ALBANY — Earlier this week, I called the Albany Herald’s editor to tell him I really didn’t have anything ready for this issue and would be out of town for a week or so due to family plans. However, after hanging up I realized those plans would not include my father on “Father’s Day.” No big deal, right? I can get a card like I have done so many times as my life has raced on. I mean, he would understand.
That’s when it hit me: The fact that he would understand highlights the way he raised me.
I am an only child. I guess when you hit perfection, your parents quit trying. All kidding aside, if you knew me as a youngster, as most “Kids of the ’70s” do, you know I grew up 3-foot-nothing until I went to college and Jack Daniels kicked in.
My father was an Ohio state high school football MVP, a graduate of the United States Military Academy, an athlete with the potential to be a professional draft pick in the NFL and an Airborne Ranger. Fortunately for me, as this article will convey, he did not expect me to follow in his footsteps. Instead he instilled in me a number of life-altering values which I would like to share.
One of the most important was to, simply, “Do your best.” This covered a wide array of topics, including athletics, academics, employment, friendship and personal relationships.
For a brief period, I tried to follow in his footsteps, pun intended. During my brief junior high football career, he insisted that I wear high-top leather cleats while everyone else was wearing a newer style of nylon low-cut shoes. Years later, I told him how stupid that was and how ridiculous I felt; hell, I could hardly lift my feet, much less run with those brogans on. His response, “You never twisted your ankle, did you?” The other early lesson of that season in the sun was, “If you start it. You will finish it.”
This mantra carried over into high school, and for some God-forsaken reason I was placed in an advanced physics class my senior year at Albany High. When the mid-term rolled around, my GPA was severely lacking. Maybe 30 percent, to be generous. The teacher informed me I had failed and needed to drop the class. I informed him that I was not allowed to quit something I started. He was forced to give me a re-exam over the Christmas holidays. I truly believe that from that point on, the fact that I never had a score below 75 was in no part due to my studying harder but everything to do with the fact the teacher did not want to give a summer school, “do over” and make-up exam.
During the ’60s and ’70s, corporal punishment in the school system was common but being phased out. At some point during metal shop, a copy of Playboy was secreted in the shop. Those of us who were caught “studying” it were subject to a letter from the teacher asking our parents if we could receive “licks.” My father wrote back, telling the teacher he could whip me “as long as I stood there and took it.” For some reason, nothing ever happened.
As a 3-foot-nothing sprout, I was easy prey for those seeking validation of their superiority. I remember asking my father for some advice. He took me into the backyard and showed me how to use bigger students’ attacking force against them. I was instructed to scrape their shins with my heel, slap their ears and drive their nose into their brain. I mean, damn. Most fathers would have started with holding your fists up and protect your face.
I really didn’t want to kill anybody. In an era before anti-bullying campaigns were common, I was taught to never start a fight or pick on someone smaller than myself. (As if there was anyone out there smaller than me.) But I was never to run from one. Fortunately for me, in those days most fights lasted about three punches before a coach mysteriously appeared and broke things up.
Shortly after this period, I did my best to prove that 18-year-olds were not responsible enough to drink alcoholic beverages. Coming home from a festive occasion my senior year, I arrived long after my established curfew. My father confronted me and expressed his concern over my actions. I made the mistake of using a popular beer commercial as a life philosophy telling him, “You only go around once.” He gently grasped my neck, lifted my head to the ceiling and asked me, “Isn’t it the point to make it all the way around?”
I don’t believe he ever gave me a spanking, although I know my mother did on three occasions. But that’s another story. He did give me serious lectures and discussions on how my actions impacted the family, myself and others. At the time, I wished he would just swing away like my friends’ fathers.
I reflected on this occurrence when President Obama said that if he had a son, he would have to talk to him about what to do if the police pulled him over. I recalled my father telling me when I got my driver’s license the same thing. He explained that when the red lights went off behind me (that’s how old I am), the way I conducted myself would have everything to do with the outcome. He also went on to explain that if I was old enough to get into trouble, “you’re old enough to get out of trouble without calling me.” When it came to “The Talk,” his advice was that if I was old enough to have sex, I sure as hell ought to be old enough to talk about it and the consequences of my actions with my partner. I never doubted that he would be there for me if I was truly in need. However, I also knew it was in my best interest to resolve the issues at hand myself.
I grew up with guns in the house and could not wait to shoot and hunt. I shot my first “real” gun at the age of 6. However, I was informed I could not have my own gun until I went a year without pointing a toy gun at anyone. My toy guns had to be cleaned and stored after each use. For those of you who are younger, this ain’t no big deal. But for those of us who grew up watching “Gunsmoke,” “Rat Patrol” and John Wayne, this was not easy. This lesson was so ingrained in me that the first time I played a paintball game. I broke out in a cold sweat when I pointed my paintball gun at an opponent. However, when I pulled the trigger, I shot to kill.
My father owned several construction companies over the years, and as a result I had the opportunity to have some real jobs. I started cleaning job sites before I was 10. In my pre-teens, I advanced to digging footings. I recall one of my father’s acquaintances visiting a job site where I was digging away. He asked, “Why do you have your son in there digging with them?” My father told him,” If he can run a square-point shovel, he will never go hungry. And if he does it long enough, maybe he will decide he wants to do something else in life.”
At some point, I also remember another family member doing something that was perceived as socially unacceptable. Although this was not someone my father thought highly of, his first words to me regarding this person’s behavior were, “Son, everybody does things for a reason.” It was the purest “Judge not, lest you be judged” comment I ever heard. The only other thing he said in this regard was, “Life is too short to be miserable.”
Perhaps the greatest example my father shared is the way he treated my mother. In early adulthood, I confronted her with a perceived slight. He immediately shut me down, explaining that she was my mother and I would “respect her for that, if for no other reason.”
He met her on a blind date, and two free spirits were united forever. Fountains would explode, dreams would be realized and challenges met head-on.
There was a time when I felt sorry that they seemed to have only each other while their peers seemed to have such flamboyant social lives. Sadly, I did not realize the power of their unconditional love until it was almost too late. Shortly after becoming grandparents, my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Most of us stuck our heads in the sand, ignoring what the future held. My father dug his heels in and, as is his style, researched the problem and met it head on. He tended to her every need. They worked and lived together 24/7 for more than a decade after the diagnosis, as they had before.
However, he cooked the meals, cleaned the clothes and washed the dishes. Regardless of how repetitive her questions or how agitated she became, he never lost his cool or his sense of humor.
Fortunately for me, the ending to this story has yet to be written. My father still leads by example. And although some of the lessons are a challenge for me, I’m making progress.
A few years ago, we were working together on a project and my son Tyler was with us. In these situations, I can become belligerent in an effort to prove that my way is better than his. After a somewhat heated exchange between my dad and me, mostly on my part, we decided to call it quits for the day. As he drove off, my son turned to me and said, “I guess you don’t take that ‘honor thy father’ thing too seriously.”
Obviously, I’ve got some work to do in that “leading by example” thing. However, between my father and son, maybe I’ll get it figured out. But I do realize how honored I am to have such a man as my father.