You can dismiss Father’s Day as a minor holiday conceived as a marketing tool, but if you’re a dad you can’t help but be aware of it. You kind of hope the kids call because of what it implies if they don’t. But you kind of dread the dutiful nature of those calls, too. I don’t know if there’s a father anywhere who doesn’t feel at least slightly guilty about being praised for the job he did. Most of us are more aware of all the things we didn’t do.I don’t have a lot of memories of my own dad, since I was still a kid when he died, but I’m glad for the ones I kept.
Once he caught me making fun of a neighbor kid whose family was somehow poorer than ours. The kid was walking by in a hat I found amusing. Dad came to the door in his undershirt and watched the kid walk back toward his house. Then he mentioned, in the tone of a man who had grown up during the Depression, that the clothes people wear are sometimes the only ones they have. I felt I’d been misunderstood at the time, but he was right: that kid’s hat was not a fashion statement. The kid later beat me up under some pretext or other. So, two lessons learned.
I know my dad must have thought that sometimes you have to show your kids what you’re made of. Once my two older brothers challenged him to a foot race. Dad was maybe 40, a smoker, probably not in the best shape. He was still wearing his big work boots. But he was game. That’s one of my most enduring memories: A middle-aged man sprinting down a gravel road, losing his hat and his Zippo lighter and some change as he really tried to win it.
He came in third. They all walked back breathless and smiling, Dad most of all. I think he might have been sorry to have lost, maybe a little sad that he would never outrun his boys again. But mostly, he seemed happy and proud that it was his own sons who beat him.
He kept us in line. One Fourth of July my brothers and I were lighting firecrackers and throwing them around the yard. My little sister wandered in among us and Dad commanded us to stop. I lit one more anyway and flicked it away; it exploded dangerously close to my sister’s head. The next thing I knew I was airborne, dangling from one arm while Dad hand-delivered a couple of whacks to my backside. There may have been other spankings, but that’s the only one I remember. Even at the time I was pretty sure I had it coming.
I remember riding with him on an old Allis-Chalmers tractor while he raked hay in the dusty heat. I remember riding shotgun in a blue DeSoto when one of his jobs was hauling bundles of newspapers from Missoula to points east. It was always dark when we picked up the papers and I remember his face in the glow of the dashboard, tapping the wheel to an Elvis tune. At some point I’d go to sleep and wake up in the back seat with an army blanket, heading home on Highway 93.
I wish I had a whole life full of anecdotes like that. But the ones I do have make me realize how important it is for men be there and doing the right thing when their kids are still young enough to be impressionable. The teaching moments seem endless when you’re first starting out, but they’re really finite and easy to squander. I’ve squandered quite a few myself. I’m just hoping the kids don’t remember.