I would carry all the traps in a large basket strapped to my back. Dad, wearing hip waders, would forge into the canal, pond, or stream to set or retrieve said traps. We always did it in winter, that’s when the beaver or muskrat’s fur was thickest. We would set them on a Friday and then wake up at an unreasonable, and cold, hour the next morning to see what we caught. I was gifted a small but very sharp pocket knife, given some instructions, and then it was my job to skin our catch. The furs were sold at the end of the season and my brother and I got to keep our share of the take.
I don’t remember us talking much on those trips, but I do remember watching my own breath, watching the whole sky full of sparrows, and watching Dad up to his thighs in icy water bending a steel trap over his leg.
In 9th grade all the other kids on the team were wearing new cleats, black Nike Sharks. They cost $60. Practice began in August so mid July Dad started bringing me with him to the school every morning. He cut the plywood and set it up on the chalk board, propped up by the chalk tray. He would hand me a small Xeroxed image for reference, then go off to cut out the lettering while I painted the images, a Kearns Cougar, Taylorsville Warrior, Brighton Bengal. By the start of football season I had my cleats and the money for dues. Better than that, any time I visited Hillcrest High School’s gym I could look up at the wall and think to myself, “I did those.”
He used to tell stories, lots of stories. He told me all about Switzerland where he was a missionary. The Swiss thought corn was pig food and would jeeringly give it to the two American kids for free. He told about riding rickety bikes on cobblestones and the respect our last name garnered from the locals who still remembered the English general. He told me about getting drafted when he returned home and spending the next few years at the Berlin Wall watching rabbits try to cross the mine field and listening to boring East German radio transmissions.
I remember him saying repeatedly that he had never been bored and had no patience for his children complaining that they were. “If you can’t find something to do it is your own fault; no you cannot watch TV.” We did watch TV though; all the family in the living room, in front of the home’s only set. We, the kids, would watch the Cosby Show while he would sit and engrave powder horns or Walrus tusks.
Every morning at 6am sharp my lights would turn on. “Scriptures”, the voice would say as I cringed awake and drug myself upstairs to the breakfast table where the whole family would take turns reading a verse till we had finished a chapter. Then we would all kneel in prayer, and Dad would go out the door to school. We did not miss church. I repeat, we did not miss church. Once we were camping over the weekend at the Cache Valley Rendezvous. I’m not sure if it was a packing oversight or some communication error, but the lack of white shirt and tie did not stop Dad, and by association the rest of us, from being on time to church. We drove down into town and all six kids, plus Mom, took up a whole row while wearing buck skins and moccasins. We even stayed for Sunday School.
I used to doodle during church. I remember one day I drew a forest filled with soldiers and tanks. The detail on every tree and rifle was inspiring. As always I proudly showed my father who looked at it and said, “It’s nice but the trees look like lollipops. Have you ever seen a tree that looks like a lollipop?” When we got home he sat me on the back porch and asked me to look at the peach tree and draw it how it looked in real life. I think I was seven.
He was a scoutmaster for nine years. That is a long time. All of my suburban friends were terrified of the bearded mountain man and to some extent so was I. He never raised a hand to me, or to them, but he held the bar high. Rules were to be kept, expectations were to be met, and he was usually the one playing the pranks at night; rocks under bedrolls, tent stakes removed, and never a word about it the next morning.
I remained afraid of him till I left the house as a missionary. In my youthful shortsightedness all I really saw were expectations and rules, I never really saw him. During all those years when I was small, I’m not sure he was really there. I remember the first time I really saw him.
I came home from school for a weekend to do laundry. Mom had been out of town all week and was set to return the next day. Dad was just coming inside from mowing the lawn and when I looked past him out the sliding glass doors, I could see that he had just mowed the words, “I love you,” into the grass. He had missed her. It was the first time I appreciated his feelings completely separate from myself. This wasn’t a lesson he was teaching me, he wasn’t showing off, he just really wanted his wife to know she was missed. He wasn’t being Dad, just being himself. I’ve gotten to know him better since I left the house. I have gotten to know him for his own sake and not simply as a reaction to me. I like him.
The older I get and the farther I get from all those lessons, the more I appreciate them. I appreciate more all the work it took to be what he knew I needed, as opposed to just being himself.
Now I find myself unable to watch TV without sketching or writing. I made my daughter draw a tree. I told my wife the story about the old Indian named Falling Rock whom the soldiers could never catch, resulting in all the warning signs along the road you see while driving through the canyons. I email him photos of all my paintings hoping for a helpful critique and find myself frustrated if he simply says he likes it. I
have been my own man for some years now; I’m finally past the threshold where people stop calling you young. He is old now (wink), wears hearing aids, and questions my politics. I only see him a few times a year, if that, yet every day, no matter what my task or thought, he is there.
I crave his approval like a drug. I have looked at other parents and parenting styles, but mostly I want to pattern mine after him. It is a hard standard to live up to and I so desperately hope I can. I love my children and they deserve a father like the one I had. I’m not sure how success in this realm is measured but I can hope. I can hope that by the time my children reach the age I am now, that they will love me as much as I love my Dad today.