He was a man’s man. He had a keen intellect and a charming wit. But broiling below the surface was a man fighting to overcome setbacks and keep his spirit intact.
His fight was an inspiration to me.
Many were the people who crumbled beneath the spell of Rodger Hoover’s charm.
He once eyed a pre-lit Christmas tree at K-Mart. The price was $200. As was his m.o., he started haggling with the clerk.
“Two hundred dollars?! Surely that’s a misprint. A terrible typo.”
“No, sir. That price is right,” the clerk said.
“That price is not right. It’s surely wrong! The decimal must be in the wrong place.”
The clerk laughed. That was his mistake. It was the opening Uncle Rodge was looking for. The clerk didn’t know it yet, but the negotiations were already over.
“Well, it certainly is a nice tree. But I think…wait. What’s this? This light is blown. There’s another. Two lights out. And those are just the ones I can see. No telling how many more there are.”
He smiled and eyeballed the clerk. “You seem like a respectable fellow. Surely you wouldn’t sell a pre-lit tree at full price when some of the lights are clearly not pre-lit.”
Uncle Rodge left the store with that $200 pre-lit tree. He paid $20 for it. The decimal point had indeed been in the wrong place.
That’s my kin, y’all.
Trying to Keep His Head above Water
I write quite a bit about my Uncle Rodge and the impact he had on my life. If you’re new to my site, take a moment to read about him here first.
Rodger Hoover was a junior high teacher and a great one. When one of his former students discovers that he was my uncle, they gush.
“Mr. Hoover was my favorite teacher. A great guy!”
“Oh how I loved him! He was a huge influence on me in 6th grade.”
Teaching was his gift. He never should’ve quit. But he left the classroom because he had dreams of being his own boss.
He worked as a laborer and bought distressed homes on the side. He tried fixing them up at night and on the weekends in order to rent them out. Some were successful, most weren’t. But he held onto the entrepreneurial dream.
One day he took the plunge. He bought a delivery truck and distributorship for Home Juice. He sold orange and grapefruit and papaya juice to supermarkets and taverns and small Mom-and-Pop grocery stores. At last, he owned his own business.
His dream was to one day have a fleet of trucks, hire people to run the routes, and sit atop an orange juice empire.
It never quite worked out. The competition was too fierce.
He’d walk into a supermarket to see that the guys from Minute Maid or Tropicana had squeezed his space in the cooler down from five rows to two. He’d rearrange the cooler to take back his space only to discover the following week that he was back down to a couple of rows.
He could never get ahead. His income suffered. The dream tarnished.
He struggled to keep his spirit.
I rode shotgun on his route on many occasions. It was a joy to watch him charm his customers. When we walked into a tavern, that’s when the show began.
“Hey Bill, you got some of those smashed potatoes hot and ready?” He nodded towards me. “I’ve been telling my helper here about your smashed potatoes and he’s eager to give ’em a try. You got a dollop back in the kitchen?”
Bill smiled. “Let me see what I got, Rodge,” and traipsed toward the kitchen.
“Better make it a bowl, Bill. He’s a big boy. In fact, make it two. The boy can’t eat alone, can he?”
When the potatoes were finished, Uncle Rodge took Bill’s juice order and sent me to the truck to schlep the bottles in.
Then we were off to Eugene’s Corner Tap to sell Eugene some juice and, of course, to eat some of Eugene’s famous onion rings.
The days were long and only occasionally profitable. We pulled into Uncle Rodge’s driveway late, well after dark. That’s when he settled his tab with me.
My wages were small for a 15 hour day. Maybe $10. But I didn’t mind. I knew he was struggling, and this was his dream after all.
“OK, let’s take a look.” He pulled ten $1 bills from his wallet. “Ten bucks oughta do it. Remember, Greg, that’s ten dollars tax free.”
But before the cash made it to my open palm, he stopped.
“Hold on…I had to pay for those smashed potatoes at Bill’s. That was $2, so let’s back that out of the total.” He pulled two singles from the pile. “There’s your $8.”
I smiled and reached for the money. He pulled it back again.
“Wait. I seem to recall that you broke a bottle or two at the Canton Tap. Or was it three?”
“Just two,” I said.
He grinned, enjoying the game. “OK, at $1.25 a bottle, that means you owe me $2.50. But I don’t have 50 cents so we’ll round it to the nearest dollar.” He pulled three bucks more out of the stack. “That leaves $5.”
“Hmmm,” I said. “Fair is fair, I guess.”
“Fair? Not by a long shot! We gotta think about wear and tear on the truck. How much you weigh? A buck eighty? 190? I hate to think what that did to my gas mileage today.”
I reached for my wallet. “How much do I owe you, Uncle Rodge?”
He laughed, a man who appreciated a battle of wits.
“That’s OK, Greg. I’ll eat the cost for the broken bottles. Just as you ate all those onion rings.” He counted off ten $1 bills into my hand. “Those rings were good, weren’t they?”
“Best I ever had.”
“OK. See you in the morning. Six o’clock, sharp.”
The Sincerest Form of Flattery
I’ve spent my life hoping that some of Uncle Rodge’s qualities might rub off on me. This past week, for better or worse, I glimpsed that at least one of them had.
I hired a couple of high school kids this week to help me move furniture out of my office. I told them I’d pay them $10/hour.
Jesse and David had no idea what they agreed to.
When they arrived, I nodded toward a mini-fridge in the corner. “Do either of you want that fridge?”
David’s hand shot in the air. “I’ll take it!”
“It’s yours. But only after we move all this stuff.”
There were several boxes and sundry items. But the real work was a solid cherry wood desk and a matching credenza. The desk was large and unwieldy. Easily 250 pounds. An eighth of a ton of bulkiness.
I didn’t have a hand truck — Uncle Rodge called it a “hello dolly” — so Jesse and David had to carry the furniture by hand. Both of the guys run high-school track, so they’re thin, wiry. The desk probably weighed more than the two of them put together.
“OK, boys, heave ho.”
They lifted the desk, grunting like Olympic dead-lifters. Faces red, eyes bulging.
I chuckled. “Look at it this way, guys, you won’t have to lift weights tonight.”
“I won’t be able to lift tomorrow,” Jesse said.
“OK, set it down,” I said. “Let me take the lighter side and you two take the heavy end.”
The guys did yeoman’s work. No dings on the walls or the furniture. A professional job.
When we unloaded the trailer at the other end, it was time for me to settle up.
“OK, guys. Let’s take a look.”
I pulled out my wallet and handed Jesse a twenty and a five. “Twenty-five big ones for 90 minutes’ work. A nice little raise, eh?”
“Thanks, Mr. Lhamon.”
“You’re welcome. Remember, that money is tax free.”
I turned to David and held out $25. As he reached for the money, I pulled it back.
“Wait…not so fast. You got a mini-fridge out of this deal, right?”
David looked at me blankly.
“Now, that fridge is in good working order. Costs $50 new.” I looked at the bills, considering. After a moment, I handed him the $5 bill and kept back the twenty. “I’d say we’re square.”
Jesse laughed. David looked up at me, not sure what to think.
“I’m kidding, David. Take the whole thing. I’ll eat the cost of the fridge.”
He grinned and took the money.
I smiled as they left. Uncle Rodge would’ve been proud.
When You Learn Your Heroes have Feet of Clay
Uncle Rodge was my hero. Witty. Strong as an ox. The most imaginative storyteller I’ve ever known. Wisdom dripped from his tongue. In my mind, he could do no wrong.
But as I spent time with him, I began to see him for who he was, who we all are: an imperfect, flesh-and-blood human being. Flawed and wounded.
And as his battles raged about him, I saw him struggle with depression.
That scared me. How could this be? He was my idol. Impossibly strong. A golden gloves boxer. The man who had shown me step-by-step how to deal with a bully. He was Rocky Balboa. Superman. And here he was exhibiting a trait I never dreamed I’d see: frailty.
It shook me.
Mom helped me process it all. She told me that even the strongest man gets weary from the fight. She helped me see that Uncle Rodge didn’t shrink from his battles. Quite the opposite. He stayed in the fight.
So, I began to look deeper into this man I admired.
I saw a man who ceaselessly chased a dream even when it remained perpetually out of reach. I saw a hopeful dreamer, yes, but also a hapless warrior who, in the face of mounting setbacks, continued to expend blood and guts and flint in an attempt to achieve something worthy for himself and his family.
He became to me the embodiment of the “man in the arena” that Teddy Roosevelt spoke of at his speech in Paris on April 23, 1910:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
I decided that day that I would never be Uncle Rodge’s critic. I would never point out when he stumbled. I vowed to rally his spirit whenever weariness set in.
To this day, a framed placard of Roosevelt’s quote sits on my desk. It reminds me of the grace of God that allowed me to stand in this man’s shadow for 49 years and learn what it is to be a man. And it prompts me to praise others when they spend themselves in a worthy pursuit regardless of the outcome.
For in the end, the measure of a man is not his success but the manner in which he braves the battle.
Rest well Rodger Burton Hoover. Your battle is won.