Fathers and Sons

I’ve got a mountainous task ahead of me.

My two boys are rapidly growing up, as little boys tend to do. The oldest is going to be five next month, and I can’t help but think back to when I was a kid. I distinctly remember working with my father on any number of projects when I was young- although by ‘help’ I mean ‘get in the way of’ – but my father dealt with it in stride because he knew that by having my brother and I around in these projects, we would learn something, take something away from it.

And we did too. There was a moment of absolute pride with my brother and I as we helped my old man put paneling up in an addition he was building on the house. I don’t remember what exactly WE were doing, but he had the sawhorses set up, and after he cut one particular panel, he flipped it over and scrawled on the back of it in his apocalyptically bad handwriting: “J*** and J*** Helped put these up, <Dated>” He never said a word about what he was doing, and after hanging that panel, he went right on to the next one. I often find myself wondering where that panel is now, the house having been swept away in a flood in 2012.

All too often when we would watch him doing something, one of us would ask “How did you learn to do that?” His answer would always be the same. “By doing exactly what you are doing right now.”

My point is, that I learned more than I can possibly articulate from my father- and he still continues to teach me things to this day.
Not too long ago, one blogger I followed talked about the day she ‘fired’ her father from the superhero status that she once held him in. I’ve been thinking about her post for several days, and in all honesty, it is in part responsible for this post of mine. The other driving force behind this entry, is now I am in my father’s position. Circumstances notwithstanding, I am poised to become that guy who is ‘fired’ from that status by his children when they’re old enough and responsible enough to recognize and hold me accountable for my failings, or I can be the guy who is still respected by my sons when they reach adulthood.
The choice is entirely mine to make, and words alone won’t cut it.

My father continues to be a driving force behind what my brother and I do. I won’t lie when I tell you that we both continue to try to do things that would make the man who busted his ass all his life proud of us. Don’t mistake this for the classic ‘daddy issues’ case that you see on television- our father was always there for us and is to this day. Last winter, for example, he drove through the snow in the middle of the night to help me after I dumped my car in the ditch in the middle of nowhere. Silently, I think we’re both trying to repay him for what he’s done for us by giving him something he can take pride in, knowing that he’s shaped us as men.

My brother joined the military after spending a year in college. When the college sent him a strongly but politely worded letter recommending that he not return for a second year, my brother turned to the army, and has EXCELLED therein. He posted academic scores in his training that he could only dream of in high school. He’s risen through the ranks at what I think is an excellent pace, and continues to strive to be better. Amusingly, I remember a letter I got from him when he was in basic training. I was a junior in college at the time. Part of the note went something like this:

We started shooting this week. They told us to forget everything we think we know about shooting a rifle and to do it their way. I tried, and couldn’t hit a thing! Then I went back to the way dad taught us how to shoot, and I qualified immediately. I scored Sharpshooter my first try, and Expert after that.”

Funnily enough, I had a similar experience when I was training with a pistol. Using my old method, the second day on the range, the senior instructor stood behind me and said “You could shoot a 250.” (max score.) While I never did quite make the 250 mark, I had no trouble qualifying. – And this is really just one example of how much we’ve taken from the man.

Where I’m going with this, is that I can count myself lucky. Very lucky. Thanks to my father I can do basic automotive and carpentry work, I can fix or MacGuyver my way through situations as needed, and any one of a number of things that would create a list far too long and boring for you to have to wade through.

Most importantly though, where my luck is the thickest, is that I think he taught me how to be a father. I will be 31 next month, and in no way am I ready to fire my father from the position of regard that I hold him in. The lessons that he taught me as far as fixing an exhaust pipe with a piece of old tin can and some muffler clamps might seem impressive (or not?) to someone who has never done it, but that sort of thing pales in comparison to the lessons he taught me about…..teaching.

Going back, thanks to him I have the foundations and the tools I think I need to be a worthwhile father to my boys. But even the best tools are worthless if they’re left in a garage to rust.

The man was not perfect. No man is. But in the face of all that he’s gotten wrong over the years, he’s gotten so much more right.

The difficulty lies in knowing that even though I have the tools, using them is up to me. I am still completely capable of screwing this up, and if I do, I know there is nobody to blame but myself. I’ll modify a classic adage to demonstrate my point.

“Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” (Original)

“Give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he can feed his family. If he refuses to fish, that’s not your goddamn fault.” (Adaptation)

Time to fish.

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