Somehow the word ‘gather’ got mixed with ‘carve’ in my memory.

Then in that moment, I remembered both words!

“Two paths.” I thought. “You need to gather. You need to carve.”

“You will need school. You will need work. You will always need both.”

I graduated. Eighteen years later, I am still gathering. I am still carving.

But sometimes I just take long walks. Think about Dad, and Michael, and everything else in life.

Their cathedral lives on.

Today the Dad is me and Doug is my son. The stones are all the people we meet, and experiences that change us. The cathedral is life.

I just figured that out. Took long enough. Now, where the hell do cars fit into all this?

Note: The original saying is likely, “We who cut mere stones must always be envisioning cathedrals.” which was written either by a quarryman, or someone who had the fortune of avoiding that fate. Sometimes the stones that are sayings get molded into new shapes and before we know it, we are misquoting some long dead fellow who would have been much happier had he been memorialized in a Monty Python sketch.


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25 Comments on “Hammer Time: Mere Stones...”

  • avatar

    Life is more than cars…

    Nice read, thanks.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    “Where the hell do cars fit in all of this?” That’s an irrelevant question in this context. Nice piece. Thanks for writing it.

  • avatar

    I miss my father more and more as the years pass. We weren’t what you’d call close as I grew up. He, the tried and true typical Army Sergeant, me the less-than tough boy. But as I graduated college, he and I started seeing a different relationship emerge…one cut short five years later when he died from cancer at the young age of 57. Now a father of my own young man (my son is 21), I dearly wish my own father was here so I could talk to him about the struggles I’m having with my son…reading this, I wonder if my own son will ever see me in this light when I’m gone.
    Great post…and very timely for me. Yes, we love us some cars around here on TTAC, but this was a needed reminder that there is far more to life than what we drive.

    • 0 avatar

      +1. I look at where I am in life,and marvel at what my dad was like at my age (51). How the heck did he do it? I feel so…immature in comparison….

      Excellent as always, Steve.

  • avatar

    I lost my dad shortly after finishing college too. Fortunately I got to enjoy a couple years of graduating from the “My dad is a jerk” stage to “My dad is pretty awesome, if for no other reason than he put up with my BS.”

  • avatar


    You’ve really gotten good.

  • avatar

    Good stuff. I’ve been letting the foot off the gas in a project I have been doing. Thanks for the kick in the pants.

  • avatar
    D in the D


    Thanks for this. For me, it was my Grandpa. But, they are never really “just stories”. And, I think that is the point. They are experiences, and I hope everyone gets a taste…

  • avatar

    Hey Steven!

    Read it 4 or 5 times during the day. I was trying to absorb the wisdom in your words. You know you have influenced me in other areas of my life. And now this…

    All I can say is thanks.

    Thank you.

  • avatar

    Well, Mr. Steve Lang, that’s quite impressive. Even tho’ it really doesn’t have much to do with cars, per se, lessons can be applied. What lessons? Priorities, for one.

    At the risk of TMI:

    I don’t know what it’s like to lose a sibling – I didn’t have any.

    Dad was in the CCC and had his arm mangled due to dynamite being set off and no one told him. As a result, he had to struggle all his life in order to earn a living in addition to his other health problems. But you know what? He NEVER GAVE UP! That always impressed me.

    Unfortunately, I was a bit spoiled and really didn’t discover my work ethic until I joined the air force. When I bought my 1964 Chevy I owned at the time, that car required most of my earnings, as servicemen didn’t make much in those days. Gas added up because I couldn’t park the car for any length of time. In other words, while I goofed off and had lots of fun my whole four years, I didn’t plan for the future. I woke up my last few months in the service and got my carcass in gear and hustled. I went to college afterward and took advantage of every opportunity that may help me in getting my life started.

    Hard work paid off. I got my priorities straight.

    Thanks, dad.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    Honestly, without an audience like this one, none of these thoughts would see the light of day.

    The thanks is mutual.

    • 0 avatar
      CA Guy

      I think of my Dad (and his Dad, too – I sat on Grandpa’s lap to learn to “drive”) just about every time I read TTAC because our earliest and continuous bonding was over cars. He loved cars, knew how to fix just about anything automotive, and bought dozens of them right up to his passing. We perused brochures and visited showrooms, used car lots, and car shows together. I watched him work on cars and we helped out at my cousin’s bodyshop on occasion. My Dad was the most reliable, steadfast, honest person I’ve ever known; he was always there for anyone who needed him. You will never stop missing your Dad. Thanks, Steve, for this wonderful reminder.

  • avatar


    Interesting topic to bring up just now as I’ve been thinking on elements of this topic in the past year, and part of it for me is my age. I’m 47 and don’t have a nest egg of any sort, not that I didn’t plan for it, but I simply don’t make enough to do it. I’m afraid that I may end up destitute when I’m elderly as I’m the youngest in my family and no one else has the financial wherewithal to assist me as they are all struggling in their own ways to get by – as is my Mom who lives alone at 80 with her dog but keeps busy enough on her own.

    That said, I do OK for now but that’s just it though. And I’ve had this discussion for a long while about the importance of degrees if they are even worth it, for what it gets you these days? This is especially true with the cost of tuition and that some degrees, like the Liberal Arts degrees are not worth the paper they are written on and that with most degrees and in most fields, it takes years before one can pay off their college debts and with tuition being the cost of a new car these days, it’s becoming something that many are questioning if it’s really necessary.

    I also think many get pushed into college whether it’s the right choice or not by parents who want only the best for their children, whether it makes sense or not for what the child wants to do.

    I’ve had concerns with how many employers tout degrees over all else and I’ve seen too many people with degrees that don’t know crap what they’re doing and just fake it – and it shows. Not that that’s all bad as in some cases, it’s OK to fake it until you figure it out (artists for one).

    Most of what I know, I learned through me, IE, I’m largely self taught in many areas, learned through temping and have experience the catch 22 syndrome where it’s difficult to crack some careers without experience, but how can you gain experience when the job demands you have it to begin with?

    So for me, I somewhat hope I just fall into a creative job I like and can hold onto it for a while and make a decent enough living that I can get at least somewhat ahead.

    I decided several years ago, life is more than just work and that I’d rather make a bit less and have time off to enjoy life. And by enjoying life, I mean, being able to travel some, take the occasional road trip, even if more than just a day trip. Speaking of, I did just that last Friday by going on a day trip with my car to a small farming town an hour and a half north of where I live for the day. We used to know some people who lived there years ago and I had wanted to go and see the area again and finally did so.

    I hope to do more of that kind of thing this summer as a goal to myself to explore more of my home state, if nothing else.

    In recent years, I’ve had to incur some debt to gain new skills and knowledge in software I would need to make this new jump in work, work.

    Now, I just need to end the procrastination and make it happen.

    All because I’m where I am age wise and know that I have about another 20 years of this kind of work life left before employers shaft us older folk out of the work force and I also need to be able to make enough to pay my rent/mortgage, my bills and be able to save, which is difficult as it is for most in this economy.

    I guess my fear is bow will I be able to survive as a senior?

  • avatar

    Thanks Steven!
    Nicely written and a reminder that no matter how bad we think it is now I dont think most folks can really get thier arms around how damn bad it was for our parents and grandparents many years ago.My oldest brother was born in Hawaii as my dad was busy salvaging what was left of the pacific fleet.His dad was a wealthy property owner ..until the Depression and lost everything.My grandfather on my mom`s side dodged the German draft an came to America with only his carpenters chest.The pride and resilience of people like them reinforce the blessing`s we have been given by our parents and grandparents!Will our kids understand…..NO,well not for many years anyway.

  • avatar

    Both of my Grandfathers were in WWII, Dad was in Vietnam, I joined the Navy and got my education from there. As someone else said, I have read this several times today. It puts alot of things in perspective. To my Dad growing up I was pretty much veiwed as a pest. That all changed once I joined the Navy and started my own family. Mom wanted me to go to college for the Mechanical Engineering degree I was accepted for, and needless to say she is still miffed at me for going the military route. What I really want to know is, what car did you and your Dad agree on? Did that purchase have anything to do with your current occupation?

    • 0 avatar
      Steven Lang

      1994 Toyota Camry LE Coupe, red, 4-cylinder, sunroof, 4 wheel ABS disc brakes (big non-negotiable issue given the accident). Kept it for close to 240k miles. Currently has over 290k miles.

      Other than demystifying vehicles a bit, the purchase didn’t put me on a path towards my current work. For several years afterwards, I would be as far away from the dealer and auction businessess as Merucry is from Pluto.

  • avatar
    Frank Galvin

    Steve: Its the articles like this, and Jack’s ode to Kellee that keep me coming every day. I thought I was reading an atypical “the time my dad bought me a car” Father’s Day post, but your sharing of family history and emotions arising from it caught me unprepared. I’ve read it four times now, and I’ll read it again. Excellent writing. Thanks for sharing.

  • avatar

    Thank you, Steve.

  • avatar


    Thank you so very much. I only stumbled on this post by happenstance (we in Western Canada are having issues with the pages loading properly due to a Google ad issue, so we only get three posts on the front page, PER DAY).

    I finally gave up attempting to bond with my father after 45 or so frustrating years – some relationships just never connect all that deep, no matter how much effort is expended. Lucky for me, though, I married into the best father-in-law one could imagine. Due, in part, to a rejection of my own upbringing, and in part a reflection of the respect I have for my father-in-law, I consciously fostered a close relationship with my son. My father-in-law had no sons, and I had no relationship with my father – and now the two of us are closer than I was with my father at any point in my life.

    Your articulate and timely post made me reflect on the above, and makes me realize just how fortunate I was in marrying my wife, because I found a real father as well.

    Cherish those that do their best to do right by you – welcome or not, some people in your life have YOUR best interest at heart.

  • avatar
    George B

    “Now, where the hell do cars fit into all this?”

    My dad spent time having me help with car maintenance when it would have been easier to just do the work himself or pay a mechanic. He was a Chemistry professor with the job security of tenure plus social pressure to “act professional”. Instead, my dad spent his weekends doing lots of “working class” labor including carpentry and car maintenance. We went foraging for parts at the junk yard. He even did a couple of engine swaps with help from friends. I held the drop light, retrieved wrenches, and learned by observation. However, the big lessons were 1) reasonable smart individuals can learn many different DIY skills and 2) its possible to learn from the people with their name on their coveralls, not just people with “Dr.” in front of their name. There was never any doubt that I would go to college, but learning to get my hands dirty has helped my Engineering education and career.

  • avatar
    bill mcgee

    Thanks for the memories . My whole life the old man and me had never clicked ( like you I was guilt -tripped into staying in college when I wanted to drop out , parents saying because my siblings had all flunked out of college that they wanted one child to graduate )as he was a bit remote , often would lose his temper , usually directed at me . After I graduated I moved back in with the parents for a few months and was always glad I did because then Daddy and I talked at length about his early life that put it all in perspective . His father who abandoned the family during the Great Depression ,leaving granny to sell eggs and his sons to chop cotton to survive , beat him routinely , treated his brothers and him like farm equipment and came crawling back to poor granny when his health failed . Daddy was of a different generation without the touchy- feely ideas of a later age . Yes he could be bad- tempered and angry , even abusive to me but I miss him deeply and feel lucky that he lived to be 90 .

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