Everything I Know About My Dad

My dad’s name is Stephen, but he goes by Steve. I used to tell my friends that if you ever saw him running, you had better start running in the same direction because I’ve never seen him run in my life. It’s not that he’s not a fit dude, he just prefers to work out by actually working. One day while standing in line for food at church, a man trying to strike up a conversation asked my dad if he liked sports. He quickly and unequivocally said, “No,” and turned away. Steve has never liked or played sports. He recalls having to write a story about football in elementary school, where he attended a one room schoolhouse in the backwoods of Missouri, “I didn’t know anything about the game other than the field had 100 yards. When I read my story about how the player crossed the 50 yard line, then the 55 yard line, and so on, everyone started laughing at me and I was humiliated.” His humiliation didn’t stop at school. They didn’t have running water at home so in addition to the use of an outhouse, he had to take baths in a metal wash basin in the middle of the kitchen next to the wood stove. Steve must have seen technology as a way to escape the trappings of rural life in the 50’s and 60’s and as a way to differentiate from the jocks who mocked him. He gravitated towards the only tech he get could at the time: the wood and machine shops at school.

Car Seve Stauffer BuiltBy the time my dad entered college, he had built every piece of living room furniture they owned, turned their back yard into a junk yard of stripped cars, and graduated at the top of his class. At college, Steve worked on airplanes in the Aircraft & Powerplant department. His favorite professor was Doc Swiger, a aircraft mechanic and theory instructor. Doc was an old, single, Navy veteran who didn’t go to any “marryings or buryings”. Doc would let Steve work on pet projects in the lab after hours. One of his projects was rebuilding a old tail-dragger Piper Cub airplane, which Steve then got to fly in. They also overhauled and repainted an old Volkswagen bug, which Doc loaned to Steve. It was in this car that my dad took my mom out on their first date to a park in Kansas City near the river. My mom made chili and on their way back they attended evening service at the church where they met. My mom credits Steve with her being able to pass the Physics class they had together. Steve had already finished his 2 year Associates Degree in Aviation technology, and was continuing with classes to complete his B.S. degree in Power Technology. He wasn’t confident in his ability to get a 4-year degree so he got his 2-year degree first. After graduation, he worked as an airplane mechanic for 3 months before getting a call to apply at General Motors in January, 1976.

Steve started working on the assembly line in the paint department under his father-in-law, Don. By this time, Don had worked long enough to have lost his sense of smell. Soon, an electrician position opened up at GM and Steve moved into that position. His first year at GM he and his wife house-sitted Don’s house out in Garden City during the week. In 1977 there was an oil crises in America and it was actually cheaper to buy a home closer to work than to pay the gas to drive an hour away. Don and his wife bought a house in Kansas City and Steve carpooled with Don’s brother, Bob. My dad still complains about Bob’s “on or off” heat policy in the car anytime someone doesn’t slowly adjust the temperature because of Bob’s habit of either turning the heat full blast or completely off. Living rent free and carpooling to work allowed my parents enough time to save up a down payment for their first house, “The White House”. That’s the house I was born in. They planted fruit trees in the back yard, had a vegetable garden, and cultured African Violets in the basement. Steve joined a woodworking club and enjoyed carving old men smoking pipes while sitting on a log. He would take us to the park and just sit on a bench while me and my brothers dug in the sand with the ride-on excavators.

In 1984, my parents moved into what we called, “The Brown House”. It was a 5 bedroom, 3 bath, 2 story with a split level entrance and a 2 car garage. When it rained the basement would flood because the backyard was sloped towards the house. Steve spent a summer digging a ditch around the house to divert the water and the flooding stopped. He had so much success, he convinced our church that he could help their flooding problem too. He dug ditches all around the church, diverting water away from the foundation, preventing it from flooding the basement, whose walls were yellow with water stains. He also changed light bulbs in the sanctuary and gymnasium, replaced air filters in the giant furnaces, and added more circuits to the antiquated electrical system. Whenever the church would have get-togethers in the gym, he would make me and my brothers setup and tear down chairs and tables. Steve also ran a Young Married class with my mom. One day they took their class out to Don’s farm where they had a scavenger hunt. I remember the two-flavors in one Bubble Yum gum I had in the back seat of the car on the way down and the gummi bears we found at the end of the hunt.

My brother’s and I asked our dad for a tree house until he eventually built one. It was more like a small house in the sky where he hung a porch swing underneath. He also helped us with our Pine Wood Derby cars, which he used to teach us about aerodynamics and friction. With his help we shaped our pine blocks into airplane wings for efficiency and sprinkled graphite on the axles for speed. We won every race whether you ran them frontwards or backwards. But if you have ever done a race, you know that each car is weighed before racing. If it’s not within a certain range, it can’t run. The problem was that each person’s scale was different and the scales that were used were carried around, making them inherently less accurate. We would either have to physically shave wood off the car before running or install bolts to add nuts for weight. This frustrated my dad because the cars were often painted and shaving the car would ruin the paint job and adding bolts would increase drag. Eventually, my dad came up with a solution to fix the problem. He carved a hollow area on the inside of the bottom of the car, filled it with some BBs, and held them in with a metal plate. If the car was too light or too heavy, he could add easily add or remove them, while keeping the car pristine and slick.

Steve Stauffer, ElectricianIn 1988, my dad was laid off when the GM plant in Kansas City closed down and he was relocated to the GM Indy stamping plant as a journeyman electrician. About a year later he accepted the job within the plant as second shift Electrical Controls support, a per diem job. Sometime before 1996 he had to make the decision to go back to hourly electrician, or to become a salaried Controls Engineer. Deciding was a struggle for him, leaving the perceived security of the UAW union and contracts to the whims of GM towards the salaried workforce. Steve chose salary, but always wondered if the hourly would have been better. One day he was working on a stamping robot, which moves up and down, transforming a sheet of metal into a car door. For this particular problem, Steve had to go inside the machine, where the metal sheets went, in order to do the repair. A good electrician will always put on a public lock and his personal lock on a machine before attempting any repairs. This is meant to prevent any accidental injury that could occur if the machine were to become operational during a repair. On this day, a fellow employee came by and needed to start up the machine. They removed the public lock and his personal lock and started up the machine. When Steve heard the machine start, he grabbed his tools and dropped down into a safety hole, narrowly avoiding being crushed. He never told his wife.

In 1994 my parents moved to a home in Franklin and began a passion for landscaping. By 2002 they had transformed a blank canvas into inviting paths, ponds, and gardens and had the opportunity to feature their back yard in the Johnson County Glorious Gardens Tour. Steve was approached by many friends saying, “Could you come to our house and do something with our yard?” so they started their own landscaping business. Steve does most of the landscaping and my mom deals with the customers and the paper work. He did this in the morning before working a full shift at GM in the afternoon until October 2009 when he retired after 32 years.

Everything I Know About Breakfast

Bacon with sunny side up eggs served with toasts.

Bacon with sunny side up eggs served with toasts.

Breakfast is the first meal of the day. It’s named after the end to the pause most of take in eating overnight. This pause is called a “fast” and in the morning, the fast is broken, hence “breakfast”. Some people pronounce breakfast as “breafkast”, which is acceptable up until the age of 18 and after that it’s just not cute anymore.

1/2/2016 UPDATE: I now have a whole site dedicated to breakfast at Breakfast Club Me. Check it out.

The best breakfast consists of bacon, eggs, hash browns, and biscuits and gravy. This is what I call the “base four” or the “quintessential breakfast.” It’s very hard to pull off at home and there are very few restaurants that offer this as a combo. This is because they know that’s what people want and can charge more on that one item you have to order to make your breakfast complete.

Hardee’s is the only restaurant that I know of that offers the quintessential combo, but it doesn’t come with a drink. Again, you have to pay extra for perfection, but at least Hardees recognizes a man’s needs – something Hardees does very well. Hardees is the Taco Bell of breakfast. Take their breakfast bowl for example. They take all of the base ingredients from the base four, but put it in a bowl instead. And the best best breakfast sandwich ever, the Monster Biscuit, does this and more. What it lacks in gravy it makes up in ham. I’ve written to Hardees specifically asking them to make a biscuit and gravy sandwich, which I feel would really round out their selection, but they’ve yet to implement it.

Sausage

Sausage is not only a base ingredient in gravy, but can be cooked as a patty or as a link. Unless you’re cooking for gravy, the sausage should be kept at an even heat throughout the cooking process allowing the inside to cook and the outside to sear. This is what will lock in the juice on the inside and caramelize the outside. Unlike hamburger patties, you’ll want to flip your sausage often to keep the heat as even as possible allowing the inside to cook before the outside burns. When given the choice, I almost always opt for bacon over sausage, which is our next meat.

Bacon

Bacon, the only meat to taste both sweet and salty at the same time, will be cooked slightly crunchy if you’re an American. Leave the limp bacon in France for when you’re just passing through. Like sausage, bacon should be flipped often and don’t try to cook a pound at a time. You’re not tossing a salad here, you’re graduating a class of delicious strips of bacon. Unlike sausage, you want to turn the heat down slightly over cooking as the grease in the pan increases. Wait for the the pops to slightly diminish and the aroma to lift before removing the bacon from the pan. Do not leave the bacon while cooking it. It will cook faster when you’re gone than if you are watching it, but no matter how short you’re away, the bacon will burn. Burnt bacon is only good for grandmas and garbage cans so keep your eyes on the prize and watch that bacon.

Eggs

There are many different ways to make eggs and everyone has their own opinion about what is best. I used to like making scrambled eggs after frying up some bacon in order to use the bacon bits leftover in the pan. I did this once for a friend and he freaked out, rejected the eggs and the breakfast. He also prefers hamburgers with only ketchup and nachos with only cheese, so I shouldn’t have been surprised, but every since, I’ve subtlety changed the way I think about making eggs that way.

I like to think that I don’t have a favorite type of egg, but egg moods. Sometimes I want a scrambled egg and sometimes I like them over easy. I don’t care for a poached egg or sunny side up, lets not get crazy, I say. Boiled eggs are okay after church on a Sunday picnic, but let’s not bring them into the breakfast nook where they don’t belong. You can pack me some when I become a steel worker and I can eat them out of my metal lunch box while sitting on a beam 400 feet over Fifth Avenue.

Even a certain type of egg like scrambled eggs can be cooked differently. There are those who make them essentially like omelette in sheets and those who make them fluffly. I prefer mine to be the texture of sausage gravy, somewhere in between the two, but even I have trouble cooking them just so. When cooking an egg, you must be prepared with your strategy going in because once it hits the pan, there isn’t much time for adjustment. Here’s how I prepare the perfect scrambled eggs.

Start by getting your pan hot, which I consider slightly over medium heat. While the pan is heating up, crack your eggs into a bowl, get a fork, and stir them up. Test for heat by dropping a pad or two of butter into the pan. Listen for the sound of the sizzle and watch for the color to run run clear. Butter is mostly water so don’t wait too long before adding the eggs or else the butter will burn. Drop your eggs in and begin slowly stirring like a good gravy. Keep stirring until the eggs begin to roll into balls. Turn off the heat before you think you need to. They’ll keep cooking even without the added heat.

Hash Browns

One of the most important, yet most neglected breakfast item is hash browns. Why is it that so much effort has been placed in this country to perfect the perfect french fry, yet our hash browns wallow in the wasteland of the culinary arts? Let me be clear, I am talking about the long, thin strings of potato like you get at White Castle in a cake, not the cubes of potatoes. There needs to be an amendment to the constitution or at the very least a Wikipedia entry stating which is which. We can’t allow restauranteers to continue to get this wrong. Countless breakfasts have been ruined by the misconception of this oh so important difference.

Hash browns are best prepared days in advance of when they will be eaten. The best hash browns go into the deep fryer frozen and come out golden brown. When plated, they should nest in between the gravy and the eggs, not to touch the bacon or the sausage. I like to add both salt and ketchup to my hash browns and don’t mind if a little gravy gets on there too.

Biscuits

If you don’t know how to make good biscuits and are not willing to spend 10 years perfecting your recipe, then you’re better off going to Hardees or getting some poppin’ fresh dough because those are your next two best options. The best biscuits are fluffy on the inside, golden brown on the top and bottom, and white around the edges. They should look like a sandwich waiting to be stuffed with meats and cheeses or split open for some butter and strawberry jam.

Cracker Barrel is to Mexican restaurants as Hardee’s is to Taco Bell as their unlimited “chips and salsa” are their unlimited biscuits. A good strategy is to order a meal with a side of gravy and get the biscuits as part of your meal, thereby obfuscating the fee associated with purchasing biscuits and gravy outright. Having said that, an order of biscuits and gravy at Cracker Barrel already contains unlimited refills, so you have to judge how much you value social norms.

Gravy

There are several types of gravy, some made with or without sausage, some white and some brown. The best gravy is made from grease and flour, but since restaurants don’t often have enough grease from sausage to cook gravy, they often use oil, which makes the gravy seem much more like gelatin than pudding. The worst offense is to use chipped beef in gravy. If you can’t put little balls of sausage in my gravy, just serve it white or not at all. A little honey will go a long way.

Biscuits and Gravy

When I was young I was taught to break apart my biscuit and pour gravy all over the top, then eat it sort of like a casserole. I’ve since learned that the aesthetic appearance of eating it New York style as an open-faced sandwich is much more pleasing and can save time. When trying to maximize all-you-can-eat biscuits and gravy, you have to be efficient. Being efficient doesn’t mean being stupid. Pouring your gravy over an unopened biscuit will ruin your biscuits and gravy. Just don’t do it. Take the time to split the biscuit open to fully enjoy your meal.

The best places to get biscuits and gravy are in greasy spoons and small town diners. They wouldn’t be able to stay in business if they sold bad biscuits and gravy. Like the coat of a dog shows what kind of food he eats, biscuits and gravy represent how a restaurant is run. If the biscuits are hard and crunchy, they’re coffee is probably going to be bitter too. If they put chipped beef in your gravy, that’s probably not real eggs you’re eating. Pay attention to the little things and you’ll get the big picture.

Fruit

Fruit says, “I care enough about you to not give you what you really want for breakfast.” If you’re getting fruit for breakfast, the person serving you is either too cheap or too lazy to get up and fry you a pancake. In fact, the only time fruit should be included with breakfast is in a pancake, which is what I’ll talk about next.

Pancakes

Sometimes you’re not in the mood for biscuits and gravy cause you just had it for dinner last night. In that case, the next best thing is pancakes. Like biscuits and hash browns, your pancakes should be cooked golden brown. Basically, there’s a reason why it’s called golden brown, because like gold, it’s the best. When cooking pancakes, wait for the bubbles to start popping up through the mix and then test a corner by lifting it up to see if that side is done. If you’re a pro like Uncle Buck, you’ll flip it in the pan. Otherwise, use a spatula.

One of the nice things about pancakes is the ability to pour syrup all over them. You may drink Diet Coke and refrain from adding sugar to your coffee, but when it’s time for some pancakes, you’re smothering them with syrup. Why? Because it’s delicious (and they can be really dry without it). And do you really want to put all of those Maple trees out of business? Michigan has enough unemployment with you skimping on the syrup so next time you’re in the grocery store, go ahead and get the good stuff, you know you want to.

Everything I Know About Cars

Almost all of us have ridden in a car, but each of us has very different experiences. It’s easy to forget about the 99% of the time when nothing happens, which is generally what we want to happen, but it’s the 1% that you tend to remember.

My first memories of a car occurred when my parents were trading in their blue station wagon for a brand new 1984 Caprice Classic. I was 4. I still remember my little brother’s black vinyl car seat, it’s skin cracked from the sun, exposing the yellow foam underneath. There were three of us in the back seat, all boys. I was the middle child, but preferred the back, right seat as it had the waist seat belt easiest to undo without my parents noticing. My big brother and I both knew this and fought vehemently over the spot. Eventually I figured out how to do it with the other side, but it was shortly after this that we got the 1988 Suburban.

My parents used to buy new vehicles anytime they were going on a big vacation. In 1984 we took the only two week vacation my family ever had. We took the Caprice Classic from Missouri, where we lived at the time, through Kansas to Nebraska, down through Colorado and New Mexico to Texas, and back home again through Oklahoma. In 1988 we went to Walt Disney World with the girl with the necklace and her family. They had a luxury van so my dad must have figured we needed something bigger too. They had four kids, two older boys and two younger girls. I remember us stopping at rest stops and Cracker Barrel together on the way down, but once we were there, we hardly saw each other.

The first car my dad ever bought new was a 1977 Monte Carlo. My grandpa claims he painted it while working as a paint supervisor at the GM Leeds Plant in Kansas City. He’s the one who helped get my dad a job there and the reason why we got to cut in line at the Epcot Center in Disney World. It’s also the reason we had to move to Indianapolis when GM decided to close the plant in Kansas City. He held on to the Monte Carlo until around 1994, rarely driving it, selling it to a co-worker for about $1700. It had a giant rust hole in the right door and metal fell off anytime you opened and closed the door.

My dad taught me most of the things I know about cars. He actually built his own car in high school from spare parts from a junk yard. It wasn’t street legal, but it did give him street cred. He was known at school as “the guy who built his own car”. He became student council president his senior year when the more popular person he was running against got his girlfriend pregnant and dropped out of the race. When I turned 16, the 84′ Caprice Classic became mine to drive. It was 12 years old then and had about 120,000 miles. The ceiling felt was falling and the speedometer meter fell off, but it was a good (and powerful) car with over 300 horsepower in a V8.

I tended to drive the car as if I was always being chased. Sometimes I was being chased, so the practice came in handy. I would even practice learning how to recover from a fish tale by going out to country gravel roads and whipping the car around. One time I was late to work washing dishes after school, cut a corner too close and spun the back of the car into a mail box. I had to drive to town to withdraw money from the ATM to pay for the box before making it to work on time. I had such a mastery of this car’s dynamics that I was able to slide the car down a hill sideways and recover. Looking back, I’m not sure how I was able to do this, but I know I did. One thing I look back on with horror is the time I got bored driving up to camp in Michigan. I thought it would be okay to get in the back seat while driving, but once I got there I realized I had no way to stop the car if I had to. My heart started racing pretty hard, which had the added affect of waking me up, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.

The Caprice Classic was with me when Stephani ran backstage on Audio Adrenaline, it was on my first date with Jessica and there when she broke up with me, and it drove Sarah around when she was trying to figure out who she wanted in her life. While I was up in Michigan working at camp, the radiator went out. I should have known something was wrong after it overheated taking a hitchhiker to Chicago one day. I took it to a mechanic to have it repaired and he said I could buy the parts and get someone to do it for less. My boss at the camp said he could do it for me, but he forgot to reconnect the transmission fluid lines that run through the radiator to cool. When the liquid ran out of the transmission it seized up and my dad had to tow it back at the end of the summer. We stopped at Cracker Barrel on the way back though. He donated it to the blind for a $800 tax deduction.

Despite my bad management of the Caprice Classic, my dad let me take his 1999 GMC truck to Tennessee. I was still driving this truck when I met Suzanne, but by the time I was engaged to her two months later, my dad had swapped me out with his 1994 Chrysler van. After my job in Muncie relocated to Indianapolis I transferred to school there and shortly after purchased my first vehicle, a 1999 Chevy Silverado. It was the largest mistake of my life at that time. At 13.5% interest, I would pay more for it monthly than I would rent. I made the decision without the advice of my dad or my soon-to-be wife and it crippled us financially for years. Soon after having our first baby we traded the truck in for a Pontiac Vibe for an overall loss of $10,000. The actual cost of owning the vehicle for the time I had it came out to $1000 per month.

Our first son was born the day Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008 and soon after all of our credit cards were unusable. The banks decided to lower our credit limit to our current balance, rendering them useless. We had foolishly been relying on credit each month to pay our daily expenses, but suddenly we were forced to pay for everything with cash, check, or debit card. We didn’t make enough money at the time to pay our monthly expenses as we had been living outside of our means since before we were married. For the next year I did odd jobs on the side and we cut expenses, but the time came when we couldn’t reduce our expenses any more and we had to raise our income. In the fall of 2009 my wife decided to get a paper route.

After running the paper route four months, another route opened up and I applied. I started running the paper route Feb 1 and ran it every morning until November 30. For ten months my wife and I would get up at 3 AM, be at “The Shed” by 3:30 and be done delivering papers by 7:00 in order for me to be at work at my day job by 8:00. I’d get home, change my clothes, and jump back in the car. When Suzanne started the paper route, the Vibe had 180,000 miles. By the time we both quit the route, it had 260,000. In the mean time, my parents gave me another car they inherited from my grandma. It was a Oldmobile Alero. This was the car that coined the term, “Rat Life” which is a unit of measurement for how dirty your car is based on how long a rat could survive in it. The Oldsmobile or “Oldsmosex” as it was called, maintained a steady rat life of around 2 weeks, sometimes higher. After I quit the paper route, we sold the Oldsmosex to my little brother’s friend who had high, high socks.

I still drive the Vibe, which now has over 280,000 miles on it. My wife traded in her 2007 Saturn Outlook for a 2003 Pontiac van. We’ve learned to live within our means, pay for things with cash, and be thankful for what we have. You would think I would have learned from the truck purchase before purchasing a home or learned from the home purchase before purchasing new windows and doors, or learned from the windows and doors by not buying the Saturn Outlook, but at some point if you can’t stop – you will be stopped. That’s what happened to us and we couldn’t be happier.