There are certain stories one grows up with that seem surreal and untouchable. When they are told in snippets and fragments, it can be difficult to grasp the sum of the parts. Families also seek to shape their stories, to hide the pain and dysfunction, and to make themselves better than we really are. All of this creates a mystic and aura that warps the past.
Saturday I had the opportunity to travel back in time. My time machine was a 2002 Saturn and my guide was my aging Dad. He was asked to preach in Waldport, the city where he grew up. I offered to drive him down to there.
My Dad has never been one to really open up. This can be frustrating at times, especially when I’m trying to discover the truth. On the other hand, we have spent a lot of time driving around together, but not saying much – so once I came to accept his silence, the frustration has evaporated. During our drive, as I gave him space, he began to share stories.
When we arrived at the church facility, I mentioned to the lady to the lady who greeted us that our family helped charter this church. She was unimpressed, but friendly enough. Soon, a few other people introduced themselves and chatted. I mentioned how, at one time, the offering plates used at this church, were made by my Dad. Surprisingly, they said they still used those plates. It turned out that only one of the three had been made by my Dad – and it was in remarkably good condition for having over 60 years of use.
“He’s always been my hero.”
My Dad doesn’t get around so well anymore. He had a stroke 14 years ago and his health is deteriorating. He uses a cane, but is still unsteady. His legs are weak and he can’t walk far or stand very long. He tottered to the platform, stood behind the podium, and grasped it firmly as he talked about the Father’s love for the next half-hour.
Earlier in the week, my Dad heard my Brother give a presentation on preaching. Ditch the notes, my Brother suggested, and so, at 77 years old, by Dad tried a new trick – he ditched the notes. I was proud of him. Afterwards, several people came to me and complimented my Dad. “He’s always been my hero,” I said with a smile.
As we chatted after the service, the nice people of this church gave me the offering plate my Dad made when he was a sophomore in high school. I was humbled and honored, near tears.
Afterward, we had lunch with my Dad’s cousin Ray, who had come to the church (for the first time in decades) just to hear my Dad. Then we drove out to the old family homestead where my Dad and Ray both grew up – along with their grandparents, parents, and siblings.
I’ve been hearing stories about this place all my life. I’ve figured out that they weren’t just pioneers, but they were dirt poor. No electricity, a gravity fed spigot in the yard supplied all their water, and they picked fruit, vegetables, roots, and flowers just to survive. To me, this perseverance makes me proud; growing up in the midst of it was most likely embarrassing and shameful. As we approached Waldport Saturday morning, my Dad began to share stories, most likely stimulated by visual cues and familiar places.
I learned that my Dad’s family used to set gill-nets on the Alsea River. They’d go out daily and collect the salmon or steelhead they caught and put them in an ice-filled box beside the river. Later a man in a boat would pick up the fish and pay them for their catch. One time, my grandmother fell into the cold river while wearing hip boots. My great-grandmother was frightened and didn’t know what to do, but fortunately, my grandmother was able to hold onto the side of the boat. Soon a man in another boat came to their aid and helped my shivering grandmother onto their rowboat.
My Dad showed me where his grandparent’s orchard used to stand, where they used to swim in the river, where they caught the school bus, and where they rowed the boat across the river to catch that bus. I asked him what school buses were like in 1940? “Just like they are today,” he said without hesitation. Later he added, “They didn’t have the red flashing lights.”
He told me how the bus driver would make the boys clean the bus if they got rowdy; or he’d drop off any kid who didn’t behave, and make them walk home. He even showed me where the bus driver used to live. He showed me where the school was. He told stories and I listened.
When we got out to the property, I told him how I remember walking across a broken bridge. The planks were missing and he had to carry me as he balanced on the beam. I remember my Mom being very afraid and I was very young. That was probably the last time I was there.
According to my Dad, one time there, when I was just a toddler, my Dad and a friend were down the creek shooting guns when he heard my Mom screaming. Scared, unsure of what happened, my Dad ran up the creek to my Mom. He thought maybe I’d fallen in the creek. He found my Mom where she’d fallen through the cattle guard, hanging onto my leg to keep me from falling into the creek.
We found my great-uncle Leslie’s old place, but my Dad was having trouble finding my grandparents’ place. I pointed out some rocks along the canyon walls and my Dad told me how their goats used to scramble up that rock face. That’s when he realized we had driven too far, and we turned around. The forest had grown and changed, there were more houses and hunting/fishing cabins had been built all around. The landmarks had changed, plus, he was 70 years older than when they moved to the Portland area.
Just then, as we drove, the landmarks started to come into focus. He recognized where their old barn used to sit beside the road. Then he saw the driveway and the bridge crossing the creek. “That used to be a footbridge” he told me. A lady was sitting in a chair, out in the warm afternoon sun, reading a book. My Dad told me to drive across the bridge and I did. She was living in a trailer on the property, but she told us to feel free to look around.
My Dad recognized the old pine tree that stood outside their backdoor. A large maple tree, with two of its three largest limbs broken, barely stood nearby. “That’s the tree we used to play in,” he told me. He pointed out other landmarks and I got out. It felts as if I were on holy ground.
As we drove up Highway 101 headed home, I learned that my grandfather worked on the original (and famous) Alsea Bay Bridge, built in 1936. Most of the time we drove in silence, and sometimes we’d tell little jokes or stories, but silence is usually the norm when I’m with my Dad. It’s easier in the car because the TV at his house doesn’t get in the way, or the playful chatter of my kids at my house. Plus, unlike a restaurant, we don’t have to look at each other in that silence.
I believe women don’t understand the silence men share. Like two old cowboys riding across the frontier, we don’t have to talk to be friends, and we don’t have to look at each other to talk. My Dad and I do well in the car. We stare out the window, share jokes or amusing observations, and occasionally, we really talk. It is rare, it isn’t deep, but it happens. I try to pay attention when it does. It happened a few times on the ride home.
One shameful topic came up several times, and he never admitted to anything, but I can’t imagine him sharing those stories if he wasn’t trying to unburden his heart a little. I didn’t press, he didn’t volunteer much, but I think I understand. Probably more than he knows.
We asked about each other’s old friends. I realize both of us are losing our old friends. It’s sad really, but it happens. It can be difficult for we men to make new ones. An article I read in the New York Times provided good insight into that.
“You have too much integrity. You can’t leave this stuff alone.”
I don’t know how it came up, or why, but at some point my Dad said, “You really got screwed by those guys.” He was referring to my termination three years ago.
“Yeah,” I replied. “But I’ve let go.”
It was about six months ago that I was able to shed the last of the hurt, resentment, and bitterness of my firing. I realize now that the people who wanted me gone were only acting out of their own pain. I realize that those who made the decision to terminate me were acting out of fear and ignorance. It wasn’t malicious. I just happened to get caught up in the storm. I’ve let it go.
That’s when my Dad dropped a bombshell of revelation on me. “Well,” he started, I let him know he screwed you.”
“Who!?” I wondered.
“The president. I went to see him.”
“What!? Really!? You went to see him!?” I was shocked! Amazed really. Almost speechless.
“Twice.” My Dad explained. “I really let him have it. I told him he was wrong. But I had to go back a second time to apologize for being rude.”
We both laughed – but I was shocked. I had no idea he’d done this. It doesn’t surprise me really, I just had no idea. My Dad has a long history of standing up for the underdogs in life. He has done battle with many giants, and he doesn’t back down.
I remember him running out onto the ice rink to confront a large player from the opposing hockey team. The player was on skates, but was already larger than my Dad, even without the skates. My Dad grabbed him by the jersey and let him know he wouldn’t tolerate this kid trying to hurt the smaller kids on our team. My Dad, in street shoes, and about 30 pounds lighter than this big kid, knew he’d bitten off more than he could handle, but he didn’t back down. The kid did though.
My Dad has mentored troubled kids for as long as I can remember. Many have gone on to have successful lives, good careers, wives, and children. My Dad was never afraid to buck the system, to stand for what he believes, and to rail against bullies and mediocrity. I come by all of this very honestly.
I told my Dad, “Your problem is you have too much integrity. You can’t leave this stuff alone. You’re my hero Dad.”
Somewhere during the day, I came to the conclusion that it was time to quit my job at AMR. My family is too important to stay at a place that is causing this much pain in our lives. I don’t know what’s next, but I know we’ll be OK. Our God, like my Dad, and the prodigal son’s father, will not abandon us.
During his sermon, my Dad gave an imaginative illustration, and I think he was talking to me. He said he imagined the actions of the father when his son decided to leave. He imagined the father telling his servants to make a new robe, a coat of many colors with the family crest sewn on it. He imagined the father telling the servants to make a ring, and some new sandals for his son, whom he knew would return. The father of the prodigal son, from my Dad’s perspective, never doubted that his son would return. I believe my Dad was saying that to me.
Several times in my life, I’ve turned my back on reality, and like my Dad when he was young, rebelled in unhealthy ways. Recently, I was quite angry with my Dad and didn’t talk to him for awhile. But I heard my Dad say that he never gave up on me. He always knew I’d return. And, like him, I have.
My Dad has always been my hero.