I’ve known him all my life. Always he’s been there, around the edges and sometimes right in the middle of memory. Sometimes swinging an axe, other times sitting behind a cheap desk smiling at me with those perfectly even white teeth. Those preternaturally blue eyes. Later I think of him drinking an amber beer. The same kind I drink.
I know he was there before, but my earliest memory of him begins when I was four. I’ve seen pictures–my soft brown curls, blue-green eyes. In this memory, I suspect they are sparkling with anticipation, because I know a delicious secret. Beside me, my mom in a long black dress. In front of us, a long wooden casket. My dad’s coffin.
The visitors file in, groups of two or three at a time. They say a few words to my mom, compliment her on her outfit. Ask about my dad. Then meander to the refreshments and stand in groups, talking. They are talking about their day, about tonight, about my dad. But mostly just talking.
I know he is here. Waiting. I smile.
Then someone sits on the coffin. And I start to laugh. Because here he comes.
The lady on the coffin jumps and looks behind her, her eyes wide. She has heard something. Felt something. My laughter increases as she backs away from the coffin and clutches her husband’s hand, her knuckles white, her mouth open halfway between a scream and a hysterical laugh. The coffin is opening. A pale hand reaches out and clutches the edge and a moment later, there he is, sitting up and glaring at the visitors with a baleful eye. Dracula.
He wasn’t always this way. Scaring people. Although I do think it was a large part of his job description. He certainly scared me often enough. But he could also be jovial, smiling and laughing. That was, after all, the whole point of the Dracula escapade–to make people laugh. When they got done screaming.
We had spent weeks preparing for that Halloween party, the ghost that swooped down on the visitors, the bowls full of “brains” and the apparitions that haunted the passage to the party room. Most of those memories center around my mom, the witch in the long black dress and the pointy hat, the one with the cackling laugh and the frighteningly creative ideas. Dad only arrives at that pivotal moment, that dramatic “Gotcha!” instant.
I think that’s probably how it often is with dads. They’re gone 40 hours a week or more (always more in my dad’s case), working to support their families. To a child with a stay-at-home mother, this looks like the mom is the center of the universe, and the dad just shows up for the big important stuff, swooping in from the periphery to provide special effects. As a result, he gets to be the Knight in Shining Armor, and also the Enforcer.
Dad was good at the Enforcer role. He was strict, stern, and no-nonsense. We wore shirts and shoes to the dinner table, ate everything on our plates, and never talked back to Mom (ahem, within his earshot). If we complained about something on the dinner table, we got more of it. If he arrived at a party to take us home, all he had to do was hook his finger at us and we were up and out of there.
One time, he beat a 400-pound crazed male llama to death with a baseball bat and then slaughtered it with a butcher knife and put it up in our freezer for Mom to turn into chili and hamburgers.
He was a colonel in the U.S. Air Force and it wasn’t just his subordinates who called him “sir.”
So who was the guy standing out by our old Peugot with a rifle in his hands, crying and shook up so bad he couldn’t shoot a dog? That was my dad too. I was eight, and our big dog, Diana the Huntress, had been hit by a car for the second time in several weeks. The first time, we had the vet stitch her up. The second time, the damage was too extensive. I was in the kitchen pacing the tiles in a square and thinking. Thinking about my big, tough dad out there crying. Waiting for the sound of the shot that would signal it was over.
The shot never came. After a very long time, Dad’s footsteps sounded in the doorway and he came into the kitchen and looked past Mom and shook his head. It’s too late, he said. She’s already gone.
This is the same man who drove two hours to a specialized vet to save a baby llama when I was a teenager. And the one who wrote an essay about my cat when she died. The cat he pretended to hate while she was living. Also the same man who graduated at the top of flight school and could have chosen to fly anything he wanted for the Air Force. Who chose to fly boring cargo planes instead of fun, glamorous fighter jets, not because he was afraid–not my dad!–but because my mom was pregnant with her first child and he didn’t want to leave his son an orphan.
Nevertheless, for most of my childhood I stood in extreme awe of my dad. And also in love with him, in that young-girl way where I hoped viciously that my future husband would be as handsome and charming and intelligent as my Daddy. If there is one thing he didn’t do very well, however, it was letting me know that he was proud of me. OH how I wanted him to be proud of me.
I remember after a mock trial competition in which I had shined in glory and absolutely trounced our rivals, that one of the other dads came up to me with an enormous grin and kissed me loudly and enthusiastically on the forehead. For weeks, I thought about how much I wished it had been MY dad who had given me that victory kiss.
So perhaps that’s why this particular memory sticks in my mind so heavily. I had gone on a youth trip at the age of 18 to Honduras, where we had been doing mission work. The leader of the group was a young preacher who, in my young estimation, was a complete and bumbling idiot. Mom and Dad had also clashed with him over a wide variety of church issues, and during the course of the trip I found many occasions to take issue with him.
Upon our return, I stood beside Dad’s car and listened to the preacher telling him that I obviously had “no respect for authority.” Dad never flinched. He stood there and nodded once. He looked away briefly, and then returned his gaze to the preacher’s. “Well,” he said in a perfectly level tone, “You’ll find that my daughter’s a lot like me. She knows quite well how to show healthy respect for authority when the authority is deserved.”
I have never forgotten that moment, in all my life.
For all his sternness, when it came down to it, he was also my Knight in Shining Armor. And he was right, of course, on all counts. I am a lot like him. I do know how to show respect for authority. I know how to show respect ANYWHERE it’s due. And I’m pretty discerning about where that is.
He taught me how important it is especially to respect those closest to us. I remember at the age of five that Mom and Dad had an argument ending with Dad holding a newspaper up in front of his face and proceeded to not speak for several minutes. And I remember thinking the End had Come because THAT was the largest show of animosity I ever saw between my parents. And it only ever happened once.
Dad didn’t read Playboy (Mom knows this because she used to surprise him in the barber shop where the guys all gathered to have their hair cut and to read girly mags, and he’d always be sitting in the barber chair reading Field and Stream), and he didn’t talk down to her. They made decisions as a team, and Dad enthusiastically supported all my mom’s craziness–like raising llamas, running country stores, and throwing wild Halloween parties. I deeply suspect he found them all as amusing as she did, but they always seemed to me like her projects, and he the cheerful supporting partner.
When Dad retired from the Air Force, he and Mom moved to 35 acres in Colorado, where they still live. He took a second Master’s in counseling (his first was in International Relations) and then a doctorate in psychology. He works with sex offenders, providing them that tough mix of compassion, intelligence, no-nonsense and toughness I grew up with, and that they so desperately need. Mom took a Master’s in counseling and they practice together part-time, driving down to Colorado Springs regularly from the enormous house they built by hand on their property. Mom learned to shoot, and they have target practice on their frozen pond in the winter. He taught me to shoot down there on the pond too.
Dad is still kind of scary. I don’t think he plays Dracula at Halloween any more, but I’m sure he still could. His eyes are steel-blue now instead of piercing blue, and they don’t have that same extraordinary sharpness that once earned him the nickname of “Eagle Eye.” But he still sees more than most people, and I don’t just mean with his eyes. Also, I know now just how proud of me he is. And those two things–how much he sees, and how much he sees IN ME. Well, those two things make me awfully glad he’s my Dad.
Dad and me ... and Monty and Eli and Everett ... on Everett Ridge, Christmas 2009
Happy Birthday, Dad. And of course: Happy Halloween. I love you.