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I’ve been pondering here for a little bit, and so I’ll just start this story out with the results of the pondering…
See, it (the pondering) got me thinking…
Father’s day’s tomorrow.
I find myself thinking back on and missing my own dad – how for many years he thought he was a failure – and yet, good came out of those things he thought he’d failed at.
See, some years back, I learned how hard it is to be a parent… How much dedication, love, understanding, and determination it takes to love your kids when you’re trying to understand them, and support them when your memories of the world you grew up in “When you were their age” simply do not mesh with the world they’re growing up in.
In being a parent, I’ve been told you can do it like your parents did, do it the opposite of the way they did, or do something new.
I’ve found that there are things we all want to change from our childhoods, but there are also things we want to keep, traditions we want to pass on, and so on, and I’m still learning which ones are which.
I found myself often wanting to give advice to my kids, but then, since this is Father’s day realized how much I’d wanted my dad to listen to me – just to listen, and realized that that was so much more important…
And so, I try to spend my time listening to my kids when they want to talk.
Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s hard, but all the time, it’s important.
So without writing much more (hah, it’s me… 😉 I’m gonna take you through a little guided tour of fatherhood, and my experiences with it… I just went through this blog – and found myself smiling, laughing, and tearing up just a bit at the stories I’d written over the last few years. See, my Dad left us about 16 years ago. He no longer lives with us on this earth, but lives with us in our memories… That transition, for those of you who’ve not gone through it, is astonishingly hard. Cindy’s dad did the same thing a couple of years ago, and the transition for her, her family, and us, is ongoing. I think that’s the little bit where you find yourself laughing at things they might have said, memories you might have shared, and then crying at the same time because you miss them and can’t share the story the memory brings forth with them.
So the stories are in the links below – each one with a little intro to what it’s about… They’re not in any particular order other than the order I pulled them out of the blog – so they’re kind of in reverse chronological order as they were published, but not much else, so you can skip around and read whichever story without missing anything.
That said, the stories, about being, or having, or losing, a dad:
…I realized early on that keeping a straight face when you’re being a dad is something that comes with time… In this case, I had an adventure in plumbing, and can still hear the laughter of both kids as the problem I was dealing with became painfully obvious (like, it hit me in the face obvious). It still makes me smile, and they got to laugh at their dad (with his permission).
I remember how much I wanted my own dad to listen to me when I was a kid and a young adult. Those moments were few and far between, and as a result, so absolutely precious in my mind. I had a chance to listen to my son once where I so very consciously put my mind on “record” because I knew the story he was about to tell was going to be fun. It actually is the very first story on the blog.
I’ve been asked, more than once, which story is my favorite – and it’s like asking parents which kid is their favorite… They’re all my favorites – for different reasons, but this one, “Hunting for Buried Treasure” keeps bubbling up to the top – because – well, you’ll have to read it… it’s not long, and any more would require a spoiler alert.
I remember how sometimes the dad I saw, (in his role as my dad) and the dad that was (an adult step-son), were two totally different people – I love this story for the sole reason that it showed a side of dad I didn’t know existed at the time, and it was a lot of fun to write.
This next one – just fair warning – it’s got a hankie warning on it for a reason… I think it was the story that started them. It’s called ‘Letting go of the Saddle’ – and if you can imagine teaching your kid (or being taught by your dad) to ride a bike – there’s a moment, a very special moment, that happens. It’s repeated throughout your life in different ways – and you’ll play different characters inside this story throughout your life, sometimes simultaneously. A huge part of this story really felt like it wrote itself and I was just hanging on for the ride. I remember the story changing about 2/3 of the way through, where my role in it changed – and I realized I was letting go of another saddle, but not one I was ready to let go of. It was a very hard story to write… I’ll leave it at that.
There’s the story, I’m sure you’ve heard, of The Prodigal Son. I realized that for there to be a Prodigal Son, there had to be a Prodigal Father, this is the story of the Prodigal Father and me sharing the experience of waiting for our sons to come home.
Many years before I became a dad, I was a newspaper photographer, and had the privilege of watching someone else being a dad, and was able to capture the moment, and the very strong lesson, in a 500th of a second from across a parking lot.
I’ve realized that some stories take seconds to happen, but require months or years of pondering before they’re ready to be written. This one was a little different. It took years to happen, and a couple of hours to write. It involved an F-4 Phantom, a cop, and – well, it made me smile then, and still makes me smile now.
One moment that I shared with my father in law was a simple one… a common occurrence in households around the world, but this one had something special in it. And I miss the gentle soul who was my wife’s dad.
There was a moment, not quite 16 years ago as I write this, that a number of things collided into a storm I was not ready for. A storm of fatherhood, childhood, memories, time machines, time moving forward, time standing still. I remember feeling very much like a little boy in an adult body, and I wasn’t ready to be that much of an adult right then. I remember this story for the cold, both physical and emotional, for the blowing oak leaves, the sound of Taps and a view I’d seen years before and never wanted to see again… If it’s not obvious yet, it has a hankie warning, just so you know.
And for a change of pace, you know the old saying, “Insanity is hereditary, you get it from your kids”? – Yeah, that’s true… There are other things you get from your kids. In this case, we’ve actually got three generations involved in this story… My mom’s reaction to something I did, and my reaction as a dad to something my daughter did – and it was the same reaction…
And then – you realize your kids get older – and you realize that some of the lessons change, and some stay the same, and you realize that God gives you chances to both listen to your kids and to help them out. In this case, again, a situation with my daughter – a couple decades after the above story, a gentle lesson from God, for me, as a dad, on how to be a dad… Occasionally God will present lessons with all the grace of a celestial sledge hammer… This time He used the celestial feather duster (which I appreciated very much)
Some years earlier – the family would go to Michigan for the summer to visit my wife’s side of the family, and in this case, I got to stay home and rat-sit. It was an adventure.
Then there’s the story of bathtime… and a little boy… and his dad. Oh, and giggles… Can’t forget the giggles…
Some years after the above story, Michael and I had a mad, crushing need to leave town and go on a father-son adventure. So we did. We had a fun road trip that involved Mermaids, toast scramblers (the pre-war kind) and the Gates of Mordor…
I learned how important having a hand to hold is – and more importantly, being able to reach up to hold the hand of someone bigger than you..
And how sometimes, not only can you learn a lot from a two year old, but the wisdom that can come from a two year old can be – on multiple levels, completely unadulterated and pure. Oh, and it’s also fun.
And in this story from my dad – I learned a little about man’s inhumanity to man, and how dad learned about it – but also what he did, in his power, to try to combat it, with the realization that some things matter, but an awful lot of things that we think are important actually aren’t.
Another story from dad – this is a long one, but one of my favorites. Started out as a single dusty sentence I remembered from dad, and after two years of research, I got a story out of it. Still makes me smile.
Then comes Opa’s story – from WWI. He’s mom’s dad – and if it weren’t for a piece of Russian shrapnel and some soldiers scavenging for potatoes, you might not be reading this story… Really.
Being a dad means doing a lot of things, and sometimes it means telling a sick munchkin a story. In this case, I made up a story quite literally on the fly. Here’s the story – and the ‘behind the scenes’ of telling it.
It’s about a boy…
And a dragon…
On evenings when Cindy was off with our daughter, I’d often take Michael for drives, bicycle rides, walks, or combinations of all of them. On one of these we saw something most peculiar in the sky, and I turned my brain on to ‘Record’, and didn’t blink.
Oh… My favorite… Springtime. ‘Nuff Said… Go read it and smile.
And, a story about a boy and… and a borrowed dog named Pongo. Pongo was a good dog, and even though he wasn’t ours, Michael got to ‘borrow’ him on his walk home from school. We haven’t walked down that street in a very long time, in large part because as long as we don’t, in our minds Pongo will still be there.
A lesson I learned from my son, that he didn’t realize he was teaching me… out at Shi Shi beach.
I learned a number of lessons – about shoes, from my daughter – even though she didn’t realize she was teaching me. We were walking to the bus stop, as fast as we could, because as always, we were running late. Michael was tucked into my coat (really) and Lys was walking behind me, looking at my red shoes, and proudly watching her two feet, also clad in much smaller Red Converse High Tops, enter and leave her view with every step. “Look, Papa, I’m two feet behind you! Get it? Two.. Feet.. Behind you?” I smiled, and sure enough, she was… Oh, and we caught the bus that day, and the next, and she – well, there’s more to the story – you can read the rest of it here.
Every now and then – you have a story that’s a lot like “Letting go of the Saddle” – only it’s even clearer… In this case, it was my Opa – and this story has a hankie warning.
And last, but not least, I’ve learned, just like being a mom, once a dad, always a dad… the seasons of life come and go, but you’re always dad, or pop, or papa, or daddy. You hover around being a confidant and an authority figure, between teaching and learning yourself, between laughing with them and crying with them.
But that’s part of life, right?
Oh, and one thing that’s constant…
You always love them.
Hey all, another story with some help from my “guest author” – my dad, who left me a couple of stories that I’d convinced him to write before he passed away. They’re rare because he printed them, before the computer they were stored on was stolen, so these are the only stories I have that he actually wrote. I think that’s one of the reasons I’m doing my own writing – so my kids can see and read some of the stories that are part of their history and that they’ve heard over the years.
The other day I was watching the news, something I rarely do anymore, and it got me to thinking about relationships, and that got me to thinking of this next, actually, the third of the four stories that he wrote about his times in the Air Force.
We have to travel back in time to about 1953, when my dad was in his early 20’s, in the Air Force, and just past basic training at Keesler AFB, in Mississippi, and had been in the technical training as a radio operator (and some things he wasn’t allowed to talk about) that formed the beginning of his career. If we were to set the stage, we’d have to do so with the understanding that World War II was still very much in people’s minds, the Cold War between the former allies of the United States and the USSR was just ramping up, and the Korean War was in full swing.
Outside of the military, this was just before the whole civil rights thing really got underway, and being in basic training in Mississippi, things became apparent to my dad there that hadn’t been apparent where he’d grown up, in northern California.
At the time, the Air Force was training thousands of new recruits every month, on an assembly line basis at a quantity that was as mind numbing for the recruits as it was for those trying to train them. While in the outside world (as in ‘Civilian life’) the color of your skin mattered a great deal, and there was prejudice at pretty high levels, especially in the south, inside the military, it didn’t seem to matter so much, as long as you could follow orders, and one day, dad, unaware of what life outside the airbase was like, found out just a touch of what prejudice was really like by seeing it firsthand.
So with that, let’s go to a hot August afternoon down at Keesler AFB in Biloxi, Mississippi, where my dad and his friend had some rare time off and wanted to leave the base for an afternoon at the movies. They both left the base with thoughts of the movie, popcorn, and cokes on their minds.
They learned that they had to change their minds. I’ll let dad tell the rest of the story, unedited, in his own words:
I had a friend down there. His name was George, and I could see it was a really different experience for him than for me, for he was black and I was white. I’ve never had that sort of a problem before. We wanted to see a movie in our free time and I even said I’d pay for it. We went downtown and went up to the ticket seller, and I offered to pay for the tickets. She’d let me pay alright, but we couldn’t sit together because of the color problem, so we separated, and he sat in one row and I sat in the next one up. When we got out of the movie I wanted to take him and buy him a coke, but we couldn’t even do that. We never went downtown again, though we did keep in touch for several years.
And it got me thinking – I learned something from dad about what was important in friendships. Years later my wife and I were invited to my friend Al’s wedding. She’d grown up in a very segregated part of the country, and I hadn’t. (Dad, as mentioned above, had been in the Air Force and we’d been stationed all over the world.) I had told her about Al, and I’d told her about his friend Oscar, who, with his looks (well north of six feet tall, black, sculpted shoulders, and the last time I saw him, shaved completely bald) was able to use his looks and physique to his advantage in his profession.
As we were heading for the wedding, she asked, trying to remember my description, “Now Oscar’s the black one, right?” –
And I realized that I hadn’t said anything about Al, and had to tell her, “Um, they’re both black, why?”
Where she grew up, things were different.
When she grew up there, things were different.
For me, I’d known Al and Oscar since junior high school, and – well, Al was Al, and Oscar was Oscar.
And the color of their skin didn’t matter a bit.
One of the things I’ve been doing in these stories is writing down history. I’ve written down a number of stories about my dad and his time in the military. There are others in the works, but I happened to run across a couple that I’d convinced him to write before he passed away. They’re rare because he printed them, and then later the computer they were stored on was stolen, so these are the only stories I have that he actually wrote. I think that’s one of the reasons I’m doing my own writing – so my kids can see and read some of the stories that are part of their history and that they’ve heard over the years.
I’ve been baking artisan bread for the last little while (bakers go back in the family for generations, and my son got me this book which has been absolutely wonderful). So given that, the other day I was thinking about baking bread, and it got me to thinking of this next, actually, the second of the four stories that dad wrote about his times in the Air Force.
We have to travel back in time to about 1953, when my dad was in his early 20’s, in the Air Force, and just past basic training at Keesler AFB, in Mississippi, and into the technical training (radio operator and some things he wasn’t allowed to talk about) that formed the beginning of his career. If we were to set the stage, we’d have to do so with the understanding that World War II was still very much in people’s minds, the Cold War between the former allies of the United States and the USSR was just ramping up, and the Korean War was in full swing. The Air Force was training thousands of new recruits every month, on an assembly line basis at a quantity that was as mind numbing for the recruits as it was for those trying to keep track of them, keep them busy, and keep them healthy.
These recruits were resources, and the Air Force had to take care of them by feeding them, giving them shelter, and keeping them occupied when they weren’t busy learning whatever the Air Force had decided they would learn. On top of all the classes and mental training for the actual skills, there was the physical discipline that was taught by having the recruits do daily calisthenics, and the mental discipline that was accomplished by assigning daily tasks that were simply not optional.
So while they were taking classes in some of the most technical, and classified, jobs and skills available at the time, they were also to take care of themselves and each other in the most basic ways you can imagine. There were assignments to clean the barracks, mow the lawns, maintain vehicles, buildings and property, and to scrub things till they shined. The person in charge of tasks like this was, in civilian terms, a manager. In the military, he (at that time and in that place they were mostly “he’s”) was a Sergeant. Very few recruits ever saw Generals. All recruits saw Sergeants, and the Sergeant wore the hat of your mother, your father, your elementary through high school principals, your cop, and pastor, and occasionally, your bartender, all in one very crowded body, and your Sergeant could change hats faster than you could blink an eye, so staying on his good side was your greatest mission in life.
Make your Sergeant proud, he’d take care of you. Embarrass him, and your life would be a living hell. You would be cleaning bathroom floors with a toothbrush for a month – and it would likely be your own toothbrush you’d be doing it with.
From the Sergeant’s point of view, you’re a hands-on leader, and in the military, as anywhere, good leadership is the key to getting things done. You depend on your soldiers (or sailors, or airmen, or Marines) to get the job done.
When things don’t get done, there are consequences.
Your job, as a Sergeant, is to make sure, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that those consequences are so unforgettable so that whatever caused them never, ever happens again. At the same time, your job is to be in your soldier’s corner, letting them know you support them and will get them what they need to get the job they’ve been assigned done.
In doing that, you want to make sure that if they screwed something up, the screwup is fixed at your level and goes no higher. You know that if a soldier ends up being called on the carpet in front of their commander, whether that’s a Sergeant or a general, there are only three acceptable answers to questions that might be asked, and those answers were simply, “Yes, Sir”, “No, Sir”, and “No Excuse, Sir.”
Three very important things here.
- You never wanted to have to be in a position ask those questions. It meant something had gone wrong.
- You never, ever wanted to be in a position to have to answer those questions. It meant that you hadn’t been able to fix whatever went wrong.
- You never, ever, ever wanted to have to give that last answer. It meant you were the one who was responsible for whatever went wrong. It was the equivalent of falling on your sword
And Sergeants, without whom there would simply be no military, were well known for coming up with creative ways of not falling on their swords, so to speak. Some of the ways problems were “solved” were due to ingenuity borne out of the rare moments when you are faced with the only fate worse than death itself, having to say the dreaded words, “No Excuse, Sir.”
Occasionally, if the situation demanded, things were literally covered up. This was only done as a last resort when everything else had failed. It meant you were out of resources, out of supplies, or out of time.
This is important to remember. The stress of running a huge kitchen like they had at training bases like Keesler was enormous, the time available to feed thousands of recruits was limited, so the kitchens had staff working around the clock preparing food for those three mealtimes when everything had to be ready to go, all at once. Some in that staff were there full time, others were there as assigned. This meant there were often people working there who didn’t really understand the significance of what they were doing. (or not doing, as the case may be)
There were officers in charge of the entire operation, but it was the Mess Sergeant in charge who took care of day to day things in the Mess Hall. It was the Mess Sergeant in charge who made sure the kitchen ran with – well, military precision. And it was the Mess Sergeant who did everything possible to eliminate all the variables he could, and make sure everything worked, so he could feed everyone coming through the door quickly, efficiently so they could go out and get trained to fight the enemy, whoever that was.
Under no circumstances did he want to stand in front of his commander uttering the words, “No Excuse, Sir”, so he instilled in his underlings a fear far worse than the fear of God; it was the fear of the Mess Sergeant.
So, there’s a lot of background to this story. Take a deep breath, smell the smell of a big, industrial sized kitchen. Here you can smell the vegetables being chopped up for the next lunch. Walk a little further, you can smell the aroma of freshly peeled potatoes for tomorrow morning’s hash browns, and hear the stories two young recruits are telling each other about anything but potatoes. A little further, the steamy vapor coming out of an industrial sized dishwasher tickles your nose, and finally, a bit further on, you can smell the yeasty smell of bread dough rising, mixed with the smell of coffee and cigarettes, and above the constant roar of the fans, you hear a number of 20-somethings laughing and goofing off.
Around you are huge stoves, walk-in refrigerators and freezers, hand trucks to make moving the huge sacks of raw ingredients easier, enormous chromed ovens, and mixers that you could mix enough dough in to feed an – well – an Air Force. Come with me as we stand off to the side and lean up against the wall and listen for a bit, as a much younger version of my dad tells the story behind a rather strange article that appeared in the paper that week. It’s below, just as he wrote it.
We had a certain number of KP’s to do as we went through the technical training. “Kitchen Police” is the full title of the job. With so many trainees, we had a mess hall row. Only one of the mess halls had a bakery, and even then I enjoyed the smell of fresh baked goods. We were assigned to the midnight shift, and were supposed to make rolls. Lots of them. One of the KP’s got some flour that wasn’t the right kind of flour we needed and dumped it in the big mixer, then I was left to watch the dough rise while the rest of them had coffee break. They had a super long break that night, and our KP pusher caught us goofing off.
I told him it hadn’t risen enough yet.
He started sweating, a lot, for the mess sergeant was due in any time.
There was a growth of bushes separating the places where the men were marched in, so he had all of us KP’s dig holes for the large quantity of dough to be poured and hidden. We went to work with a will and even covered the pile of dough with the sweepings. There was a picture in the paper later of the finding of a giant puffball mushroom by the mess hall.
One of the things I’ve been doing in these stories is writing down history. I’ve written down a number of stories about my dad and his time in the military. There are others in the works, but I happened to run across a few I’d convinced him to write before he passed away. They’re rare because he printed them, and then later the computer they were stored on was stolen, so there are only four stories I have that he actually wrote. I think that’s one of the reasons I’m doing my own writing – so my kids can see and read some of the stories that are part of their history and that they’ve heard over the years.
So for today’s post, I’ll actually have a “guest writer” – this is actually kind of hard to write here, but I’m going to introduce you to my dad, Gary, who you may have read about here.
For this story, we have to travel back in time to about 1952, when my dad was about 21, in the Air Force, and not much past basic training. Back then, in the military, if things didn’t fit their preconceived ideas of what was right, those things got fixed or removed. It was understandable. If you were in battle, you had to be 100% capable of doing whatever they told you to do, and if, for example, a toothache kept you from your post, and that post was overrun by your opponent because you weren’t there, then that tooth simply had to go, to save you, and potentially your unit. Dad had been through basic training, where, as with everyone, a lot of stuff got fixed. But there were some things they decided needed to be removed, and in dad’s case, it was all of his teeth. So they all came out, and were replaced with false ones.
At the time, dad was pretty close to the bottom of the ladder when it came to seniority, and in the military, there were enlisted men (and in those days, a few women), and there were officers. In short, there were followers, and there were leaders. The officers were the leaders, and the good ones took care of their followers. As a result, there is a culture of respect and honor between the enlisted and the officers, and the enlisted always stood up and honored their officers with a salute, until the officer gave them permission to be “at ease”. At the time, the lowest officer rank was a 2nd Lieutenant, with a brass bar about an inch long and 3/8ths of an inch wide showing the rank. A 1st Lieutenant had the same bar, but silver, and a Captain had two silver ones, one beside the other. They were known, at the time, as Captain’s tracks.
With that introduction, let’s enter a military Barracks, where dad’s sitting on his bunk, with a cigarette butt can in his hands that he was spitting blood into. The following words are his – unedited. This is the story of his…
…coming back to the barracks after having had my teeth pulled. I’d had nine of them out that day and was feeling pretty poorly. There was no one else in the building, and I heard him come in. I felt quite self-conscious about having a butt can in my hands and making such a feeble attempt at coming to attention. He was my commander. A young pilot just back from the fighting in Korea. He wore the tracks of a captain and I accorded him that honor. I was weak from shock and blood loss, and staggered as he came up to me.
He asked what the trouble was and I spoke through the rolls of cotton they had stuffed my mouth with telling him I was getting all my teeth out and had had nine done that day. He looked at me with concern asking if he could do anything for me.
I told him that a coke out of the next barracks would be heavenly.
He turned and walked out the door, and came back a few seconds later with the frosty bottle in his hand.
I took the unopened bottle and put it on my jaws where I hurt and dug into my pocket to give him the money for it, but he didn’t want my money.
He shipped out a week later and I heard he’d gotten killed in a plane crash.
His name was Lemmual Pierson.
I still owe him a dime.
I thought about that young man, my dad, less than half my age now, and that young Captain Pierson – not much older. It’d be neat to find the family of Captain Pierson to thank them, and let them know how valuable a gift their father, and/or grandfather gave to my dad, a gift that was so valuable it paid dividends almost 60 years later.
Even if it only cost a dime.