Writing about people who have gone on is actually a lot easier than writing about people who are still with us because you have to make absolutely sure you get everything right or they will call you out on it…and even more than that, your perceptions of people who are still a regular part of your life change and evolve as you grow older and hopefully, a little wiser. No one in my life makes such a strong case for coming to that realization as does my Dad who will tomorrow (today when this reaches the reader) achieve another milestone birthday, the big Sixty-Five. How did my ever-young father suddenly reach the age that everyone associates with retirement and the achievement of getting a small monthly refund of all the money you paid into the system? The upside to having young parents is that they are never a lot older than you are; the downside is when you realize that they do get older and you are not terribly far behind them.
I may be the only father that does this-or maybe it’s something that every father does for all I know-but I tend to look at the relationship I have with my son and the age he currently is or will be at a given time and then I try to relate that with where I was at that age in relation to my own father. I have to admit that I never spent any time talking to other fathers about their children the way my wife does her friends so I really don’t know if other dads do this or not. I started very late in the parenthood department at 38 years old and while my wife was trying to teach me how to change a diaper and feed a baby, friends my age were teaching their children how to drive and in some cases, watching them graduate from high school. Conversely, when my Dad was 38, he too was watching me graduate from high school while I, at that age, was waiting with my wife in labor and delivery. When I look to the future, to the time when my son graduates from high school, I think about the fact that I will be 56 and that I will always have 18 more years of life experience under my belt at every pivotal event in Ethan’s life than Dad ever had those same times in my life…..and yet he managed to come through it pretty darn well despite not having the extra years I had. It amazes me sometimes that he prevailed.
Dad had just turned 20 years old when he became a father, a month before my own birth. My mother was 18 for one day and then she turned 19 the day after she had me. Had all this taken place two years earlier, we would have all been in the same generation. I look at many a 20-year-old today and wonder about some of them, whether they will make it or not but when you are a small child, the ranking order is the Lord God first with your Dad just one rung down on the ladder from that. That is the way I saw Dad from my earliest memories of him and through a significant part of my childhood-larger than life, the fount of all wisdom and knowledge, the final authority, infallible and better than everybody else’s Dad. They aren’t ever silly, they aren’t subject to petty tantrums and they have no insecurities whatsoever which makes them the ideal role model because you, the child, have plenty of those and a Dad is always good for making those insecurities go away. This was my father in 1973, the year I turned 7. My son will turn 7 in a few weeks and I try and remind myself often that at his age right now, I am all to him that my father was to me at that age, never mind the fact that I really can’t leap tall buildings at a single bound, nor have all the wisdom and self-confidence that he thinks I have. I have tantrums sometimes, I have insecurities frequently and my wisdom and knowledge could fill a thimble. I know now that my Dad was likely no different, maybe even more so because he was so much younger than I am now.
On my Dad’s 27th birthday, he spent most of the day moving the smaller furniture and boxes from our old house into our first new home, built just for us. It was chilly, overcast and my Dad was the coolest person in town because he let me ride on top of the furniture in the back of my grandfather’s pickup truck back and forth all day as we made trips. My wife would kill me if I did that with my son today (if DFACS didn’t get me first) and I wouldn’t dream of it anyway-I guess I’m not as cool at 44 as Dad was at 27. Before you start thinking what a horrible Dad he was to let me do that, keep in mind that I rode in the beds of a lot of pickup trucks during those years with a lot of other dads driving and their kids in the back too- times were different then and people just didn’t think about the possibility that their children could actually fall out of the back of a truck and get run over. In my mind, Dad was in charge, he was driving that truck and doing a thousand mental calculations in his head the whole time so that when the next decision needed to be made, he would know the answer and make it with all the authority of a father. In truth, he was probably listening to rock and roll on the truck radio and wondering whether he would be able to get the TV antennae tuned at the new house in time for the ball game-and probably checking the rearview mirror once in a while to make sure I was still hanging on.
I didn’t have Dad in my life as much then as a lot of other sons did so days like that one were treasured times that I got to spend with him. Dad made the decision early that he was going to go into the family barbecue business and that is a business that makes a lot of demands on your time-more than most people every realize. My grandfather had been in the business nearly 40 years already, had no sons to pass the business on to and he needed help so Dad went into a career he had never envisioned for himself but one that it turned out he was superbly suited for. I may not have appreciated it as much then as I do now but he wanted his family to be well provided for and the barbecue business gave him a good living and allowed my mother to be at home with us every day. We never went without anything we needed because Dad chose an occupation that worked him for seven days a week for many years. Just about every morning for the first fifteen years of my life, my father got up about 6:30 and got to work at 7:00 and other than a break to come home for lunch and to go to the bank, he was pretty much there until closing time around 8:00 that night. On school days I saw Dad leave for work as I was just getting out of the bed and I saw him when he got home and had supper with his family and I know he was dog tired every night. He had a little more leeway on the weekends and a tradition for us was that he would come home about 10am with fried egg sandwiches from Cook’s Lunchroom, a tiny diner that is still in business today. My brother and I would forego breakfast earlier with Mom to make sure we got to eat with Dad and spend a little time with him before he had to go back to work. He worked long, hard, laborious hours day in and day out so my brother and I could have a full-time mother at home, a nice house, good clothes to wear and things to play with. We didn’t appreciate what he was doing for us then and there were times I resented my grandfather for “making Dad have to work all the time”.
We made the best of what time we did have with him though, even if that time wasn’t necessarily the typical father-son time you saw on “Leave it to Beaver” for “Father Knows Best”. Sometimes when I had a school holiday, I would go to work with him at the barbecue place and tag along behind him watching everything he did. To my eyes at that age, if the barbecue place was a ship then Dad was the Captain running the ship and he knew every single detail about everything going on, on any given day we were there. He knew the answers to every question, the details of any large order that had to be filled and by when, whether the fire was right or not (it just looked like fire to me) and he was stronger than any man I knew, capable of hefting logs that would have crippled a less capable man to move them. He chatted with every customer that came in, knew what they usually ordered if they were local and could remember those that only came in once a year on their way to some vacation. He would usually find some chore that I could do to help and it wasn’t work to me then-it was helping my Dad-later on, it became work but that’s another story! The most fun of all though was getting to go to the Farmer’s Market in Atlanta with him to get supplies and that usually included a stop by the Chic-Fil-A Dwarf House in nearby Hapeville on the way to the market. Dad even knew the people at the Farmer’s Market and they knew him and we would leave with a pickup truck full of corn or tomatoes or whatever we had to get that day….and yes, one day he even let me ride in the back of the truck with all that stuff on the Interstate because I wanted to so bad and I hope my mother doesn’t have a heart attack when she reads this because that was the condition of my getting to do that was that I didn’t mention it to her. I was a little older by then though, just so you know that.
The scariest moment of my life happened at that age. Dad was either 28 or 29 years old by then and he was closing the business up one night with another employee. As they walked out the back door with the day’s earnings, a man stepped out of the shadows and pointed a gun at them and ordered them to hand over the cash box. Dad did as he was told and then the man told them both to lie down on the ground, on their stomachs with their face to the ground. They did this as well and my father put his arm up and over the back of his head when he did this. The robber then shot my father. Despite the incredible pain of his wound, my father lay absolutely still and did not move a muscle. The robber then shot the other man that was with him. The other man jumped in pain and started to move, whereupon the robber shot him again, this time stilling him from further movement. The robber stood there looking at his work while my father, using every ounce of self-control he possessed, dared not to breath, move or make a sound. Convinced he had killed them both, the robber silently left on foot and headed down the highway to a waiting car and left with his accomplices, one of whom we later found out was a cook that was working for the business and knew the evening routine very well.
Dad waited for what seemed to him an eternity, afraid to move for fear the gunman might actually still be around; in reality it was only a minute or so, and deciding he had to chance it, Dad got up, bleeding from a double wound through his arm, made his way back into the restaurant and called the Sheriff and an ambulance. He then called my mother, who was sitting on the sofa with my brother at the time his call came through. To her credit, my mother remained absolutely calm as she listened, hung the phone up and called the next door neighbor to come over to the house. She put my brother to bed and she told me that Dad had been shot and she was going down to the restaurant. The neighbors came, my mother left and I spent the next several hours frightened and worried that my Dad was going to die. I refused to go to bed and I waited up for many hours until my mother called from the hospital to tell the neighbors (and me) that Dad was going to be ok and she would be home soon. Dad came home from the hospital a day or so later with a bullet wound clean through his arm, a large hole on both sides where the bullet went in and came out. He and the Sheriff were both convinced that the gunman was aiming all along for Dad’s head and because it was very dark outside and hard to see, he had mistaken Dad’s arm for his head. Dad recovered fairly quickly and we were thankful to God for sparing his life and not leaving a young widow and two small children. The other man was not so lucky; he spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down. I have never doubted to this day that if he hadn’t put his arm where he did and if he had not forced himself to “play dead”, that Dad would have been gone all these years since. His ability to think clearly in a crisis and to act swiftly to alert the authorities, despite shock and blood loss, saved his life and the other man’s life, plus it got the Sheriff on the case fast enough that it led to the capture of the criminals within an hour after the event took place. Could I have done that when I was only 29 years old? Could I now at 44? I can’t really answer that but I know one thing for sure…at 29, I had no wife and child to think about and at 44 I do. Dad once said that his only thoughts at the time of his shooting was being killed and leaving his wife and children behind and the man lying next to him that he knew needed help far more than Dad did. That is what made him get up from that ground, not knowing if he would even be able to stand without being shot again, to go in and make that call before he passed out from shock. Dad had something to live for and that pushed him harder than he would have ever thought possible.
It never occurred to me that the serious, authority figure that was my dad was still a young man during my childhood. At 30, I was still into sporty cars, Friday night parties and having fun with my friends. Dad at 30 had a difficult job, a family to support, a mortgage to pay and a double scar from a bullet through his arm. I know he enjoyed his fun as much I enjoyed mine and one of the things I got to enjoy with him was going to the golf course and seeing Dad interact with friends as opposed to employees. Dad could usually get Wednesday afternoons off from work by then and he liked to go to the local golf course. When I was off from school, I begged him to take me with him and usually he would unless he was playing in a tournament. Dad would spend a half hour in the clubhouse with the other men before hitting the course, all of them swapping tall tales and telling funny jokes. Dad inherited his father’s sense of humor and timing and could tell a joke or a story with the best of them. My brother and I got that from him and the three of us together could get a joke going and build on it, each of us feeding off the delivery and returning a rejoinder of our own. It used to drive my mother crazy and my stepmother has said on many occasions that she could see Dad in both of us when it comes to our sense of humor. Dad would always let me drive the golf cart once I was tall enough to handle the foot controls and the wheel at the same time, usually making me stay on the narrow cart path as much as possible, which is probably the reason I was able to drive a car intuitively the first time I ever got behind the wheel. This also probably led to trouble later on.
When I was 15, my parents left out early one morning on a trip and my father entrusted me to park his prized and fully restored 1961 Chevrolet Impala coupe in the garage for him when I got home from school. Instead, I yielded to the great temptation and went out driving in it instead, all over town, having a good time and somehow fooling myself into believing that no one in a small town would notice a 15-year-old boy driving a gorgeous white classic car around town. All was well until the car in front of me suddenly realized they were missing their turn and stopped short to whip the car into a business on the right. My reflexes were wonderful and I managed to turn the enormous steering wheel (big as a school bus steering wheel) with no power steering hard to the right and avoid hitting the car in front of me, running up on the sidewalk instead. My relief lasted maybe half a second though as I felt a decisive smack at the back of the big car; the driver behind me had not been as quick to act as I was and despite my excellent maneuver, I now had a sizeable dent in the back of the Impala. I was dead meat and I knew it. Fortunately, the driver behind me was ruled at fault for following too closely and the police officer knew my father and didn’t charge me with driving with only a learner’s permit. I would have been willing to go to jail anyway though, to avoid my Dad on this one. He was called and our conversation was very short. He would be home in three days, I was to rake the entire yard and he would deal with me when he got home. Thus the longest three days I had ever endured took place and I raked leaves and worried about the repercussions. My best friend who lived next door heard about the wreck and came to see the damage. He too agreed that my father was going to kill me when he got home. Dad finally got home on the evening of the third day, looked at the car and said “have you learned your lesson?” I could only nod and he said “don’t ever do anything that stupid again” and he went in the house. He knew me well enough to know that I would worry so much over those three days that enduring that would be the worst punishment he could impose and later he told me that. I was so tired of dreading the punishment that by the time he got home, I just wanted it over with. I look back now and marvel that he was that wise at an age ten years younger than I am now. I would have freaked out if that had been my car, plain and simple.
Dad was not an easy father at times. He had a temper and when he was tired and sore he had a short fuse on occasions. I was not an easy son either. We both could be stubborn and unyielding. While I respected him always and loved him very much, he sometimes tried doggedly to exert his will on me and I would just as stubbornly resist his efforts. If he wanted me to do something one way, I would usually do it a completely different way…successfully usually….but Dad never wanted anything for me but to succeed and more importantly, to do the best at whatever I did-not to be the best, but to do the best. His favorite expressions were and still are “to thine own self, be true”, “tomorrow is the first day of the rest of your life” and “if you’re going to be a ditch digger, be the best ditch digger that you can”. I never really thought about how much those statements, those seeds he planted, would take root and become a part of my life whether I intended for them to or not. I have always tried to be faithful to my beliefs and morals….I have always looked at each day with fresh eyes and new ideas….and I have always strived to do the best job that I can, in everything I try to do. I don’t always succeed-but I keep pushing myself to. We didn’t always have a warm relationship either because we were very different and that sometimes caused a lot of friction between us but at some point that seemed to just dissipate and we found a stronger relationship. Sometimes now, I think the friction wasn’t so much because of our differences but because of our similarities and as I grew older, I saw some of the things he did as a parent actually made more sense to a hopefully wiser adult than they did to an occasionally rebellious teenager. Of course, sometimes he was wrong too and just plain made mistakes. I have done that too and I likely will make a few more before Ethan leaves the nest and enters the world for himself. Dad and I were different in our likes, just as Ethan and I have dissimilar interests but none are so great that they can’t be overcome and there is always some common ground to be found. One thing all three of us have in common is we all love the Andy Griffith show and we can fill an afternoon recounting some of the funniest moments in that program, which Ethan can actually participate in a little now.
I realize today that an adult, even a father, is only human. At a young age, we think they are virtually omnipotent, then we test them as we become older children, think they are clueless when we’re a teenager and finally come to the realization that they are just an older version of ourselves, complete with all the virtues and vices that we ourselves have…and we admire them once again for having sacrificed for us, stuck by us, pushed us and prodded us, sometimes spoiling us but also for planting seeds in us that we don’t even know are there until we suddenly find ourselves fully grown with our own bag of seeds, a big watering can and hopefully the wherewithal to raise a strong, healthy crop ourselves. Parents are sometimes asked the question of whether or not, if we had to take a bullet for our child, would we do it and we always say that we would, knowing that it is not likely to happen. My father took one though, not just for his child but for his whole family, not just by working in a job that one night put him literally within an inch of his life but because he went back to it for many more years, knowing it could always happen again, to provide a good life for his family. He never gave up and he saw his obligation as a father not as an obligation but as a duty and for that I will always be grateful. Happy birthday Dad…and thank you.