My father, Albert John “Van” Van der Leun was a Gillette kind of man. He liked to look sharp, feel sharp and be sharp. I never saw him unshaven except very early in the morning before he’d had a chance to lather up. Beards? He was a child of the hard times, of the Depression, and beards were for bums.
When it came to haircuts my father favored the flat-top for himself and his sons. Butch Wax was a staple in our house where four males could go through a jar a week. He grudgingly accepted my 3-inch “Ivy League” cut once I went off to the university but was never reconciled to the longer and longer hippy hair that came later.
My father was a sharp-dressed man. He liked the snap of a freshly laundered, starched and ironed white shirt. His suits were always cleaned and pressed and his shoes shined to a military gloss. I still have many of his gold and silver tie-tacks and cuff-links and although I seldom wear them, I do wear them. They make me feel sharp.
As the eldest male in his family of five children, he was the one that dropped out of high school to work when the 1930s started to bite, and his own father proved less than…. well, dependable when it came to providing.
He went out to Los Angeles to open a service station since, next to my mother, he loved cars. The war caught up with him there and he was, due to a heart murmur and complications from rheumatic fever, declared unfit for service. He then got his high-school degree by studying books and passing tests most university graduates today would fail. Then he was sharp enough to teach himself chemistry. He got a job working on new formulations of explosives until the end of the war. Then, with a wife and two sons, he went back to what he loved, automobiles; filling, fixing, and selling.
My father was a car salesman and a good one. He was a sharp salesman; one that was always looking for what the customer actually wanted as well as what the customer could really afford. For every minute selling, he spent five qualifying. He didn’t boast about being the top salesman at the lot, although he usually was. He did boast that he had the fewest repos of all the salesmen and the most repeat customers. He liked to sell people cars that he knew they could afford. His most repeated instruction to me was, “Never try to profit off of another’s misfortune.”
My father hated smooth. He liked plain talk and despised euphemism and manipulation, especially among salesmen. He’d fire car salesmen working under him if he caught them lying or even shading the truth to make a sale. “A man that will lie to a customer will lie to you,” he’d say. He looked at every deal brought to him for approval that the buyer didn’t have the credit for as a failed sale and wouldn’t approve them. “Bad for the buyer and worse for the business,” he’d say. “If you let a man buy what he can’t afford on credit, you’re going to be taking the car back and making an enemy. We’re here to get cars off the lot, not see them come back after repossession. A man who can’t make his car payments is a man who can’t maintain his car. A salesman who’s so smooth he’s selling people cars bigger than they can afford is a salesman who’s taking a kickback from the repoman.”
My father was a man for whom honor was essential. Did my father sell as many cars as he could have? Probably not, but he raised three boys well and without want. My mother worked hard, day in and day out, as my mother and did, in the final analysis, a pretty good job of it. My father saved carefully and retired all debt as quickly as possible. When he died, a relatively young man after years of expensive medical treatments, my mother was still set up comfortably for life. He loved my mother devotedly until death parted them and she has never loved another these past 46 years.
My father despised debt and avoided credit. Educated by himself, he’d seen the worst of the depression and, during one hard winter in Pittsburgh in the 30s, had to hang out by the railroad tracks to pick up lumps of coal fallen from the trains in order to heat his home.
My father was a life-long Democrat and despised Richard Nixon for his five-o’clock shadow, his smooth palaver, and his treatment of Helen Gahagan Douglas in an early California election. But in the Nixon-Kennedy face-off, he felt the same way about Kennedy. “He looks sharp but when you listen to him he’s just too smooth a talker.”
Like he said, “A salesman who’s so smooth he’s selling people cars bigger than they can afford is a salesman who’s taking a kickback from the repoman.”
Like I said, my father was a sharp man.