28 August 2000
Today is my dad's birthday.
This journal is a tribute to my dad. It is all too common these days for people around my age to blame their parents for everything: they didn't give me this, I expected that, from them, they came up short in this manner. Hell, my girlfriend has a sibling who, after quite a bit of (bad) counseling, has come to the conclusion that his parents are largely responsible for his marital woes because the counselor thinks his parents didn't give him enough toys when growing up! I feel out of place when people like this are carrying on, because I just cannot identify or understand. I'm sure this is partly because I never did want for things parents ought to give a child; I think it's also partly because of the many lessons my dad taught me in his own quiet way.
What do I mean by things parents ought to give a child? I certainly don't mean toys and trinkets, although I did pretty well in that regard. No, what I'm referring to has more to do with time, and encouragement, and nourishment. When I was a kid, my dad worked for his brother's outdoor construction firm. It was tough, physical labor year-round in rural Oklahoma. He was usually up and at it by 6 a.m., and usually got home about 3 p.m. or so. Incidentally, school was usually out about 3 p.m. Maybe that's a coincidence. Probably not, as I sit here thinking about it. All I know is that after the kinds of tough days my dad had, he always had time to teach me how to throw the baseball, or how to hit, or how to field, or how to shoot, or how to grow things, or just about anything else I could task him with. Without fail. Whatever kind of day he had. On top of the chores he had around the house, and the garden, and elsewhere. My dad always made time for me. Now that I'm older and more reflective, I think back with amazement at that. I honestly don't know how he did it. Except that he loves me, and to him that had implications.
While I'm on the topic of responsibility, I'm reminded of my dad in action about a year and a half ago, when my mom was terribly sick, really near death actually. I don't think any of us really knew quite how bad it was until she was in the hospital. During that time, my dad was forced quietly to take over all of the things that traditionally had been my mom's responsibility: the cooking, the cleaning, the bill paying, the shopping, etc. My dad was also working (because that was another obligation). And the rest of the time he was at my mom's side. He kept everything pulled together. Again, I don't know how he did it. Except that it had to be done, because my dad loves my mom.
That's partially what I mean when I wrote above of the many lessons my dad taught me, in his own quiet way. Perhaps the most important lesson he taught me is that one makes his own way in the world. One overcomes obstacles when possible. Sometimes one makes the best out of a tough situation. But one never laments one's lot in life, or blames other people for one's situation, or lives the life of a martyr. I don't know if my dad ever told me these things; I'm sure he probably did. But more importantly, his life demonstrates all of these things. In my thirty years, I can recall exactly one time when my dad came even a little bit close to violating any of these principles. A little background is in order to illustrate the importance of that last: my dad is a highly intelligent man, but never had the opportunity to attend college; he joined the Navy as a very young man and spent twenty years in the service. One time, my dad was talking about growing up and his family's various moves (they were a fairly poor farming family, and migrated various times from Colorado to Oklahoma and back again). I don't really remember the details -- I'm pretty sure I was fairly young at the time -- but my dad mentioned something about how he had begun looking into the possibility of attending the Colorado School of Mines (this during a Colorado stint), but then something happened and they were forced back to Oklahoma and that avenue essentially closed for him. I don't remember much about the conversation, but in my mind's eye I still see my dad's wistful look -- it wasn't even a hurt look, but wistful -- as he was talking about it, like this was a dream he would have loved to have pursued, and it was unfortunate that he didn't get to. That's the closest my dad ever came to questioning his lot in life. That's it. No blaming his parents for untimely moves, or a system that didn't really care if a bright farmer's kid went to college, or a country that decided to go to war in Vietnam. He took the possibilities that were open to him, and ran with them. That's one hell of an example. It makes it hard for me to sympathize with whining, sniveling people who just shut down because the world isn't treating them as well as they would like. I've never been tempted down that road, because every time I might be, I think of my dad's wistful look that day.
I think my dad is responsible for my obsession with figuring things out. I mentioned above that my dad is a highly intelligent man. I think some of my more philosophical friends would say that he has a well-developed epistemology -- he literally knows how to go about learning and knowing. When I was really young, my dad suffered a collapsed lung and had to have it surgically repaired. One of the doctor's prescriptions for rehab was light exercise. My dad took up gardening about that time. Despite being raised in a farming family, I think it's probably safe to say my dad really didn't know a lot about vegetable gardening. That didn't matter. He educated himself. It was no time before people were literally driving out to our place and hanging out of their car windows to see his amazing garden. I suspect they still are. Tomato plants that grow 8 feet tall are rare to most people. Not to my dad. He figured it out. Just like when he decided to remodel/rebuild our home. My dad has had no carpentry training. But he figured it all out, from foundations to an electrical codebook several inches thick that is a foreign language to me, he figured it out. To my dad, everything can be figured out. There's someone who knows (as an aside, my dad is also really good at figuring out who those people are; my pot-smoking cousin who idiotically touts the power of organic gardening gets a polite dismissal from my dad; the guy at the feedstore talking about a new hybrid gets a lot of questions). There's a book somewhere. There's some reference. That's my own outlook -- sometimes, as Callie would attest, it can be an obsession -- but I learned it from him.
Another lesson my dad taught me is that it's not necessary to broadcast to the world your virtues (or your problems) -- that the people who matter will figure it out. My dad pulled two tours of duty in Vietnam. Although he was technically in the Navy, he was a medic, and as such worked very closely with Marine troops who actually went onto land to get people to be patched up. This was no Desert Storm computer-screen war, and this was not Hawkeye Pierce's fun and bubbly MASH. This was an unfamiliar jungle environment where Caucasian men bearing U.S. insignia were despised by guerilla warriors who came out of nowhere (and everywhere) and mangled people. Guerilla warfare in a jungle is nasty, really more of a nightmare than any twentysomething ever ought to encounter. The ones who died were probably lucky; I don't know what to say about the mangled ones my dad got to drag out and fix. I don't know what to say largely because my dad never really talked about Vietnam or his heroism. He was simply doing his job, what he was supposed to do -- and in return, he came back to this country not to Gulf War-style parades, but to sorry bastards like Bill Clinton who loved to broadcast to the world how wrong we were while they conveniently avoided the hell themselves. But my dad has never really talked about that either. Unlike so many people who came back from Vietnam and had to broadcast their "woe is me" or "I saved a platoon all by myself" or other tales to the world, my dad just came back, put his various medals and such in a box (I've seen the box, but again I've never really talked about it; I figure an honorable man ought to be able to leave some horrors in a box without being bothered, if that's what he wants to do) and got on with his life, taking care of his family.
I could give other examples of my dad's virtues -- they're numerous -- but they start to pale in comparison. I wish more people saw them. Part of the reason I'm writing this is because I see them -- and because sometimes, everyone needs to know others see their virtues, even my dad. And I'm starting to see some of them in myself. Or at least I see what he's tried to teach me. How he has lived. I don't know that I measure up. But I know the ideal. He is the ideal, although he would deny it. He's just doing his job, he would say. Yes. Indeed.
I tried to sit and write all of this about six years ago, but I couldn't get it to come out the way I wanted. Now I have. It's really this simple: we can't choose our parents, but it we could, I would choose him.
Today is my dad's birthday.
Copyright (c) 2000, Kevin L. Whited