Remembering Those Who Fathered the Dads of DadCentric
Sunday is of course the Best Holiday In The Galaxy when Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny converge to shower Dads everywhere with shiny electronic wonders and the weather calls for a storm of raining beer. We can't be bothered to mow the grass because it's raining beer and Dads everywhere just look into the sky with open mouths until our wives call us in the house to fuck us all kinds of limber ways like slutty porno girls.
In honor of this Wondrous Day, the DadCentric guys all pondered memories of their own Dads to make a single post that speaks about the Dads of the Dadliest Dads on the internet.
I have a picture. In it, I'm seven or eight years old. It's autumn, and there is a rake on the ground next to a carefully gathered pile of fallen pine needles. The sun is shining through the trees directly onto the pine needles; they gleam as if made of spun gold. I am wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt with the number 88 across the chest, a fake football jersey. My hair is long. I am in the process of doubling over, my mouth wide and wild with glee and helpless laughter. Behind me - arms surrounding me, reaching in to tickle my thin ribs and willing belly - is my father.
His eyes are invisible behind the reflection on his thick glasses, but there is a broad smile across his face, too. It is a rare day; he is not in a suit, but instead embracing the weekend in a buttoned-down shirt and slacks. He is outdoors, and at play with his son.
My joy is uncontrolled; uncontrollable. His expression betrays a deep pleasure in this contact, this shared laughter.
The light is late October, late afternoon. The air thin, bleeding into evening chill. The moment frozen, captured, perfect.
I do not remember this day. But I have a picture.
My folks divorced when I was two years old, and by the time I was
three, my dad was off the scene entirely. Thus, I have no conscious
memories of the man. I have a few pictures, one of which shows my dad
sitting on the couch with baby me passed out asleep on his chest. The
picture has that faded 70’s color quality that makes the whole era
look it had been through the washing machine a few too many times. My
old man and I are both shirtless, and right next to him sits an
ashtray full of cigarette butts. Even in my baby sleep, I was alive
with pleasure. Kids today are wimps.
Over the years, I had no inclination to get in touch with my father.
It just never really occurred to me as something that I cared to do.
Which isn’t to say that I didn’t think about him from time to time.
Seeing other kids with their dads, I knew the man had done me wrong. I
can’t remember a time when I was one of those kids who thought that
his father’s absence was somehow his own fault. And it was out of that
knowledge that, at a young age, I decided that if I ever had kids, I
would be the kind of dad that a dad should be. I’d take care of mine.
I’d do right by them. It wouldn’t be enough just to do better than my
dad did because just showing up would accomplish that. I’d be more
than that. I’d be Dad.
I’ve made peace with my father these days. He’s dead, and it seems
pointless to hold anything against him at this point. Still, even
though I learned something from him in his absence, I wonder what he
might have taught me had he been around.
We did this canoe trip every year. Being an outdoorsy teen with an outdoorsy dad in Alaska is, as the kids say, the shit. It was fifty-plus miles, across lakes and rivers, portaging through mosquito-infested flats, drinking boiled and strained creekwater, eating MRE's purchased from surplus stores, and having ourselves a time of it.
We paddle down a river out of some Discovery Channel show; tall grass and trees that disappear into low clouds, salmon swimming by, straining against the current, so many all one needed to do was reach down into the water and grab one. Snow-capped mountains in the distance. The two brothers - Bill and Joe Martin - are in the lead canoe, and they'd just disappeared around the bend...we hear frantic splashing, yelling, cursing. "FUCKIN' BACKPADDLE! FUCKIN' BACKPADDLE!". And back around the bend they come, in reverse, white as ghosts, arms and paddles windmilling as they desperately try to escape whatever's coming after them. I tense up - pissed off moose? Hungry brown bear?
Over us it flies. Wingspan greater than mine. Iridescent brown - I have to blink to be sure, but yes, iridescent brown. It didn't yet have that distinct all-white head. Just a young bald eagle, but still large enough to cause us both to duck when it flies scant feet over our heads, the dripping remains of a red salmon clutched in its talons.
We watch it fly away. Then my dad and I start laughing, and we don't stop for a while. "FUCKIN' BACKPADDLE!", that amazing eagle, being father and son in that particular place at that particular moment. It was joyous.
My dad grew from humble beginnings in an unforgiving land. He faced hardship and adversity that allowed him to grow into a solid, decent man. He became a leader. And the man can dance.
I didn't ask to do it that day or ever before as best as I could recollect. We had just exited the highway en route to my dad's office for some work-related weekend errand he had to run when he pulled over, turned to me in the passenger seat and said, "Do you want to drive?"
I was 13.
For a few miles, on a relatively straight and wide backcountry road, I handled the Oldsmobile Cutlass as best I could. Smooth and steady. Sort of. But no white knuckle moments with oncoming traffic or errant deer. Not even a fleeting sinking feeling in the chest from the sight of marked Crown Victoria on routine patrol. Just me and my dad, together, cruising past the world outside our tinted windows.
We never spoke of it again after the prerequisite, "Just don't say anything to your mom about this." Until a few years ago, when again unexpectedly, he brought up that day. "I still don't know why I let you do that. I must have been crazy," he said. "But you were ready."
BHJ:My Dad used to make me watch him fix shit, especially if I was the one who messed it up. I was such a dick, but who isn't when they were 15? I hated standing there watching him. He'd tell me how things worked while he messed with tools and I'd daydream about boobs or pot or Suicidal Tendencies and then he'd invite me to tighten something while he held something down. I'd say "Tighten what with what?" and it was generally painful for both of us. I just hated it. I always wanted to be somewhere else.
But one time he was cleaning the lawn mower. And when I say "cleaning the lawn mower", I mean detailing the shit out of the lawn mower. He always tried to teach me that clean things worked better and it always sounded like some old wives tale to me. Well he was scrubbing this thing down and kinda talking to it, like "There you go. And under here. We'll get you all tidied up." and I was suddenly and inexplicably rapt. It's like something clicked and I just, all of a sudden, loved my Dad. I still can't explain it in a way that does it justice. He wasn't from this era of hippy-dippy parenting with hugs and self-esteem and stupid feelings. But I saw him, you know, taking care of this lawn mower, and it meant something to me.
I think there's fundamental things in there about waste vs. recycling and the way my Dad kept things working. But there's also something in there about basic caring. The lawn mower wasn't just some thing. It was what mowed the grass around the house, in which the family dwelled. It played its part, and deserved respect. I don't know. But I do know that from that moment on, I felt differently about my Dad and kinda mourned all those wasted moments that I didn't let him teach me anything.
There are few words a parent can say to a child that will tear them apart more than "we're so disappointed in you." I heard that a lot some 20 years ago because, in all honesty, I was. So much so I disappointed myself. I wasn't living up to my potential in the least. In fact, you could probably say that I was going in the opposite direction and was lacking potential. When I enlisted in the Army, I was unsure about what sort of reaction I might get from my parents. And even after telling them, I was left wondering how they really felt about the decision I'd made. Fast forward to about two weeks prior to my departure for basic training. My father and I are in his car driving home from somewhere, just chatting idly, when, out of the blue, he said, "I want you to know I'm proud of you. I'm proud of what you're doing." I can't remember what else he said after that - it didn't matter. He'd said all I needed to hear. All a son needs to hear from his father. Just those four words - I'm proud of you - made all the difference in the world.
I don't think my dad knew how to deal with me for the first 15 years of my life. He came from hearty German stock, grew up on a farm and quietly bore the weight of the world on his shoulders without a grumble. I was much more like my mom, overly dramatic and expressive. My whole family was a chaotic swirl of noise and idiocy, and he seemed to always hover on the periphery, dependably mowing the lawn or moving the sprinklers and only occasionally stepping in to resolve a dispute, generally with the threat of a good spanking. As such he took on sort of a remote and mythical image in my life, like a golem or a tiki, and his stoic demeanor was his trademark.
On the day I left home, I stood in our driveway, all my worldly possessions crammed into the back of a U-Haul latched onto an unfortunate Mazda 626. I was about to drive from Spokane to Minneapolis to take a new job and begin a new life on my own. I stood on the threshold of an exciting new experience and faced the house I grew up in without much thought to what I was leaving behind. My family stood around me, offering all sorts of advice and good wishes and pleas to call at every rest stop along the way. As I worked my way through the goodbyes I came to my dad, who had always patiently supported me as I dreamed of this day. And for the first time in my life I saw him crying.
It hit me like a sledgehammer as this man, who had always been the inscrutable rock of my existence, bore in his face and manner all the love, the pride, and accumulated joy and grief of our relationship. His voice broke as he reached our his hand and said, "Good luck, son. I'm very proud of you, and I love you." Although it wasn't the first time he'd said it, it was the first time I understood what it meant to him, the staggering depth of love buried beneath his calm exterior. The love a father bears for his first-born son.
My eyes were wet for three hundred miles that day. I haven't been the same since. Thanks, Dad.