Today is my Dad’s 70th birthday, and he’s awesome. He can build or fix anything under the sun. He’s got kickass stories of his youth in the 1950s of the crazy crap he and his brothers pulled in small town North Dakota. His humor is dry but his temper is level. And his patience for me was infinite.
But he didn’t work 9 to 5. He hasn’t traveled the world. We didn’t toss the baseball around before dinner every night. He didn’t teach me how to shave. He didn’t buy me my first car or drop me off at college. We didn’t fish together, hunt together, camp together, or do most things that fathers and sons typically do. But despite all the things my Dad and I didn’t do, he has been the most influential person of my life.
- Dad put me on my first tractor, steering through the family potato field with him bouncing along behind, trying desperately to guide the one-horse plow that was chained to the bumper.
- Dad put me on my first riding lawn mower. Minutes later I slipped off the brake pedal, ran over my own foot, and cut completely through my work boot, shaving a small sliver of skin from the big toe of my right foot. He never panicked, but calmly told me to go in the house and change boots. (Then mom found out and hit the roof.)
- Dad put me on my fist three-wheeler. I was giving my sister a ride and promptly ran straight through the garden and over the tomatoes. He calmly told me I was done riding for the day and to get off the three-wheeler. (Then mom found out and hit the roof.)
- Folks get divorced. Dad drives mom and the three youngest kids to Washington State. I never hear him complain or argue or get upset. Mom is just plain mean through the entire evolution.
- Dad shows up on our doorstep in Washington, takes my sister and I back to North Dakota for the summer. I miss Boy Scout Camp. I am extremely butt-hurt, to the point of tears, but oddly harbor no hard feelings.
- Back on the three-wheeler again, I ride off the road and dislocate both hips. I thrash on the ground for a bit and pop them back into place. Dad knows nothing of this, but simply asks me what took so long to get home when I come limping back. I lie.
- Dad shows up on our doorstep in Washington, this time to move be back to North Dakota after I spend some time behind bars. He says two words to me, “I’m disappointed’” and drops the subject of my criminal past.
- He lets me drive in Montana despite the poor weather, and I damn near wreck the 1988 Oldsmobile Delta 98 when I swerve to miss a tumbleweed. “Well, as least we know the roads aren’t icy,” is all he says and I keep driving. (Mom would have hit the roof had she found out.)
- Dad hands me the keys to the pickup, points me to a stubble field (a harvested wheat field), and says “Practice.”
- That winter I get in a snowboard accident in the rocky hills near our farm. The muscles surrounding my right elbow are torn from the bone. With no insurance, Dad takes me to the doctor and I get x-rays and a sling. I can’t straighten my arm for four months.
- I dislocate my right hip in a football game. Dad takes me to the chiropractor who says I should never play football again. One week later I suit up and Dad supports the decision.
- Dad’s 18th birthday/graduation present to me is a No Fear t-shirt that reads “If you’re not living on the edge, then you’re taking up too much space.” Dad says it’s because I always say “Come on Dad, you gotta live on the edge!”
- That fall, I announce I’m going to college. I can see the hurt in his eyes not because I’m going, but because I’m leaving.
- I announce my plans to join the Marine Corps. Dad is supportive as always, but not in a cheesy, obligatory way.
- I call Dad from a rooftop satellite phone in Fallujah, Iraq. Midway through the conversation, bombs explode and I have to go. Dad tells me to let him know how things turn out.
As I sit here and list all the ways Dad as affected my life, I realize he was as untraditional a dad as dad’s can be. Yet somehow I learned that humility, a hard day’s work, and perseverance are foundations of an honest life. I have his eyes, his hands, and his love for tinkering, his sense of humor, but thankfully not his tan.
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