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.
My dad was a riot. He just had a way with life that cracked me up. He always had a comment, usually a depressed hilarious comment. It was great. He was always helping us do new things and taking us new places. Our family could never forget the one year we drove our old brown Ford out to Montana. I was probably seven or eight and our Ford was having trouble. We couldn’t turn it off at any point otherwise it wouldn’t start again. When we got to the Badlands, my mom and sister would get out and go look at them, come back to the car and then my dad and I would go look. We did this all the way out to Montana. I remember one morning being out in the hotel parking lot with my dad who had strung a bunch of hotel extension cords out to the car and had my mom’s hairdryer blowing in the engine until the car started. Stuff like that, just goofy stuff that sticks with you. It makes no sense really, there was nothing he did other than just be him. But that’s all I wanted, just to be doing stuff with him.
We did lots of things together. Someone gave him two tickets to a Brewers game at County Stadium about ten rows behind home plate. Neither one of us really cared for the Brewers, but it was one of the sweetest nights of my life. Just me and dad at the game, talking, being guys, watching baseball. Sweet. My dad would drive me around to baseball card shows all over southeastern Wisconsin. I had little money and bought very few really good cards, but my dad always took the time to take me to those places and hang out with me. For a while, we would go out to eat every Monday night at a new restaurant, just me and him. One night we went to an Italian joint and had spaghetti and meatballs. We went home and watched Monday Night Football on the TV in mom and dad’s bedroom. My mom walked in and choked, “What did you guys eat? Oh, it wreaks in here.” Yup, just me and dad, stinking it up. What a man I was that night!
My favorite thing we did together was the Christmas tradition where my dad and I would walk down to the Big Rock on my grandparent’s property and do a cookout for breakfast Christmas morning. I don’t know where he came up with the idea but it was great from the start. Sort of. The first year we did it I must have been around 6. There was a lake about a quarter mile from my grandparent’s back door. On one of the points on the lake was a big rock in a small clearing that was perfect for camping and campfires. The first year we attempted this, my dad got lost in the woods. That quarter mile to the lake was through thick spruce trees in lovely Wisconsin bog. He was trying to use a compass but he said it kept messing him up. It kept pointing north in a direction he didn’t think North was!
At one point on our trek through the woods I said, “Hey dad, someone else must be walking out here too, I see their footprints.” My dad merely said, “Yup” and kept right on walking. Finally he spotted a clearing and we went for it. It was the road. Fine, we walked down the road to the public landing for the lake and cut over to the point. Just as we were getting the fire going the rest of the family showed up, who had also walked down the road. They were expecting us to already have our food cooked, little knowing we had just gotten there. They all began to ridicule him and mock him for getting lost in a quarter mile of woods. That bugged me, I was having a great time. Me and dad, being adventurers. I still have a picture of the path that was eventually cut in the woods to the lake. You can see the lake from the house, how could you get lost in that short distance? On the bottom of the Polaroid picture it says, “Ken’s path to the lake.” Still rubbing it in the face of my hero.
We did this breakfast there many times. Towards the end it was becoming too easy. My grandpa had cut a path through the woods to the lake and put down a wooden boardwalk. We got so good at cooking breakfast there we were done in about 20 minutes, it almost seemed too easy. By the time we got the system down and were enjoying good breakfasts routinely, other people began to join us. I always hated that. This was for me and dad, not for all you who mocked that first year. My dad didn’t like it as much either, we talked about it. But he was too nice to not let others come. Oh well. I still have the memories. Like the time my feet were so stinking cold I kept inching my boots closer and closer to the fire until finally my boot caught on fire. That was a good year.
It was stuff like that, not earth shattering, not really even anything he specifically did. It was just him helping me to live. I needed that. I needed my dad and I think, to some extent, he needed his boy. I was glad to be his boy for him. The bond between a father and a son is made for doing dumb things together. Masculinity has a lot going for it. One of the main things it has going for it is that it’s just a ton of fun. Being a man and learning to be a man is full of adventure. We don’t play with dolls or “talk.” Oh no, we build stuff and break stuff and hurt ourselves. That’s what it’s all about. A dad’s primary job is to help his son get hurt as often as possible. Provide the opportunity for his son to feel pain and destroy something. To help him create something out of “stuff.” To show him how cool life can be.
My dad let me get hurt. I appreciate that about him. Sons need the freedom to do dumb things, to a certain extent. Sons also need dads to reign them in when they get too stupid. One summer my grandpa thought it would be a good idea to buy me a bow and arrow. The women of the family were not as convinced it was a good idea. I thought it was great. It was, while I was at my grandparent’s house. They had about 20 acres around them, plenty of room for a blithering moron to shoot stuff.
Our yard back home was about as big as the dining room of a McDonald’s. A bow and arrow was not as conducive to that environment. One day I was outside with my buddy Joe playing with my bow and arrow. It was windy that day so we had this great idea that we could shoot arrows into the air and see where they ended up. Ah yes, the stupidity of boys. Our yard was the only place on the whole block where kids could cut through from our street to the street behind us. There were always kids cutting through there. This day there were a ton of them for some reason. Kids wandering through while Joe and I shot arrows into the air to see where the wind would blow them.
It’s only by the grace of God that no kid was hit. I did, however, manage to run an arrow through the roof of our neighbor’s shed. Oops. Shortly after, my dad pulls into the driveway, gets out of the car and walks up the steps to the back door that faces our neighbor’s shed. He saw we had the bow and arrows and then he saw an arrow in the roof of the shed. He was a smart man, able to put two and two together. He came up with four this time just like usual. “Joe, you need to go home. Jeff, come inside.” Oh boy.
I was in serious trouble. I got punished, talked to and then my dad took me down to the Ace hardware store to buy a bolt to stick through the hole the arrow had made. I had to pay for it and then apologize to old Mrs. Rose who owned the shed. She was about 80 and slowly going insane. I don’t think she had much of an idea what this 12-year old kid was saying about arrows in her shed. But my dad made me do it anyway. I needed that discipline, I never shot an arrow into the air again. Around sheds.
There’s a certain danger about masculinity. It can be frightening. Women’s libbers fear it and want to control or eliminate it. But you can’t. It’s always there and if it doesn’t have a constructive release, it will kill someone. Dads exist for the sole purpose of showing their sons how to release masculinity constructively. It should be no surprise that where fathers abandon their sons there is plenty of killing.
At the same time, dads are just grown boys. Everyone needs to taste childhood. Sons have a way of helping dads release tension as well. Dads are up against the world, they fight The Man day in and day out, providing for their family and dealing with life. When they come home they need a release. Sons are perfect for that. To be able to get your boy and go do something, go break something, it’s fun, it’s good, it’s what it’s all about.