To be a good father is to be a gifted teacher. Whether we grow up to become movie stars, aerospace engineers or motorcycle mechanics, we are shaped by what we were taught by our dads and mentors, lessons we absorbed during our unquestioning childhood years, our rebellious adolescence, and beyond. Here is PM’s homage to the old man. Edited by Joe Bergmann and Jennings Brown | With reporting by Shauna Bass, Amanda Green and Robert Moritz
Ben Wojdyla, 32, associate auto editor, Popular Mechanics
My dad had several tricks for getting a car out of a jam, whether the tyres were spinning on packed snow or stuck in mud. He taught me to toss the floor mats or bundles of long, thick branches under the drive wheels; to spread sand or kitty litter on the icy ground so the tyres could gain traction; or to put a bunch of knots in a thick rope and tie it across the tread. But the most fun way we pulled out a car was with a block and tackle hooked up to a tree. So now I always keep one in the boot.
Ty Pennington, 48, carpenter, former host of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition
Once, when I was a kid, my dad and I decided to build a boat. We got the plywood, the glue, paint, hardware and other parts. I learned how to use different tools and piece the boat together. But when we took it on its maiden voyage, we got a few metres from shore and began to sink. My dad just laughed. I discovered that anything you can imagine is possible, but chances are it won’t work on your first try. Take what you learned on the first attempt and don’t make the same mistakes again.
Jim Koch, 64, chairman, the Boston Beer Company
My father, Charles Joseph Koch Jr, was a brewmaster for years until he saw demand waning for full- flavoured beers. So in 1984, when I told him I wanted to start a brewery, he thought I was crazy – even though there were five generations of German brewmasters in my family. Once Dad got over his hesitation, he took me to the attic and opened the trunk with the family beer archives. He pulled out a yellowed piece of paper with my great-great-grandfather’s recipe for Louis Koch Lager. Today, that beer is Samuel Adams Boston Lager.
Brad Pitt, 49, actor, film producer
My dad took my brother and me fishing all the time – seemed like we’d go every weekend. Dad taught me how to cast the rod. Mine had a simple spinning reel. Pull back the bail, hold the line against the rod with your index finger, reach back, and then let it fly. The arm motion is almost like you’re throwing a baseball.
Adam Savage, 45, Mythbusters co-host
When I was 7 or so, my father made me a glass fibre race car for my teddy bear, Gus. He hand-built it with polyester resin. It was a natural thing for a kid to ask his dad: “I want a race car for my teddy bear, Gus.” In retrospect, I know that my parents were struggling financially at that point. It was a huge thing for him to have done, both as wish fulfilment and as a demonstration that you could think a thing and make it happen.
Mason Peck, 45, Nasa chief technologist
My father, Richard Peck, has been writing science-fiction novels since the late ’60s. I remember him being in full writer mode in 1977 and needing a study. I helped him build a bookcase with a secret door that led to his writing room. I learned at the age of 10 that it’s not too difficult to build something fanciful if you spend a weekend working hard.
Adam Underwood, 27, student
Fix a stripped screw head by hammering a thick blade into it to form a notch where the driver can take hold.
Ty Murray, 43, rodeo champion
I was four when Dad taught me to ride. He’d run alongside me and hold on to my belt. It was like training wheels for a cowboy.
Kevin Bell, 27, weapons specialist
An emergency fix for a car radiator leak is to crack an egg into it while the car’s running. The egg will solidify, and the particles will plug the leak.
Jay Penske, 41, media entrepreneur
From tinkering with go-karts and RC cars to building hockey and lacrosse nets, my dad taught me the fun of making things from scratch. As I got older, this evolved into seeking his guidance on building businesses and IndyCar race teams from the ground up. And I always keep his career-long maxim in mind: effort equals results
Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III, 62, airline pilot
My father, a WWII US Navy offi cer, taught me that a leader is responsible for the welfare of people under his or her care. I relied on this when I set US Airways Flight 1549 down in the Hudson River with no casualties. But there were many more lessons from Dad. In the late 1940s, he and my mom bought a plot of land and built a small house. Every few years, we would add on to it. My dad gave my sister and me each a hammer. We learned to swing those – and later, to do electrical, plumbing, masonry and roofing. The family ended up with a big ranch-style home, and I ended up with a set of building skills.
Burt Rutan, 69, aircraft designer, aerospace engineer
Pop taught me how to catch a blue jay using a box and a four-bar trip. It was a classic design, made from wood branches. I whittled notches in the branches so they would fi t together right to make the mechanism. I put a rock on top of the box, so it would fall faster, and used peanut butter as bait. It worked.
Jerry Beilinson, 46, deputy editor, Popular Mechanics (USA)
My father told me to look for headlights reflected off the undersides of power lines when I was driving on winding roads at night. Then I’d know when to switch off my high beams as other cars approached.
Mario Andretti, 73, race car driver
What I got from Dad was a set of principles. For him family, patriotism and courage were everything. When our country, now Croatia, became part of Yugoslavia in WWII, he spent time in a refugee camp. When he got out, he could have stayed and put up with the Communist way of life. But with our future in mind, he emigrated with us to the United States. When I look back at that and think of the opportunities it created for me, that’s much more admirable than anything I ever accomplished as a driver.
David VanEsselstyn, 34, co- founder of Robot Foundry
My dad always carried a hacksaw blade in his toolbox. Once, when I was in high school, I lost my house keys, and he taught me to trip a double- hung-window latch by sliding the saw blade along the frame. I’ve carried one in my toolbox ever since.
Brian Gronniger, 26, advertising account co-ordinator
If your car tyre has a nail in it and is losing air, pull out the nail and plug the hole with a screw slathered with silicone as a temporary fix.
Amy Smith, 50, founder, D-Lab at MIT
My dad, an electrical engineering professor, taught me early in life how to use all sorts of tools. I learned a healthy respect for table saws, and an appreciation for off set screwdrivers and sharp chisels. To this day, I have a fondness for the coping saw. It’s one of the first Christmas presents I can recall receiving from him.
Jimmie Johnson, 37, Nascar race car driver
My father taught me to treat my equipment right. When I was young, I raced motorcycles. One day, I laid my bike down. I got so mad I kicked it Dad came over and told me to pick up my bike. It wasn’t the bike’s fault that I had had a bad day. That lesson stuck with me. I have control over my performance; the car is what it is.
M Miller Davis, 27, TV production assistant
Save up your dryer lint over the course of a few loads. Take an empty paper egg carton and pack each pod with a plug of the lint. Melt cheap or half-spent candles in a pot. Pour melted wax over each pod. Allow it to dry, then cut each pod out of the carton. Throw a couple of pods beneath some kindling in your campfire and they’ll start a fire nicely.
Joe Bargmann, 50, special projects editor, Popular Mechanics (USA)
My father always kept his black wingtips just so, using supplies kept in the “shoe drawer” in our kitchen. I was fascinated by the ritual, and still use the same products and methods that my dad used. Kiwi is the polish brand of choice. Apply a light coat to each shoe using a cotton rag, such as an old T-shirt swatch, wrapped around three fingers. Buff with a horsehair brush, and lightly, for a low shine. “I’m not in the Navy anymore,” he’d say. “I don’t need a spit shine.“
Evan Rothman, 43, furniture restorer
Shore up a rotting fence post by driving light-duty metal posts near two sides of the wood post, and then wrapping baling wire around the setup. It’s a cheap fi x that’ll last longer than you’d think.
Ashley Thomas, 25, writer
I almost missed a job interview on account of a missing alternator belt. I called my dad, and he shouted, “Take off your pantyhose!” He then coached me through making an alternator belt out of them. As Dad promised, the trick worked, and I got the job.
R Scott Wells, 32, associate art director, Popular Mechanics (USA)
I’ve always wanted to be an artist. One day, when I was in junior school, I was drawing something and it just wasn’t coming out right. I got all hot and snapped every pencil in my room. When my dad saw broken pencils on the floor, he told me that by acting out, I was being disrespectful to myself – and also to people who didn’t have a talent, like I did, for drawing. I recounted this story to him recently, but he didn’t remember it. I found that fascinating. That moment clearly stayed with me, but to him it was just another day being the best possible dad he could be.
Cory Doctorow, 41, co-editor of Boing Boing, tech journalist
My dad taught me to write code at a time when almost no one was doing it. We bought an Apple II Plus in 1979; the software consisted of two floppy discs’ worth of demos. But there were magazines like Byte that had thousands of lines of BASIC, which you could type into a computer and use to make programs – that is, if you could type thousands of lines without making a typo. Dad turned me loose on the computer, showing me how to enter code so I could see how it worked.
Nolan Bushnell, 70, founder of Atari and Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza- Time Theatre
My dad helped me build a carnival. Between a tree in our yard and one next door, we attached a cable with a pulley and a handle. You would grab hold and slide down. We also made booth games. Kids came over and threw darts to pop balloons, and balls to knock over milk bottles. I learned that I liked making the games more than playing them.
Benson Horton, 39, computer salesman
If your mountain bike gets a flat and you’re without a spare tube, stuff the tyre with grass. Leave one side of the tyre bead on the rim, pack the inside with wads of turf, then pop in the other bead. It’ll save your wheel until you get back home.
Andrew Moseman, 29, online editor, POPULAR MECHANICS (USA)
When you’re adding oil to your car and don’t have a funnel, pour one litre in, then use your pocketknife to cut the empty bottle in half. Turn it upside down: instant funnel.
Mark Cuban, 54, tech entrepreneur, owner of Dallas Mavericks
My dad was never big on sit-down advice sessions, but he certainly popped out some nuggets. My favourite is: Today is the youngest you will ever be; live like it. Another piece of advice he gave me when I was no more than 10: “In this family, we believe that everyone is on equal footing. We don’t call people names, and we treat everyone the same.” Hopefully, I can pass on the same level of wisdom to my kids.
Will Robinson, 26, teacher
He taught me how to plant a fire-break in an arid climate to protect your home. Along the big patch of dry brush in our side yard, Dad planted an extensive row of olive trees; they hold a lot of moisture and don’t catch fire easily. In another row, closer to the house, he planted citrus trees, which also resist fi re. Next to the citrus trees he planted a swath of succulents and cacti leading to the house. He called it a desert garden, but essentially it was a firebreak.
Norm Abram, 62, from his book Measure Twice, Cut Once: Lessons from a Master Carpenter
My father taught me to tap the chalk box just before I pulled the line out. A slight tap of the box (with the exit hole pointing down) against the hammer hanging in my holster loosens the powder, allowing it to cascade towards the exit hole. This ensures that the line gets a thorough coating as you pull it out.
Jess Walter, 47, author
My dad told me, “Take a picture of every car you own. You’ll always connect your memories to them.” I have pictures of my 1972 Datsun 240Z and 1970 Ford Mustang (high school and college; both wrecked), my 500 000-km Volvo (early adulthood), my Audi A4 (a whiff of success), and the car that speaks summer to me: the 1963 Lincoln Continental convertible I’ve driven and intended to restore for 15 years.
Lukas Nelson, 23, musician, Willie Nelson’s son
Dad’s part Native American, and when we’d go camping on our ranch he liked building tepees. We’d find three long, narrow, sturdy logs and make a tripod by tying them together at the top with good, strong rope; then we’d wrap canvas around it. The hole at the top can serve as a chimney, and it helps air circulate inside.
Mike Tyson, 46, boxer
During training, when you have to do things over and over until you’re in pain, deep in your mind you say: God, I don’t want to do this no more. I felt like a coward for thinking this way. But my trainer, Cus D’Amato, was there when I needed him. He was a dad to me. Cus would explain that you should always do things that build your character and make you a better individual
Jennifer Lawrence, 22, actress
My dad always told me, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. And have a good sense of humour.
Bobby Bare Jr, 46, musician
I was out with Dad one day, complaining about not catching anything. He said, “It’s not called catching, son, it’s called fishing.”
Thea Woodman, art director
When my dad bought me my first car, he advised me to check the oil, water and tyres EVERY time I refuelled.
Andrew Stein, 17, student
Don’t start a fire in the garage.
Hank Hill, star of Fox’s animated King of the Hill, speaking to his son, Bobby
The only reason why your nails should be black is because you hit them with a hammer.
Mike Robson, 56, irrigation technician
A man never drowned in his own sweat.
Rachel Z Arndt, 25, assistant technology editor, Popular Mechanics
To open one beer bottle with another, create a fulcrum by grasping the neck of the bottle you want to open. Complete the lever with the other bottle, hooking its cap under the cap of the bottle in your fulcrum-hand. Pry the caps against each other. Archimedes would have been proud.
Dan Mairani, 56, dentist
Hunters in a hurry don’t hit much.
Drew Butler, 24, student
Sometimes you just need a bigger hammer.
Julie Chen, 43, host of CBS’s The Talk
Let the coals burn for at least a half-hour before you grill. Simple act, but it contains lessons from my dad about patience and trusting the process.