Father

“Mom, Dad, I really want to thank you for spanking me when I was little…”

Actual quote, from… I’m guessing… it’s been a bit… I’ll just say early 90s.

I was out with my parents, and we witnessed a toddler throwing a fit and actually going so far as to hit his mom because she wouldn’t let him have his way. Her response? “Now, now! (hit) Mommy doesn’t like that. (hit) Please don’t do that. (scream) Now now, son… (swing and a miss) don’t– (hit) don’t– (hit)”

I am pretty sure I never even thought of taking a swing at my father, out of a healthy respect for the permanence of death. I never thought of taking a swing at my mother either, because my father taught me to respect his wife.

I am one of the lucky ones. When I was young, “deadbeat dads” and single-parent homes were not nearly as prevalent as they are today. There were some, of course. But most of the kids in the neighborhood had both parents at home.

Not all those parents were winners, sure. But at least they were present, and at least they seemed to be trying.

From a very young age, my brother and I would go with my Dad on his weekend errands (which almost always involved a stop at one or more of the local coin shops) or on long walks around the neighborhood. He would hide coins and gemstones and little odds and ends in various places along our usual routes, often in the bowl of a tree trunk where the thick branches separate and stretch to the sky. And we would check those trees — the ones we could easily reach, at least.

I wonder if that was a way of seeing just how much we were growing, or if it was just a silly game. Either way, that was part of our relationship for years.

My Dad also loves trains, and our walk would inevitably lead up the hill near our house to the train tracks that bordered the golf course. We would walk along the tracks (my brother and I trying to see how long we could stay balanced on a rail) until a train sounded its horn. Then we would plant a penny or nickel on the tracks and step off to the other side of the road to watch it go by.

Dad recognized all the names of all the railway companies, and he would always look for the uncommon emblems, like a kid with a pack of baseball cards hoping to find a rare star player. “Such-and-such Pacific… I’m surprised that made it all the way from California. And the old BS&P… and then there’s the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” (and he’d sing it as a little jingle, even though we’d never heard the commercial).

The train would pass, and we’d get back on the tracks or head down the hill, always looking out for those special trees along the way.

We would hold hands fairly often, too. Eventually my brother stopped doing that, and I didn’t know why, but it didn’t matter. Then I stopped doing that, because who goes for long walks holding hands with their Dad? So not cool. (This might have been around the heady days of “rad.” Holding hands was not “rad.”)

But we would walk and talk. That was alright. You could still do that with your Dad, and if anyone picked on you about it, it’s probably because they don’t have a Dad like yours to go walk and talk with.

Eventually, Saturday morning errands and weekend walks became a “take it or leave it” kind of thing for my brother and me. We had video games, or toys, or, you know, cool stuff to do.

But I think I was always the one worried about feelings. And I would picture my Dad going off by himself on errands or sitting around in his workshop instead of going on the walk he had in mind, and then I’d get this horrible sense of something between guilt at my selfishness and abandoned loyalty to my Dad, and I’d say, “You know, I’ll go with you, sure.”

I thought I was doing him a favor.

Looking back, I know I got the better deal. Hands down, by far, without a doubt.

I had a Dad who wanted to be with me, who liked me the way I was, who was interested in what interested me, and who was eager to share with me all the things that interested him.

Even back then, that was something special.

Dad would build Lego forts for my brother and I to use in our epic wars… my brother with his toys lined up and organized in tight formations, his war strategies all laid out based on whatever historic battle he’d most recently read about. My army was a pile of all the toys, with maybe four or five of my favorites off to the side in some soap opera relationship squabbles. (This was also done out of necessity. My brother was fond of kamikaze attacks with his expendable first wave. He taught me the definition of “fodder.”)

I never really thought too much about sleeping arrangements in our house. Essentially, I didn’t have my own room for a long while. I would sleep on an air mattress, or on the floor in my brother’s room. I slept on a spare bed for a few years, but I never really had a room that was mine to occupy (and trash).

One summer, probably just before or early on in high school, my Dad said we were going to build me a room. We went to a lumber yard and bought all kinds of 2x4s and some paneling sheets. And then my Dad laid out this plan and basically built this wall in the basement so that I had my own room. I would help him hold planks in place or hold up sheets so they could get nailed down, but really, the work was all his and the benefit was all mine.

And I never heard him complain about it. He wanted to do it.

I like to claim that I have no regrets, no “what ifs” that I would love to go back in time and change. But in my relationship with my Dad, I do have a few.

I remember how disappointed and hurt he seemed when he found out that my brother and I, wrestling and fighting, had put a huge hole in the fragile paneling of the wall he’d built to make me a room. I recall being really mad at my Dad during an argument on a different occasion, and just because I knew it might hurt him, I punched another hole in that wall while he was standing there watching.

And then there’s the alcohol.

I like the occasional drink. I set a limit of one or two, and I rarely drink anywhere but home because I’ve seen how drinking can destroy careers and lives in the military.

My Dad has a very different opinion about alcohol, based on his experiences growing up with an alcoholic father. Dad hates alcohol so much that I recall him yelling at TV beer commercials for painting such a false image of the life you’ll have when enjoying their products. He can’t stand alcohol, not one bit.

I came home on leave, and I had turned 21. We went out for Chinese food, and I decided, “Hey, I’m not driving, and I’m old enough, and I can do this. I’m ordering a drink, right here, right now, at the dinner table with my Dad.”

This started quite the discussion, and I grew more and more defensive. “I’m old enough, I’m an adult, I’m mature. I’m allowed to do this, and you can’t stop me.”

Hint: Maturity is just like leadership or authority; if you have to remind people that you have it, you don’t.

Seriously, as far as the offensive effect it has, I think drinking in front of my Dad is like saying the N word to an African-American, or making a Holocaust joke to a concentration camp survivor. My wife reminds me often that there are terms we can say which mean little for us, but bring up incredibly painful memories for others. Certainly actions can have the same disparate impact on different individuals.

And if I know that already, what kind of person do I have to be to intentionally push that shiny red button?

Yes, that’s something I would go back and change.

My Dad has regrets, too. As he considered how our relationship as a family has developed over the years, he has said things like, “I can’t claim we’ve done perfect. I know we’ve messed up a lot.” (He’d list specific examples, but the details aren’t important right now.)

I grew up healthy. I was educated at school and then those lessons were reemphasized at home by my Mom and Dad. I had my medical needs met. I had more than plenty of material possessions. More importantly by far, I not once ever had to doubt whether my parents loved me or cared about me.

When we conduct evaluations in the Air Force, part of the brief that we are required to give the examinee is to not let a mistake become a distraction. It’s easy to spot when we screw up, and it’s easy to get caught up in all the reasons why we screwed up, and how we could have done better, and what we shouldn’t have done, and so on. Examinees sometimes do this. They know they said something wrong or did something stupid, and it becomes a fixation that causes more mistakes.

I wonder sometimes if my Dad’s assessment that he’d “messed up a lot” is something similar. When I evaluate my life and think about the influence he’s had on me, I am so grateful to have had such a father.

This Father’s Day, I wanted to give my Dad some of the attention and praise he is due.

If you have an awesome Dad, I’d love to hear about it. Please comment and tell me (and anyone else reading) a little more about what a great Dad looks like. If your father is no longer with us, I’d still love to hear about what made him special.

And maybe you unfortunately didn’t have a father around. Sometimes, single moms or extended family or step-parents come in to fill that critical role in a life, and they’re just as worthy of praise. If you have someone who chose to be a father to you (yes, single moms included) and you’d like to share, please do.

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