Monday, June 16, 2014

To J-Bird...

For pretty much every young child, there is something they are deathly afraid of.  For some, it's a fear of the dark.  Others might be scared of the "boogie man" or spiders.  Some are inexplicably scared to death of water or reduced to tears at the mere sight of a clown.  I don't really remember ever being scared of the dark.  Spiders or monsters in my closet never bothered me too much.  Lord knows I was never afraid of water, and clowns are creepy in their own right, but I certainly don't fall into the category of a coulrophobe.  When I was a child, I really only harbored two great fears: fireworks and my father.

When it came to fireworks, it wasn't the sight of them that scared me...I actually liked seeing the colors.  But the sounds...The booms...They made me lose my mind.  I needed my ga-ga (my security blanket), and I needed quiet.  I just couldn't handle it.  At what point I outgrew my fear of fireworks, I don't know...But that is the biggest fear I remember having as a young kid.

As for the fear of my father...It has subsided somewhat as I've gotten older, but I can't honestly say I've totally outgrown it.  I don't think there's ever been a person on earth that has intimidated me quite like him, and to be honest, I'm not totally sure why.  He never once did anything to actually scare me.  He raised his voice from time to time, and got on me when I deserved it.  But every kid in the world has the same sort of experience.  There was just a certain "quietness," like a sleeping giant, about his persona that took on an almost mythical existence.  My mom's greatest weapon when I misbehaved?  "If you don't quit, I'm going to tell your dad."  That was all it took.

When I was 9, I had big dreams of growing up to be a big league ballplayer.  During those long summer days, I'd watch games on TBS and WGN, and mimic batting stances in the living room with an old souvenir bat we had gotten at a Reds game.  For 99% of those swings, everything went fine.  But one fateful day, my grip was a little too relaxed and the bat went flying out of my hand, crashing into the wall next to the front door.  For a moment, I was breathless.  I hoped against hope no lasting damage had been done, but alas...As I approached the wall, I saw the red-colored scrape and the two indentions the bat had left behind in the drywall.  My heart sank.  Dad was working nights, so he wouldn't see it until the next day, but Mom was due back any minute.  I sat on the couch, contemplating what to do.  I thought about lowering the mirror that hung above the mark, hoping no one would notice.  But before I could do anything, I heard the garage door opening.  Mom was home.  Instead of punishing me, she simply said, "Well...You'll have to tell Dad.  I'm not doing your dirty work."  Thanks for the vote of confidence, Mom.

So, I decided to leave him a note.  Hopefully he would see it, go to sleep, and the anger would subside a bit.  Quite frankly, I don't remember what he said after I talked to him.  It didn't take long to fix the mess, but I do know I was more afraid of telling him than I was of just about anything else.  And yet...the "punishment" totally slips my mind.  I guess that is what makes it so strange.  Anytime I expected a big outburst, or severe punishment, it didn't come.  That's not to say I didn't learn my lesson, but Dad always seemed to know when a lecture wasn't really needed.

Despite my "fear," I thought my dad was the best man on the planet.  Like most boys that grow up idolizing their father, I wanted nothing more than to be just like him.  I wanted him to be proud of me.  I wanted him to spend time with me.  I remember the butterflies of excitement I got every time he agreed to play catch with me.  Or when he told me we were going fishing.  Or when we'd spend a Saturday afternoon driving somewhere, and pull into a gas station for an IBC Root Beer and a candy bar.  I always loved those rare occasions when Mom and Lensey left us at home by ourselves, and we'd eat frozen pizza for dinner and watch sports.  Or we'd drive down to Bob's Drive-In and eat dinner in the cab of his old pickup.  Dad would tell me the life story of some random drummer in some random band we heard playing on WCBL.  I never really had the slightest clue about who he happened to be talking about, but I listened on the edge of my seat.  It was like I was sitting next to a god, and I got to call him Dad.

As I got older, I came to realize my dad isn't a god.  He's a man.  He has his own faults and short-comings; he has his own weird quirks that I take great joy in poking fun at every opportunity I get.  I realized he possesses certain characteristics I didn't consciously notice as a child, but that truly define him as a person.  And I came to hold a new, and totally different, respect for him.  I began to realize I no longer wanted to be just like him simply because he's my dad...I want to be just like him because he's a great human being.

I remember the exact moment I came to that realization.  I was in college, maybe 19 or 20, I'm not really sure.  I had been home for a weekend, and Dad had been working for most of the trip, so I didn't get to see him much.  But, before I drove back to Lexington, I met him at a Mexican restaurant in Draffenville to have dinner with him, just the two of us.  At some point in our conversation, he started talking about working at General Tire back in the day.  He talked about what it was like to work 12-hour days for two weeks straight.  He talked about what it was like to get to see his kids for 30 minutes after school in the parking lot of a gas station.  He talked about what it was like to work a job he hated for 17 long years.  I hadn't really thought about it before then, but I never once heard him complain or wish out loud he were doing something else, although I'm sure he fought that internal battle on a daily basis.  When I asked why he did it, why he didn't find another job, he said, "I did it because I had to pay the bills.  I had you, Lensey, and your mom to take care of."

I watched him speak, still dressed in his work uniform, noticeably damp from sweating all day at work.  I watched his hands, showing signs of age...Wrinkled and scarred from years of back-breaking work in a tire plant so Lensey and I could have a comfortable life.  I had never heard him speak so honestly and vulnerably.  Without really meaning to, he was exposing a side of him that I had never known existed.  After a while, we parted ways and I hit the road to Lexington.  I spent the entire drive, most of the night, and part of the next day thinking about that conversation.  I'm not sure if I realized how impactful it would end up to be at the time, but it has come to be one of the defining moments in my life.  I had always loved and respected my dad for a variety of reasons, but that hour and a half totally changed my perception of him and made me truly realize what it really means to be a man.

That's not to say he's without fault.  He can be gruff and difficult to talk to at times.  He doesn't display his emotions well.  He will drive around Columbus, Ohio for an hour and a half, totally lost, without even considering stopping and asking for directions, despite my mom's repeated requests to do so.  He's as stubborn as a mule, and won't hesitate to give you his honest opinion if you ask for it.  And he doesn't put up with you changing the channel if he's trying to watch The Andy Griffith Show, no matter how many times he's seen that particular episode.  But, he also grills a mean steak.  He can fix virtually anything, or drive himself to cussing trying to.  He apologizes when he's wrong.  He will do absolutely everything he can to help you if you're in need.  He loves his wife unconditionally.  He loves his kids and grandkids unconditionally.  He calls his mother on a regular basis, just to talk.  He tells great stories, albeit repeatedly.  He lets Chester and Winston sit in his lap, even though they kind of annoy him.  He works harder than anyone I've ever known.  He's taught me countless lessons, whether he was doing it intentionally or had no idea I was even watching.  And he can still shoot 85% from the free throw line.

I might have been scared to death of my dad for years, but now that I'm grown myself, I've come to realize I have nothing to fear.  I just have a great example to emulate in my life.  Thanks, Dad.  I love you.  Happy Father's Day!