It’s 1969, somewhere on the Autobahn of West Germany. It’s night, and late, and one Arthur N. Fleshman is trying to get his family home from another of their famous weekend getaways. My Dad, Arthur N., pulls the Plymouth Belvedere III into a German rest stop. The car load of passengers is asleep, mostly, but I am watching the events transpire. He is desperate for a cup of coffee, anything to keep his eyes open until he delivers his precious cargo (his wife and three kids) safely home to Heidelberg. I watch from under my blanket as he approaches the vending machine and discovers that he does not have the right change – in Deutschmarks – for a lousy cup o’ Joe. And he gets back in the car, edgy, steely eyed, full of grit. He knows he has to do it on his own, without the simple stimulant, and grits his teeth and continues on towards home.
Everything I ever needed to learn about fatherhood is contained in that incident. I felt so bad for my Dad, that he couldn’t have the one thing he wanted, the one thing he needed. And yet he kept going. He didn’t see any options because there weren’t any. Fatherhood is a lifetime, everything-you-got kind of commitment. A man does what he has to do – it’s what they sign up for. And all the whining and second-guessing in the world won’t change it. Because being a father means setting aside personal comfort, ease of life and personal gain in order to assure the safe delivery of the kids to adulthood.
Sacrifice? I remember Cub Scouts. Doesn’t seem like much now – but back in the day, on a soldier’s pay, in a single-income household, it was a big deal. But my Dad knew it was good stuff. And he was Den Leader, Scoutmaster and all-around supporter. And I have no idea what we did without so I could wear my little shirt and scarf and cap to the meetings. But he never complained, never thought twice. It’s what I needed, it’s what he knew I needed, and he made sure I had the opportunity. He knew that every thing he did, every chance he gave me, would make me a better person, a better man, a better dad.
And let’s not forget the books. Dad always made sure we were inundated with information. We had the Collier’s Encyclopedia. We had the I-Can-Read-It-Myself series. We had Time magazine, we had Stars & Stripes newspaper. Information was king, and Dad kept a steady supply headed our way. We had many family trips to the library and reading was the norm in our house. And what did it cost him to do all that? There was precious little extra in the budget, but we had ample opportunity to learn, in books and travels and museums and roadside attractions. I can still hear him say “That just fascinates me” even as he tried to transmit that fascination down to my level.
I often wondered where my staunch conservatism came from and it occurred to me I had a rare slice of time with Dad that my siblings did not. I had cancer as a young teen and Dad would make the long, Washington, D.C. Beltway drive to Walter Reed Army Medical Center for my endless scans and exams. I can’t imagine what that cost him in leave time and gas. But as we sat (if you know D.C. you know what I mean) on I-495 in his Vega or Subaru or Fiat (he was an odd one for cars) we would listen to 1970s talk radio and he would expound on the politics of the day. With vigor and passion. So I suppose I was indoctrinated to the tune of several hundred hours by the time I was cured. I think they call that quality time now – we weren’t quite that trendy. And as a footnote, when it came time to cast my first vote for the presidency, my Dad drove me to the polls, knowing full well that my youthful rebellious vote for Jimmy Carter would cancel out his own. But to a conservative principal matters. And I got over my brief dalliance with the left.
In the passage of time I grew up. I married and had my own family, my Dad cheering me all the way. I remember him letting Jeremy drive the lawn tractor, greeting Jennifer with “there’s the pumpkin”, making a sign for our yard when Jamie was born, sitting on the couch talking to baby John like he had a clue (still have that great picture). And I thought back to high school, and Mr. O’Shea. He warned us that we would raise our kids just like our parents did unless we made a conscious effort to change. I liked Mr. O’Shea, but I’m not sure if his parents failed or he did. Because as I analyzed that thought I realized that I did not have much to change at all. Maybe a tweak or two, maybe a new piece of information, maybe a little more sensitivity to the needs of kids in a changing society. But, by and large, my Dad did what a dad should do.
Which is everything, without reserve, without regard to personal cost, with supreme sacrifice, and with only the well-being of his charges the overriding factor. I have had some ridiculous conversations with divorced dads who complained about how much child support they had to pay. I always respond with – “Do you know what it costs to raise a child?” and usually they will cite some government stat to justify their paltry contribution. And I answer my own question – “Everything you have.” Because I have paid more in monthly marching band fees than most courts order for child support.
So, kids, it’s Father’s Day. And I want my kids to know, Jeremy and Jennifer and Jamie and John, that everything I know about being a father I learned from my dad. He was smart and stern and thoughtful and creative and giving and decent and funny (oh yeah – LYAO funny). And he loved me. And my kids were the vindication of his life commitment to parenting, the end result of all those years of toil and sacrifice and sweat and pain and joy. He died way too young, and they each only remember him according to their age at the time (19, 12, 8, 7) and for the younger he is a distant and faint past. Don’t forget him, and don’t forget his example.
The Arthur N. Fleshmans of this world, the fathers, your dad, your friend’s dad, my dad, will do what it takes. They will forego sleep, comfort, financial gain, pleasure, accomplishment. And even a cup of coffee. Just to make sure you make it to where you need to be.
Father knows best, indeed