In the year after my dad died, as part of my grieving, I wrote this book. I’ve waited to make it public for many reasons. But now, more than 11 years later, I want to share it. My dad was a good man. I want you to know about him and his influence. I hope you enjoy.
It was a dreary day, clouds hung low with intermittent sprinkles peppering the surface of the river. The river was running fast and we were making good time. My dad sat in the front, his back to the water facing me as I crouched on the floor in the middle of the canoe clutching the brace in front of me. Wayne sat behind me watching the river and steering. As the day dragged on, the two men began talking. Not much of what they said made any impression on me, I was no more than four at the time. I was just in awe to be with “the guys” and a bit uneasy with this tippy canoe. My unease was not unfounded.
At one point in their conversation, Wayne took his eyes off the river at the precise moment that the front of our canoe hit a tree that was laying diagonally into the river. We hit hard and the canoe went over. My dad’s memory is that he kept going down. He was worried about me and was hoping to kick off the bottom to reach the surface and get me. The bottom was long in coming. He finally touched with his feet and kicked up to the surface, frantic for me. If it was that tough for him to get out of the water, what would happen to his four-year old son?
One of the things he lost in the river were his glasses. Even without them, he clearly saw me, still sitting in the canoe, clutching the brace in front of me. I had no idea what had happened, but I distinctly recall sitting alone in the canoe, clutching with all my life to the brace. The canoe had completely flipped over and righted itself with me in it. Wayne and my dad pulled the canoe over to shore and laid out their wallets to dry off their stuff. My dad’s watch was broken and his glasses were gone. But I was fine. Still not letting go of that brace!
It’s impossible for a son to realize the emotions his dad has for him. I was consumed with the moment, not knowing what had happened but largely aware of never wanting to get into another canoe. My dad knew the possibilities; he knew what the worst was. Sinking into the river, wondering where the bottom was so he could kick back up, must have been horrifying for him. Sons don’t understand what they do to their fathers.
A boy’s life is largely measured against his father. He tests himself against him. Can he catch the ball dad throws to him? Can he throw it the whole way back to dad? Can he run as fast as dad? Can he hurt his dad? Testosterone makes a boy competitive and he needs to know where he stands. Can Dad be beaten?
Dad is just a grown boy, with the same competitive testosterone. He wants to know what his boy is made of. He wants to test his son’s limits, see if he measures up. Then one day, the boy wins! Dad is happy and a bit ticked off, too!
My dad wanted to teach me chess. One day we went to the mall and bought a cheap little plastic chess set for about $2 and we sat at the table and he taught me. The bishop moves diagonal. Pawns move ahead one square, two on the first move if they want. Knights, goodness, knights were impossible to figure out. I was excited to be old enough to have my dad teach me chess. At the same time, my excitement turned me into a blithering moron. But he stuck with me; apparently he was quite used to my blithering moronicity.
The first time I killed one of his pieces was complete rapture! Ha! I am the man! I killed one of my dad’s guys! Ha! Three moves later I was toast. “Checkmate.” I heard my dad say “checkmate” approximately 437 times in a row.
Then the day came! It was almost too much to take. I had him set up, was it true? Was this it? It can’t be, it had never happened before. I must be missing something. Certainly his king can go somewhere. But he couldn’t. I couldn’t see it anyway. One way to try it. “Um, Check, um. I think Mate? Maybe?”
“Good job, boy.” I had done it! I won!
Then it happened. Something clicked in my brain and chess was automatic for me. I was in the zone. Approximately 437 time in a row I said “Checkmate” to my dad. Some nonchalantly, some arrogantly, some excitedly, some apologetically, but I kept saying it and it kept being true! “That’s it.” He said, “I’m done. You’re better than me. I give up.” And he did! I had conquered my father! No greater joy!
Chess was just one area of life, and a rather inconsequential one too as it turns out. My dad held out a possibility to me: what I could be. He also held out the possibility that I might turn into him. Part of me desperately wanted to; the other part revolted. I want to be me! I’m a strange combination of Dad and Me. I live my life after some differing principles, I allow myself certain things and disallow myself other things than he did. I’m my own man. At the same time, to this day, I still sniff my nose like he did. I walk on hard floors in socks like he did. I stand and eat potato chips by the kitchen counter like he did.
Manhood is self-taught. But you’re mostly teaching yourself to be like other men you know. You take concepts and behaviors you admire and copy them. Unfortunately, you can pick up negative traits as well. I always admired my dad’s patience and was always astonished at his wrath when it came.
Ever since the day my dad tried to show me how to spray paint my model rocket I have been amazed at his patience. I kept spraying his arm as he held the rocket. Three times he let me spray his arm before he gave up. That has stuck in my mind for all these years. He let me spray him three times! I would have been out after the first one. In fact, I probably would have just given my son the paint and said, “Here, figure it out.” My dad took the time and even the trouble to help me, until after the third time, anyway.
It was that kind of patience that I admired and hated at the same time. My dad was patient with lots of people. He’d let them walk all over him, he’d take the fall for them, he’d blame himself. “Stand up for yourself dad” my mind would scream. “Don’t let them get away with that.” But he let them and he was so patient with them. I always wished I was that patient and yet I didn’t want to be a push-over either. My dad’s patience irritated me.
One day after trumpet lesson I jumped into the car my dad had been sitting in for 45 minutes while I was inside. He had been listening to something on the radio. It was a custom that we always listened to a certain radio show on the way home from lessons. I jumped in and leaned over and flipped the dial to the station we usually listened to. Next thing I know I was planted firmly in the back of my seat after being physically picked up and placed there by my dad’s avenging right hand. Wow, where did that come from? I sat in shocked silence. A few minutes later, after what he was listening to was over, he turned it off and said, “Jeff, this is my car and this is my radio. You do not come in here and act like you own this thing. I was listening to something, you don’t flip it off.” Enough said, got it. As our custom, he dropped me off at the only drug store in Racine, WI that carried Baseball Card Magazine so I could get the new issue. At the same time he was frustrated with me, he was patient enough to take me to that store so I could buy my magazine.
Through patience and wrath, I was in awe of my dad. He was mysterious and all I knew was that I wanted to be on this guy’s side. But sons grow up, we learn our father’s flaws. Noah saved the future of the human race by building a large boat to float out God’s judgment of mankind. He single-handedly saved humanity. What a guy. His son’s must of thought he was great, they all got on the boat with him and survived. What a man! But after the flood and the ark were gone, Noah planted a vineyard and made himself some wine. Wine leads to drunkenness and Noah got sloshed. In his drunken stupor, he was lying naked when his sons saw him. The Bible says that his sons “saw the nakedness of their father.” Every son’s image of his father is shattered by their father’s flaws. It stinks, but that’s life.