When I was in my early teens, my grandfather on my mom’s side took my brother and me on a fishing trip to the Salton Sea in California.
After the moderate drive from San Diego, we got our small motorboat ready and set off on the water. Not long after, however, the motor sputtered and died, leaving us stranded.
My grandfather, realizing that we had no way back to shore, quietly stripped down to his underpants, jumped into the water, and towed the boat back himself, with my brother and me staring in embarrassed disbelief. As he dragged the boat up the landing, he laughed and waved to the small gathering crowd.
A short visit to the local boat shop revealed that the motor was broken, and the nearest store with a needed missing part was over 100 miles away in Yuma, Arizona. With the trip not going so well, we went back to the hotel, figuring we’d all head home in the morning.
My grandpa said he had to run some errands, and by the time my brother and I woke up the next day, he somehow had the boat fixed. We found out only later that my grandfather had spent the night driving to and from Yuma, and had fixed the boat himself.
That experience affected me deeply. My grandfather wanted to take us fishing, and despite our teenage angst about the whole situation, and the troubles we faced, he didn’t even once seem fazed. He had a goal, and he stuck to it, regardless of the challenges.
Rather than complaining about having to drag a boat back to shore, he joked about the people’s faces when they saw an old man coming out of the sea in his underpants. He barely mentioned his drive to Yuma and didn’t expect any praise for it. And he never complained about going without sleep to fix the boat. All he cared about was having a good fishing trip with his grandsons.
Experiences like this shape who we are as adults. The minor lessons, the simple remarks, that one compliment that can change our lives.
I was blessed to have many strong male figures in my life. And while nobody is perfect, each of them had a lasting impact that helped shape the man I am today. I believe it’s these experiences, collectively, that form our beliefs of what really matters in life, what it means to be an adult, and of what it means to be a good person.
Here are some of the other lessons I learned from the men in my life:
My other grandfather, on my dad’s side, is a retired Marine officer and a Vietnam veteran. He spends most of his days reading books and sitting on his patio. He’s an old cowboy type, and his best friend is an old Seminole Indian who is former Navy.
When I was a kid, I remember him being very quiet and very stern. Vietnam had taken a heavy toll on him. At night, I’d sometimes hear him wake up screaming from his nightmares. As I got older and became more interested in military history, I decided one day to ask him about the war.
Being a kid, I asked the infamous question that veterans hate to hear: “Have you ever killed someone?” My grandfather looked at me, then answered with his estimated number. I exclaimed “awesome!” and never saw him get so angry in my life.
Tears welled up in his eyes. His voice was calm, but he sounded like he wanted to shout. I’ll never forget what he said:
“It’s not good to kill anyone. Do you know what it’s like? You realize that this was a person who had a wife, kids, and a family that loved him, and you took that away from them. That’s gone because you killed him. Afterward, you puke your guts out. The next time it happens, you again puke your guts out. Then, gradually, you stop feeling anything. And then it becomes very hard to come back.”
He told me that he believed he should have died in Vietnam, and so, every day since had been what he called “a bonus day.”
My grandfather really opened up after that, and it became a weekend ritual for me to visit him to hear his stories, hang out, and watch old movies. He was my hero as a kid. He taught me to live each day well, to realize that every person has a family that cares about them, and to love valor.
My dad was always cooler than me growing up. He’s a surfer dude who grew up in Hawaii and has always had a talent for being the life of the party, with an added ability to make friends wherever he goes. He’s also an entrepreneur and has been able to run several successful businesses.
He always told me growing up to “never get stuck working for someone else.” He said if you do need to work for someone else, always go into a business where you can learn a skill, so that you can move toward doing it on your own.
There are many people who work their whole lives for another person’s company, but no matter how much you advance in that company, it will never be your own. You’re just helping someone else build their business, you’ll always need to answer to someone else, you’ll always be at risk of being fired if you step out of line, and your own creative freedom will always be constrained by someone else’s will.
It’s worthwhile to develop a skill and run your own business, even if it means taking a bit of financial loss. The true accomplishment is independence.
This concept goes deeper than just work, however. Independence is something he’s taught me to apply to other areas of my life as well.
I remember as a kid, hearing other kids talk about this celebrity or that TV show. I told my dad one day about how great it would be to meet one of those celebrities someday, and he scoffed at the idea.
His words were along these lines: “Those people are no different than you or me. A lot of them aren’t even that smart. The only thing that makes them stand out is that people see them in movies. It’s just their job. They’re like clowns, but people worship them. Don’t just randomly follow people because everyone else does.”
That idea stuck with me. My dad taught me to not put people on a pedestal just because a TV show or a movie told me to. It’s important in life to have your own standards for measuring things, and to decide things for yourself, rather than letting others do the thinking for you.
Consider Others in Your Actions
After high school, when I was in my late teens, I did a lot of soul-searching and went through a phase of trying to better understand what it means to “be a man.” Being somewhat eccentric, I decided the only solution would be to leave society for an old-fashioned journey into manhood.
That journey helped me find one of my mentors: a mountain man and a wandering monk.
Among the many lessons I learned from him was one about common sense. We were helping a friend resurface his floor and had rented a large belt sander. When we returned it to the hardware store, I left it sitting in the middle of a walkway. He turned to me and asked why I’d leave something like that right in the middle of a place where people needed to walk.
When he saw I was contemplating it, he explained to me an interesting concept: “Common sense is considering how your actions affect other people.”
He explained that when you do anything, it’s important to think of how that action will affect others. This is what common sense is.
A good man should have a degree of spatial and social awareness, and understand the nature of cause and effect. And while he can’t get crippled by the complex nuances of what offends some people—especially these days—he should go about life with a general desire to have a positive presence.
Defend Those You Love
One of my best friends growing up was an uncle on my dad’s side. He’s a former gang member and always had trouble finding work for various reasons. But regardless, he was and still is one of the best men I’ve known.
One Halloween, he and my aunt took my brother and me trick-or-treating, and he overheard two much older teenagers discussing their plans to mug my brother and me to steal our masks. This led him to make some well-controlled threats toward those teenagers, which I’m assuming they remember to this day. There were many cases such as this, when he got me out of a tight spot.
He was very direct when it came to defending our family and he never seemed to have an ounce of fear when doing so.
Growing up, I never felt I had to worry about thugs or threats from other kids, mainly because I knew my uncle had my back. There was a great sense of security in that; I also felt I should make an effort to not start any trouble, to keep the poor guy out of prison. My aunt commented once that with him around, she never felt the need to worry.
Aside from that great ability to bring a feeling of security to those you care for, he also taught me that it’s important to spend time with those you care for. Security isn’t just about physical safety, after all, and he showed me this. If I was ever having difficulties at home, with a single call, he’d drop everything and drive an hour or more to pick me up. We’d often spend summer nights fishing at the beach, and stay ‘til the early morning. Some of my best memories as a kid were joking with him and telling stories.
It’s experiences like these—the small things—that really matter in life.
Joshua Philipp is a senior investigative reporter at The Epoch Times.