BY TOM YATES
Even at a young age, my father was my hero. Although I vaguely understood all the sacrifices he made as a single military father, I felt his devotion. Back in the day, widowed fathers gave their children over to aunts or others to care for the kids. He didn’t. I’m still not sure why. He was a busy guy. Big time army man. When my mother passed away, he didn’t hesitate to pack us up and move us back overseas. Although we must have been a burden, I never felt like a burden. He did the best he could to make a life for us in foreign lands surrounded by strangers. Don’t get me wrong, I knew something was different. We were different. I was different. Everyone else had mothers and big families. We simply had each other and a few lovable revolving nannies.
My father was kind and strong, but not overly sentimental. He was army through and through. He could burn my little soul with one stern look or melt it into puddles when he smiled. I shot for smiles.
Throughout my life, Father’s Day got lost in the ordinary days of summer. I never sent cards, wrapped gifts, or made any kind of deal about the whole thing. Father’s Day was just June something or other. I called him on every Father’s Day and that was enough. As a rambunctious trouble-shooting kid/teen/adult, he knew I loved him. I knew he loved me. We really didn’t need the hoopla of a single day to point that out.
When he got sick, everything changed. As he struggled to fight cancer, every day was Father’s Day. Every day was precious and full. Me. Him. Us. Although I couldn’t take back the ordinary years of routine phone calls, every ounce of love, respect, honor, and commitment poured out of my own fearful quest to connect during the tender days. Eventually, our roles slowly reversed, rewound, and played back. Who was the dad? Who was the kid? We met in the middle. Simpatico.
I actually did sing for my father…once. The summer between 6th grade and 7th grade, I fancied myself a fine chanteuse. Although I couldn’t sing a lick, I found my destiny. Armed with my battery powered cassette player and a lone cassette tape featuring Anne Murray’s Snowbird, I wandered the fields of the farm singing along with my muse. As wonderful as she was, I was better. I was the complete package. The hip smiling family bands of the 70s couldn’t hold a candle to my boyish puckered lips and smoldering eyes. I sang for the cows, chickens, ponds, trees, blackberry bushes, rocks, or anything else that stood still to hone my craft. After several weeks of intense practice, I knew I was ready. Shrouded in secrecy, I mounted a fierce snail mail letter writing campaign, promoting my self indulgent stratospheric talent, to land an audition for a low budget variety show produced by a local Bowling Green television station. The world was my oyster.
One day, having returned home from my lakeside soft-serve ice cream day job, I received a letter congratulating me on my persistence along with a scheduled audition date. I had almost arrived. Blessed be Anne Murray.
That’s when things got a bit iffy. I was a kid. The television producers didn’t know I was a kid. Bowling Green was 35 miles away as the crow flies, farther by car if driving on back roads through the hills and valleys of Allen County. You see, I needed a chauffeur to make my audition date. I needed a ride and had to face the music.
My dad spent a lot of time in his hot and humid woodshop. With lathes lathing and buzzsaws blaring, he didn’t hear me enter his hallowed space. Beaming with confidence, I fessed up, told him my plans, and asked him for a ride to my audition. Sweaty sawdust dripped from his forehead. The singed heat of ripped wood burned my eyes. It must have been 110 degrees in that little shed. After turning off the saws and lathes, he cracked open a window and told me to sing my song. Suddenly wracked with nerves, I fumbled with the clunky buttons of the cassette player. Click. Rewind. Click. Fast Forward. Click. Pause. Click. Click. Click. Play. I cranked the volume as high as it could possibly go and belted out, “Beneath the snowy mantle cold and clean, the unborn grass lies waiting for its coat to turn to green…”. On and on and on. Anne and I sang the entire song. When I finished, it was so quiet I could hear chiggers crawling through my cotton socks. Dead silence. He didn’t flinch. He didn’t laugh. He didn’t do anything. He closed the window and simply said that he couldn’t take me to my audition. Gentle giant. No excuses. No explanations. Game over. And with that, I shuffled through the gritty sawdust on my way out of the woodshed and closed the door on my cabaret career. Although somewhat relieved, I hadn’t felt such disappointment since he flat out refused years earlier to buy me a chimpanzee as a playmate. Ever resilient, I moved on. I had frogs to gig, catfish to catch, and ice cream to scoop.
A few days after my unfortunate near brush with fame, I was catching up on some early morning Shirley Temple re-runs when I heard ridiculous noises spilling from the front yard. I tried not to think much about the raucous because my dad was always wiring fences, splitting firewood, or just sawing things. Although annoying, it was par for the course. After a while, the noises died down and he called me outside. Tucked into a corner of the front yard by a small stone wall and seemingly floating on air, he had fashioned a high bar. A. High. Bar. Towering 8′ from the ground, he managed to jerry-rig, build, and firmly secure a 2″x 5′ metal pole between two large mature maple trees. A horizontal bar of my own. I was dumbstruck. It was magnificent. Somehow and somewhere along the way, he’d remembered that I always wanted to become an Olympic Gold Medal Award winning gymnast. All I needed was a horizontal bar to hone my craft. My head filled with thoughts of double twist flips, release moves, and nailed landings. I knew big time gymnasts worried about those sorts of things and I wanted/needed to embrace that worry. The world was my oyster…again.
That’s what fathers do.
They help build dreams.
Oh sure, I never became an acclaimed cabaret singer or an Olympic gymnast. In the long run, it really wasn’t about reaching those lofty goals. it was about the journeys.
And the dreams.