What exactly defines the good father? Is it that they are morally perfect? That they inculcate these morals into their children? That they are present at sports games and formative life moments? Is the good father also a good husband? Does there have to be a punchlist of what it means to be a “good father?”
Much of it boils down to what we choose to remember of our own fathers. I can recall my father being decidedly imperfect. If there was a punchlist, he would not have hit all the marks.
However, I have my own criteria — as I believe we all do.
Moments stick into my mind — the defining moments.
Every night, my father would climb the sixteen stairs to my room, after my mother had done our prayers with me, and sit on the bed, and tell me stories. Stories of his father — the tall doctor and World War II veteran who I would never know in person, but could meet through my own father’s words. Stories of growing up in the 1940s and ’50s, of travel, of pranks, of love, and of loss. Stories of football and snowball fights and summer days on a lake. Stories of family, of belief, and of righteousness. As he talked, the world around me formed. Stories formed the basis for what I knew of the world, and storytelling was thus given to me as a gift.
In the evenings, we would sit together and watch old black and white comedies on our little television: Laurel and Hardy, the Keystone Cops, Abbot and Costello. Or war movies, where I learned that John Wayne only has a limited number of lines he uses and never likes to buckle the chin strap on his helmet. We watched Gettysburg, The Longest Day, and Tora, Tora, Tora so many times that I think we wore out the VHS tapes. And we watched football, where I learned that it is okay to turn off the television when the score on the Ohio State game gets so close that it makes you swear. We watched documentaries – on the Civil War, presidents, baseball (basically the whole Ken Burns repertoire). And then this was the man who was surprised when I enlisted into the military. Obviously, my mother was not — mothers are seldom surprised, I’ve found.
He would quiz me on geography, pulling out the large atlas under his chair in the living room and demanding to know why I did not know more about the layout of, say, eastern Europe, or South America. He would quote lines from James Thurber at me, in a deep chuckle (and still does), as if simply the memory of Ohio’s greatest author were enough to cause joy in anyone. He taught me how to gently place fragile vegetable seedlings into the ground — after they had germinated in trays, usually placed in the oven for warmth, to my mother’s delight, I’m sure. He taught me how the earth was made of soil, not dirt. He taught me that when one finds an insect in the house, one carefully removes it to the outdoors. Ditto for an insect upside down in the water. He taught me that kindness begins with how we treat the lowliest of those around us.
Yes, I could also sit here and recall all those things that I took from him as things not to be emulated. And to be sure, that list is fairly long. But who among as does not have that list about their own self? None of us are perfect, by any means. And so I take those gifts my father gave me and cherish them. Someday perhaps I can pass them on to my own children, but for now, I use them on the dozens of children the Army has given me. For there is nothing so much like being a parent as being a company commander.
So, with my soldiers, I use what my father taught me. That storytelling helps you communicate with your soldiers in a way that they will remember. That knowledge is to be valued and prized — and shared. And that kindness can open more doors than being a strict taskmaster.
Does this mean that he was a good father? Who even knows. But to me, he gave me priceless gifts that cannot be matched by anyone else in this world. And for that, I will be eternally grateful.
Happy Father’s Day.
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About the Author: Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He writes at The Angry Staff Officer. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare.
Cover image: Senior Airman Edduard, a 49th Maintenance Squadron aircraft structural maintenance technician from Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., holds his son, June 15, in the backyard of his home in Alamogordo, N.M. Edduard returned home from a deployment tour less than a week before his son was born. (Last names are being withheld due to operational requirements. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Eboni Prince)