My dad, Alfred Bingham, was a laid-back Vermonter. When I think back to my childhood and teenage years, I can’t recall a single time when he yelled or lost his cool—even when it certainly would have been understandable.
Sometimes my mother would get on his case about one thing or another, and if she started getting too loud, he would just go out to his garage, where he hand-lettered signs. There, he’d work on a project until Mom calmed down.
Lesson 1: Stay Young at Heart
I was blessed to have a father who seemed to have never completely grown up. He had an incredible sense of humor and loved to do silly things. He went sledding and tobogganing with us—and later with his grandsons—flew kites, and never missed fireworks on the Fourth of July. He, my sister and I shared simple pleasures like picking blackcaps, taking long walks down our country road, swimming in our brook, riding horses and watching thunderstorms from our front porch.
Lesson 2: Look on the Bright Side
Living on a farm, we owned a wonderful horse, Smokey, and a Model A truck. One of a horse owner’s jobs is spreading manure. Because my sister, Kathryn, was almost old enough to get a driver’s permit, Dad let her drive the truck into our field while he stood in the back, wearing rubber boots, shoveling our horse’s contributions into the hayfield ruts. I rode along on the passenger side, and things were going well until Kathryn hit the brakes too hard.
Down went Dad into the manure! Kathryn was mortified. But Dad, as usual, remained calm. He didn’t even yell as he fell. He got up, brushed the manure out of his hair, and remarked, “Well, it was a much softer landing than if I’d fallen out of the truck.”
Lesson 3: Keep Your Cool
One summer, I was home from college when Dad saw a used Volkswagen for sale. He thought about it and decided a second car with better gas mileage might come in handy. I had just finished my sophomore year and had no desire to get a driver’s license—or a vehicle, for that matter—but I went along with Dad to check out the car.
When we walked into the garage and saw the 1954 Volkswagen Beetle sedan sitting there, my heart melted. Dad liked it, too, and decided to buy it for himself. But a week or two later, he realized I had other plans. I was now determined to get my driver’s license and, I hoped, drive the car back to college in the fall.
Dad could tell that I was totally smitten with the Bug and OK’d my wishful plan. He even let me paint flower-power daisies on the front fenders, and when I decided to call her Gretchen, he painted the name in beautiful script lettering on the dashboard.
There was still the challenge of passing my driver’s test. Dad agreed to be my driving instructor and taught me in our driveway. He eventually decided it was time to try driving down the road. The only glitch was that he had removed the passenger seat so my mom could design and sew new seat covers. In its place, Dad’s seat was a small step stool (no seatbelt laws in those days).
We headed down the road to the small town of North Hoosick, New York, about a half-mile from our house. I was doing quite well until, when going around a corner downhill, I discovered a problem. “No brakes!” I hollered.
It felt as if we were zooming around that corner on two wheels. Luckily, there was a slight incline in the road, and I was able to pull over, turn off the motor and coast to a stop. It was then that I looked at Dad, who hadn’t made a sound during the whole ordeal. I saw his legs sticking straight up in the air, the toes of his sneakers scraping the top of the car. From the backseat, where the rest of him had landed, came his deep, eerily calm voice: “Did you ever hear of an emergency brake?”
My dad wove the fabric of our life.