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Reflections June 2016

My Dad Raised Sweathogs

By Teresa Ambord

Several boys were on the verge of dropping out or being kicked out of high school. They just didn’t care, and the teachers had run out of options. Then someone got the bright idea of sending the misfits over to the school bus barn to “help” the new guy, my dad.

“I was blessed with five daughters,” Dad used to say. But we knew that, like most men, he also wanted a boy.  Eventually he got not just one boy, but a bunch of them – a big bunch of Sweathogs.

In the 1970s our family moved to the country, and Dad became the transportation director for a neighboring school district. That area was economically depressed and many of the kids had no fathers in the home, and little discipline. Several boys were on the verge of dropping out or being kicked out of high school. They just didn’t care, and the teachers had run out of options.  

Then someone got the bright idea of sending the misfits over to the school bus barn to “help” the new guy, my dad. In today’s world, a dozen laws would probably prohibit that, but back then, it was allowed.

Dad’s main job was to keep the big yellow school buses running safely. That meant climbing under the giant hoods, and changing heavy tires.  But at five foot four inches tall, and with no modern equipment, just changing a bus tire was daunting for Dad. So it came in handy to have burly country boys to heft those bus tires around.  He taught every boy to do basic vehicle maintenance and repair.  During lunch he’d let them bring their family cars to the bus barn, and he’d teach the kids how to fix and maintain them.

Everyone had chores, and Dad didn’t put up with excuses. Anyone who wanted to hang out at the bus barn had to help keep the place clean and organized. It was Dad’s way of teaching them to listen, to follow directions, and to be responsible. These kids had always ignored authority figures. But Dad demanded and eventually got their respect.

Not long after he took over the bus barn, a new sitcom hit the TV airwaves. It was called “Welcome Back Kotter,” and it could’ve been modeled after Dad’s work life.  Kotter was a teacher of kids who were misfits and incorrigibles, known as the Sweathogs. Dad’s boys saw themselves in the Sweathogs and embraced the name.  And it fit like a big sweaty glove. 

Over time, the Sweathogs gained skills they could take into the work world. But there was one area that bugged Dad and he couldn’t seem to make much headway. “To be employable,” he said, “you have to clean up your language.” He’d taught his daughters that if you use profanity, people think you’re too stupid to use real words. That’s all it took with us. But it didn’t faze the Sweathogs. 

So one fine morning, they entered the bus barn to find a gallon jug on Dad’s desk. He’d cut a slit in the metal lid, and slapped a label on it that said “No Swear Jar.”

“If you swear, you owe me a nickel,” he said, and they knew he’d collect. Unfortunately, to them, it was a game, and that jar filled up fast, over and over again.  

After several school terms of collecting nickels, the money added up. Then one December, the boys came up with a good use for it.  Just before Christmas, Dad and the Sweathogs went on a secret shopping spree. Armed with a list of needy local families, they stretched that money to provide gifts for as many kids as possible. For most of the Sweathogs, that was the first time they’d ever looked beyond themselves to the needs of others, and they loved doing it.

Generally, the work Dad did with the Sweathogs went unnoticed, though not by the Sweathogs themselves.  Even after they were grown and Dad retired early due to poor health, they kept in touch with him.  In 2014 when Dad passed away, some of them drove a hundred miles to be at his memorial. One Sweathog roared up in a muscle car.

“It’s expensive to drive,” he said, “but I knew your dad would’ve loved this car.”  He was
right.

“He was the only reason I graduated,” said another guy, and they all agreed. Story after story poured out, of how Dad had turned their lives around. 

We always knew Dad wished for a son, but I doubt he envisioned leading a big bunch of Sweathogs.  Like his daughters, those boys frustrated him, tested and tried his patience, and in the end, made him proud. He was father to five girls, but he also raised a big bunch of Sweathogs and helped them become fine men.

 

Teresa Ambord is a former accountant and Enrolled Agent with the IRS. Now she writes full time from her home, mostly for business, and about family when the inspiration strikes.

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