In the Trenches: The Gift

Rick Williams

Rick Williams owns Rick’s Sign Company, a commercial sign shop in Longview, Texas. He has been in the sign industry since 1973 and has been a contributing editor to Sign Business since 1986. Contact Rick via e-mail at ricksignco@aol.com.

I must have been 10 or 11 and my brother less than two years younger, and though we shared a bedroom, late one night we managed to scare each other badly enough to scream out in fright. And then we remembered we were more scared of the man who was sleeping at the end of the hall than we were of anything there in the dark.

The man at the end of the hall was my dad, “Big Rick,” and he was pretty much known to have little use for kids until they were old enough to bait their own hook. My brother and I learned to bait our hooks young.

Fishing with dad was the most fun we ever had. My brother was the better fisherman, and the baby, so I felt at the time he was the favored child, and for a long time, I believed he was. But both of us were going to have to work pretty hard to convince my dad that we might turn out “worth killin’” after all.

As an adult, I think my dad began to appreciate his oldest son, and actually, put a lot of trust in me. Maybe too much. When I earned my pilot’s license, he would help pay for us to rent a small plane and he would fly anywhere with me as the pilot and he as the navigator.

But one day I flew us to a small air show about 100 miles from home, and by late afternoon when we were to leave it had gotten July-in-Texas hot. The small low wing plane we had rented wasn’t much, and hot air provides little lift and less horsepower for engines, too.

With three-quarters of the runway behind us, it finally lifted off the ground but didn’t really want to climb. Somehow I stayed calm and eased the little bird into the air carefully while Dad tried hard to lift his weight out of the seat. We cleared the trees by only a small margin. He never let me forget that day, and said he was about to open the canopy and “flap his own dad-gummed wings!”

I think I redeemed myself a bit when a few years later, walking along the wooded and overgrown bank of the river, I caught sight of a slight movement in the trail just in front of him. Dad was startled and almost mad when I grabbed his belt and yanked him back hard until I pointed to the large water moccasin coiled to strike only one step ahead. His bifocals made for fuzzy vision down around his feet, but my younger eyes and quick reflexes might have saved his life that day. And I was so glad I had been close to him when he needed me to be.

Whether “Mr. Rick,” “Big Rick” or just plain “Dad,” he was a worker of the first order. And his tremendous work ethic was passed to his sons, and his grandsons, for which I am thankful. He learned several trades and had owned a couple of small businesses before he retired. But once he did retire, he soon found that retirement, in the normal sense of the word, was not for him. And totally unexpectedly he came to work for me during the last 10 years of his life.

Oh, it wasn’t all that easy, and two or three times he quit, only to come back the next day. But, oh my goodness, what a valuable asset he was to the sign shop where I work every day and our other business now run by my two sons, which he helped start and watched grow tremendously.

We taught him to weld at 75, and he worked until he was 85 and a half, and I do mean “work.” There is no room on this page to tell a fraction of what he did for us, built for us, repaired and maintained for us. And we benefit from those things to this very day.

When his feet, due to a smoker’s poor circulation, became so compromised he could not walk, he simply sat down. In six weeks he aged six years. I was up in my bucket truck installing a sign the winter evening my mother called and said he would not likely see the next day. The sunset was pretty that evening, and I took a picture of it knowing it might be his last, though he didn’t see it. But that winter sun did not just set on a signman’s workday; it set on a lifetime of valuable work, and tremendous generosity, and of setting a good example for those he would leave behind.

By the time this column is in print, it will have been two years since his passing. And I know now quite clearly, though not intended, in the end, I was the favored son, the son that received the gift -- the gift of spending so much time together, making memories, working side-by-side with my dad. How blessed I have been, and I will never, never forget. Thanks, Dad.