I was a bit of a slacker in High School. I was completely unmotivated and just wanted to be out in the real world. So, I took as few classes as the law would allow. One of those classes was Social Studies and the teacher was Mr. O’Shea. O’Shea was a retired Marine and surprisingly kind and thoughtful. I say to this day that the only useful thing I learned in High School was in Mr. O’Shea’s class. He told us:
“Unless you make a conscious effort to change you will raise your children exactly as you were raised.”
I felt empowered by that – I had a choice! For the first time in my education I was being told I was in charge! Bwahahahaha… Watch out kids.
In reality, as it turns out, there wasn’t too much to change. I came to realize that my example of parenting was not too bad. By comparing notes, I understood that my Dad was an okay guy who did what he thought was right, lived an honorable life, loved my mom and his kids, and always put our needs first.
It turns out – Father knows best.
Now, before you go thinking that I lived a Father Knows Best or Leave It To Beaver existence, where June always wore pearls and heels (still a nice look…) and Ward came home in a coat and tie smiling every day, where all problems were solved in thirty minutes including commercial breaks and every home had a picket fence, let me set the record straight.
I grew up in an Army household. That means we were underpaid, to put it charitably (okay, we were poor, but no one ever told me), we moved around a lot (try eight schools in twelve years) and lived in base housing. Base housing did not have picket fences. Our building in Germany was three stories high, stucco finished concrete painted green, with open stairwells.
That means then that the single greatest causal effect on my childhood would be my parents, and specifically since it is Father’s Day, my Dad. And that means, of course, my Dad must have been raised in the aforementioned TV scenario, which is where he got his parenting skills.
Let’s set that record straight too.
Dad was raised by a single mother of ten children (way before single-parenting was cool). They were truly poor -I’m talking play-in-the-dirt poor, get-a-job-as-a-kid-or-starve poor. The best thing he had going for him was a loving mother and living in California – and the latter is debatable. His dad? All I ever heard about him was that he was a “German horse thief.” I never really understood if he was German and stole horses or if he stole German horses – it didn’t matter because Dad wasn’t talking about it anyway.
That means I had a Dad raised in a dysfunctional household with no father figure, and he was raising us with no learned skills and a financial disadvantage. And yet I still maintain that he did what was right, lived an honorable life, loved my mom and us kids, and always put our needs first. So the light bulb goes off – Dad understood Mr. O’Shea’s maxim. And played it out. He knew he had come from nowhere, had no foundation to build on, and had no choice but to change.
Dad always did what was right. I mean, sometimes he was wrong, but he always did what was the right and honest and moral thing to do. He did not steal. He did not lie. He did not take credit for what he did not do. That character was so strongly modeled that I am stuck with the same problem. If I wanted to cheat, I would have to enroll in the School for Scoundrels. What is wrong is wrong. Do what is right. I remember as a teenager I would always call home and check in. My friends thought I was nuts. They always made-up stories as to where they were. One time I was coming back from a day out with friends, and we stopped to play mini golf. Since we were off schedule, I dropped a dime to tell the parents where I was. Turns out one of the other parents became concerned when we were late and called my house. Dad told them the truth – unfortunately, my friend didn’t. Busted friend. And grounded for life.
Father knows best.
My kids are always grossed out because Diana and I have never held back our public display of affection for each other. According to them we are always making out. So where did I see that modeled? You got it. Even though my mom was not given to public frolicking, Dad would put her on his lap, he would make comments about her great legs, you get the idea. I thought it was normal. And it is – if you adore your wife. My Dad adored my mom. She always came first, and her vote always eventually overrode his. He wasn’t always quiet about it, but ultimately his take on life was “I just work the pedals -Marie is driving the car”. But for all his complaining he loved every minute of it.
Because Father knows best.
My Dad had needs that were never met as a child. He did his best to make sure our needs were. Bear in mind, needs might be different in today’s frame of reference. But we never lacked a thing. I love the pictures of my older brother and me in highwater pants, little black shoes, and buzzed heads. One such picture we are standing on the balcony of our rented duplex dressed like that, in Germany, overlooking a vineyard, holding a loaf of French bread. From France. I may have been wearing hand-me-downs, but I was living the good life and had just returned from the Eiffel Tower. How could I think I was poor? Dad wanted to expose us to the world and took every chance to do so, with travel and books and music and art. And always a history lesson because he had taken the time to find out the facts. My needs were met far beyond my little black shoes.
Father knows best indeed.
As Dad got older, he was plagued with a variety of health problems which ultimately retired him from civil service. But he had worked his life and career right so that he and mom were taken care of. But the health problems also reawakened his deep-seated Christian faith. He became a lay preacher for the Methodist church, traveling to little towns where there was no preacher. He taught Sunday School. He labored at the Senior Centers, playing games, and reading to the sick and elderly. He was the chairperson for the Heart Fund Drive and myriad other causes. He was determined to make a difference in society by giving back, by serving, by putting other people’s needs above his own. He was a good guy and did more than just talk a good game. He lived it.
I have dozens of more stories I could tell to amplify my Dad’s attributes but time and space are short. And not to gloss over his failings – he had them as we all do. But way too soon this Good Guy’s life ground to a halt. He was finally felled by a massive stroke. He lingered from September to December, 1997, and then gave up the ghost. I say it that way because I passionately believe he saw there was no way to recover and he went on home, believing, as Paul put it “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” And then came the funeral. My Dad loved pomp and circumstance, probably because he had so little in his early life, and he had insisted on a triple service – A Masonic Memorial (quite impressive if you have never seen one), a Christian funeral service (done well by Brother Bob) and a Military Burial with Honor Guard (complete with a 21-gun-salute). I was amazed and moved at the sheer number of complete strangers who approached me to tell me how Dad had touched their lives.
A life well lived? Father knows best.
I had a small shrine of sorts on the fireplace mantle to my Dad, Arthur N. Fleshman. Just a few items – like the memorial beer stein he received when he left Germany the last time, the one where if you hold it up to the light, as if draining your brew, you will see the molded-in image of a naked lady; a small picture of Dad looking down at baby John (they called him Opa) on the couch – he loved his grandkids and this picture sums that up; and the flag from his casket, the one folded by the Honor Guard of which our oldest son Jeremy was a part (Dad would have been so proud of him in uniform). Folded within, and invisible to all but the few who saw it put there, is a shell casing from the 21-gun-salute. A fallen soldier, they call it. And a symbol of a good guy, an honorable life, a lover and father, a provider and giver.
So now, thinking it through, I have had to rely very little on Mr. O’Shea’s advice. Because Dad had it right, had already shown me the way.
And, as always, Father knew best.