It’s Father’s Day season and this one strikes a little harder than some with my son preparing for an imminent deployment and my daughter neck-deep in summer training.
The reminders are everywhere, from commercials touting tools and grills as gifts for dads to stores stocked with mugs proclaiming “#1 Dad” and “World’s Best Dad.” Perhaps because I won’t see my own kids this Father’s Day, the store displays put me into deep reflection.
By most any standard, my father was not the “World’s Best Dad.” He was by no means the worst, not by a long shot, but in the poll for #1 Dad, you’d have to go pretty far down the list to find his name.
My father loved me, there was never any doubt about that. Did he find ways for us to spend time together? No. Did he find ways to attend athletic events? No. Did he teach me how to repair things around the house or fix the car? No. Did he help me with my homework? No, but that was my decision epitomized by the last time I asked for assistance.
I was wrestling with a particularly challenging trigonometry problem and asked him for help. Now, my father never got past 8th grade, but he was something of a math savant, so I was confident he would be able to figure it out.
He looked at the problem for a moment, gave the answer (something like “cosign r-squared”), handed back the paper, and turned back to the television.
I started at the paper, then at him, then at the paper.
“How did you get the answer?” I asked.
“What the hell do you mean how did I get the answer?” He responded, clearly annoyed. “That’s the answer.”
I went back to the kitchen table, using his answer to reverse-engineer the math. No surprise, after an hour or so, I learned he was spot on.
No, the lessons Dad taught me were hard lessons and usually unintentional. By the time I can recall elementary school, my father had started his own machine shop and one Saturday morning when I was 8, he told me to get dressed, he, Mom, and I were going to the shop “for a little bit.” That would be my first day of actual work.
First, he set me up to cut pieces of stock from a long metal bar using what was essentially a motorized hacksaw and told me we’d be done “by 11 at the latest.” He was working on a mill, beveling the edges of a red plastic block affixed to a small metal rectangle. I didn’t know it at the time, but he was on a deadline that was essentially make-or-break. And there was a problem. The milling caused the plastic to soften after only two sides were complete, which not only slowed that process down, but meant a delay in getting to the other part of the operation, countersyncing the holes in the metal rectangle.
As always, Dad had a plan. First, he set up a drill press and showed me how to place the piece in the right spot and countersync the two holes. That was the first part of my job. The second was a little more rudimentary. In between countersyncing, I was to shuttle the red plastic pieces from Dad at the mill to the ancient Frigidaire in the breakroom, where I would take one out of the little freezer and replace it with the one fresh from the mill. Thus began the assembly line. Mom worked in the office while I would “countersync, countersync,” then walk to the Frigidaire, grab a fresh piece and take it to Dad, then take the one he was working on either back to the freezer (if it only had two sides done) or to my station at the drill press to finish it off.
We got into a rhythm and the pace quickened. Dad glanced up at the clock, seeing the 11 a.m. deadline had passed. “We’ll be done by 1,” he said confidently.
No surprise, 1 came and went and he said we’d be done by 3, which also came and went. Finally, with the clock nearing 6 p.m., we finished off the last piece. The last thing he had Mom do in the office was produce a check made out to me for $25. Looking back on how tough things were at the time, that was like a king’s ransom.
Thus concluded the main lesson my father taught me – if you want something, in this case money, you have to work for it.
His rule for the shop was simple – you can work all the hours you want, but if you ask for the hours, you have to keep them. So during every Spring Break, I would come home and drag myself to the shop, usually by 7 a.m., and wash up to go home after 5 p.m. I would return to school with a stack of cash.
It didn’t always work out, though, which gave him a chance to reinforce the lesson. I came home one late Fall Friday. I hadn’t had clean clothes for the better part of a week, the pantry was bare and I had just enough money to get home if I avoided the turnpike tolls. So home I went, coasting into the house on fumes that Friday night. I spent the weekend doing a mountain of laundry and gorging myself on whatever I could find. Finally, Sunday came and I went into the basement to say goodbye to Dad … and ask a favor.
“So I’m gonna go back to school,” I said.
“Uh-huh,” he responded, taking a drag on his cigarette and changing the channel on the TV.
I took a deep breath.
“I don’t have any money and I don’t have enough gas to get back,” I finally blurted out.
He didn’t look up, instead staring intently at the TV as he took a rather long pull on the cigarette and slowly exhaled. Then he turned to me.
“You should have thought about that before you came home,” he offered, turning back to the TV.
When we become fathers, most of us make promises, a lot of promises, and I’m no different. But the main promise I made was to be a much different father than my own. Yes, I wanted my kids to understand the value of hard work and the value of money. But I wanted to be there when they participated in a sporting event or played in a concert. I coached practically every team for both my kids growing up and did more Boy Scout camping than most of the boys in our troop.
Yet, I made mistakes, plenty of mistakes. I like to believe that my children are who they are because of what I have done as a father, but in an honest moment, I know that much of what they are is in spite of what I have done as a father.
Maybe that’s the best we can hope for as fathers, that we help shape our children into strong people because of the positive things we do for them and teach them, but also through our shortcomings. My father wasn’t perfect and maybe he wasn’t even a great father, but I like to think that he did what he thought was the best he could do. I know that’s what I’ve done, as imperfect as it may have been.