Earl Thaddeus Steele was a man who could think sideways. In fact, he invented the art.
He was my wife’s grandfather, and he was never completely socialized. He kept rattlesnakes under the house. He fished and hunted for a living, and although he sometimes held a job, if he thought the fish were biting, he left the job site for the fishing pond without a single wince of conscience.
He also believed that traffic signs and stoplights were there to ”instruct those who didn’t know how to drive.” Because he knew what he was doing, he ignored them.
But it is for his inventive method of problem solving that I remember him here. Thad Steele never met a problem he couldn’t solve, and in a way no one else might have thought of.
When the corner post of his back porch cracked, and the porch roof sagged on one side, he lassoed a nearby sapling and pulled it down under the porch eave, using the natural springiness of the tree to keep the roof from falling.
”It was still that way the last time I saw it,” my wife says.
Once, when a neighbor used a shortcut across his lawn, eventually wearing a path in the grass, Thad Steele knew how to stop her. He never would have confronted her directly; that wasn’t his style.
No, he dug a person-size hole hip deep in the center of the path, mixed up a load of pudding-quality mud to fill it in, used carpet tacks to secure a cloth across the hole and sprinkled it with dirt and grass to camouflage the hole.
The next day, the woman stepped into the hole up to her waist in brown goo. She stopped shortcutting across his yard.
I especially like the touch of the carpet tacks.
There are many examples of Thad Steele’s peculiar approach to life.
His friend Hub Hawkins had a stutter. Thad had said many times that ”if Hub were frightened enough, he’d talk as plain as the next man.” One day, while Thad and Hub’s cousin Dewey were sitting on the front porch, they saw Hub walking toward them on the railroad tracks.
Thad leveled the pistol he always carried — as all real men in Madison, N.C., did in those days — and fired several times at Hub’s feet, making him dance. Hub yelled back, ”D-D-Dod d-damn you, D-Dad D-D-Deele!”
That was one solution that didn’t take.
But sideways thinking often did work. Thad Steele kept five blue Dodges in his backyard so he always had parts for the blue Dodge he drove.
When his wife and her sister argued violently over who owned a beautiful pitcher and bowl that had belonged to their mother, Thad Steele took the crockery down to the creek and broke them on the rocks. It stopped the squabble.
”He pierced straight through to the reality, to the heart of the matter,” my wife says. ”He was not about social acceptance. He thought it silly.”
She remembers once, when she was about five years old, her grandfather was asked to baby-sit her. For Thad Steele, baby-sitting meant the child adapting to him, not the other way around.
And so, because he had intended to go hunting that day, the child went hunting with him.
He had seen a bunch of flying squirrels in the woods near the house, and so the three of them — Thad Steele, his gun and the five-year-old girl — went out shooting.
After he had shot three of them, he wrapped them in a blanket and handed them to the child, telling her, ”Take care of them like babies.”
There are perhaps more appropriate ways to deal with a child, but the old man knew who he was dealing with.
”He could have said, ‘Watch these while I go down the path looking for more,’ but he didn’t. He turned them into baby dolls for me. He understood me and made me feel like a million dollars. I was their mother because of what he said to me.”
My wife has learned her lessons from Thad Steele well. She is also a master of sideways thinking. She is an artist, after all.
When she was young and poor, recently divorced, she couldn’t afford her automobile inspection, so she painted the inspection sticker on the windshield of the car and used it for the full year.
As an adult and an art teacher in Arizona, she was given an art room with carpet – not the best kind of floor for a room full of second-graders with jars of tempera paint. And when the inevitable spill happened and she couldn’t scrub out the stain, she realized: ”I’m an art teacher; I can mix that color.”
So she matched the color of the original carpet and painted over the stain.
Another time, in another school, after a month of working with clay, the dried gray powder was ground into the tile floor. When she asked the janitor to mop the floor to prevent the clouds of dust from clay choking the kids, the janitor replied ”mopping is not in my job description,” and ignored her.
So, as a master of sideways thinking, she and the kids filled up a dozen or so 10-gallon buckets with tap water and then, in one grand cascade, poured it all out onto the floor. She sent one of the kids to the janitor with the message: ”Help! The room’s flooded!” And the janitor came and mopped up the mess.
”The floor was the cleanest it had ever been,” she notes.
Sideways thinking helps get things done when ordinary thinking is stymied.
I recommend it to Congress.