Fatherhood in America 2013

Greatest Job on the Planet

I’ve been a father for nearly a quarter century. That’s just more than half of my life, to date. I’ve laughed and cried and have had the occasion to be very proud of my daughter while watching her grow and learn to make her own way in the world.  I know that in this era, many children haven’t the benefit of a father in their homes, and while there exists a myriad of reasons why this is so, I can’t help but feel badly for them knowing what it is of which life has conspired to deprive them.  Moms always get the credit, and well they should, for after all, they carry us those months in increasing discomfort, before delivering us to a waiting world.  It’s always Mom who gets the wave on TV after the winning touchdown, and while it’s perfectly normal and reasonable, I suppose that being a Dad makes me a bit biased toward the unheralded exertions of “dear old Dad,” not because I think I’ve been a particularly good or able father, but because whatever the vices or virtues I exhibit[ed] as a father, what I cannot claim is to have been without superior example. As the eldest son of an eldest son, I had the good fortune to see what fatherhood is all about, and to learn why its increasing absence in the lives of children is creating such a misery for a nation.  If there are too few good men, it may owe to the fact that there are too few good fathers.  To my good fortune, I could never claim that excuse.

I am one of six children, all boys except for the baby of the group, a sister who was just a toddler when I left home for good.  It’s difficult to overstate how difficult a job it must have been to deal with the lot of us.  Spread out in age over the span of fifteen years, it was a constant three-ring circus.  Trouble at school, or in the neighborhood was never far away, as one of us(and usually more than one) was always into something.  We weren’t hellions by modern standards, but mischief was not uncommon.  Dad’s influence was always there, because while Mom tried to keep a lid on us during the day, Dad leaving for work before we had boarded the bus for school,  and Dad would arrive home well behind us, many times, it was the knowledge that Dad would soon arrive that prevented us from boiling over.  Sometimes, we did anyway.

Growing up, I had the occasion to work with my father on many projects, around the house, in the yard, or in the garage.  My younger siblings didn’t always gain the full benefit of this because they were too small, but I certainly did.  Their respective turns would come later.  What I gained from all of this was confidence: I learned that with a little patience and some practice along with basic hand-tools, there was virtually nothing I could not build, refurbish or repair.  This led directly to the sort of work I did in the military, and indeed ever since.  The amount of money this experience saved me when I was a young father with a young family struggling close to the margins of poverty cannot be understated.  If I had to go back in time and pay somebody else for all the things I did on my own because my father showed me I had been able, it would be a mid-six-figure bill at least.  Added to this is the money I have been able to earn precisely because I had been given the confidence to learn new things, applying that knowledge to earning a living, and what I’ve realized is that my father wasn’t simply raising a young man nearly so much as he had given his children the tools necessary to find a way to succeed in life.

Another thing Dad taught me was that you simply must “show up.”  You can’t win at a game you refuse to play, and you can’t push your fortunes forward by waiting for them to come to you.  I’m not a wealthy man as measured in dollars, but I would be a much poorer man both in dollars and sense if Dad hadn’t given me the example of what it means to stand in and take life’s punches.  I watched him nearly work himself to an early grave because the need for income of a growing family had driven him to working three jobs.  I don’t know when he slept.  Long, unforgiving hours, little or no time at home, and endless fatigue made all of it a true torture chamber.  Did he grumble?  No.  Did he complain?  Not in front of we kids.  The toll it took on him was nearly lethal, but he didn’t quit, he didn’t fold, and he didn’t relent.

In this day and age of easy money and quick answers, Dad simply soldiered-on. Even now, galloping toward his seventy-sixth birthday, he’s still working, and not in a desk job, but instead on a loading/unloading dock at a busy retailer’s distribution center.  I’m not sure I could do his job, except that what Dad taught me still lives in me: There’s nothing I can’t do if I’m willing to put my mind to it.  As he’s aged, time has taken its toll as it must for each of us, but  even so, he’s still standing in and taking life’s punches, demonstrating why it is that examples such as he are so critical to their children.  Where else would I have learned it?  It’s not as though my mother is without a strong work ethic, as a daughter of immigrants who grew up in poverty, but that as boys and young men, our expectations as to what men were supposed to be was gathered by watching Dad.

Dad also taught us there was nothing wrong with men having strong feelings. Some things should engender visible passion in men, and the love of their family is chief among them. Love of one’s country is another. When I was a boy, I didn’t understand why Dad would get misty-eyed as the national anthem played before a ball-game, but having served my young adulthood in the military as he did before me, I now understand, because it happens to me too.  Being a Dad means being responsible for a good many obvious things, but a great number of intangible ones too.  People with whom I work and who know the hours and efforts I put into the job ask me how it is that I can take it. He could take it, so  I know I can too because I know I’ve had it relatively easy compared with better men.  I have a sense of responsibility for everything I touch, and a sense of urgency for the consequences of not having done all I could. That comes from Dad.

I appreciate such talents as those with which I was born, or those to which I was trained by a better man.  No father is “perfect” inasmuch as we are all fallible, each of us with our own particular foibles.  Still, it is hard to imagine raising six children, five of them hard-headed boys, to become anything approximating decent, honorable men without the direct and unrelenting influence of one in their lives.  Left to our own devices, and without the sometimes stern hand of a father redirecting a wayward son, it’s impossible to guess how much trouble we might each have been. Many days, I am certain we were plenty of hardship, but without Dad, the imagination is punished by thinking about how badly things just might have become.

It is the fashion in this age to trivialize the importance of men in the lives of their children, but looking back as I am prone to do as my days before me dwindle, I know that’s all a lie, particularly for sons.  Men learn to be men by watching men, for better or worse, and they learn how to relate to women for good or for ill, and they mostly follow the examples they’ve learned from their own fathers, not as carbon copies, but as re-writes and edited or abbreviated versions.  To this very day, I still believe my father is the smartest man I’ve ever known, and one of the most under-appreciated talents ever to grace this Earth, but in modesty, he would never acknowledge such a thing, or even consider it, because he had always believed in large measure that men are as good as their word, what they do, and what they manage to  accomplish.

That’s a high standard, for all the limitless reasons you all know, and it’s a good deal more exacting a measure than the subject has earned.  Still, when I look at my Dad with his failing health and dwindling years, I know that if when my days are done, I’ll have been half the man he had been, I will have lived a great life with blessings and fortunes that I, like he, will have never felt that I had deserved. It is with this and abundance of love that I have but a simple wish for the day:

Happy Fathers’ Day, Dad!




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3 Responses to Fatherhood in America 2013

  1. TeaPartyBarbie says:

    Beautiful message, Mark! Good to see you writing again.

  2. CJ Grisham says:

    Mark, will you be my Secretary of State or Press Secretary when i wage a successful coup to become President?