Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Daddy Baton

This past Fourth of July, I pulled a brave, if not insane, move. I voluntarily took all three kids on a six-hour road trip to visit my parents in North Carolina. Meanwhile, my wife, Meredith, stayed behind to take a few days to herself and get some projects done around the house. Fortunately, Meredith did help us pack. In fact, I believe she set a new world's record for speed loading a minivan. Carrying bag after bag from the house to our vehicle, she looked like a DVD on fast forward. The last time a woman in Atlanta loaded up her family's belongings that quickly, a general by the name of Sherman was right behind her yelling, "Burn it!" When the kids and I finally departed, we looked back to see Meredith waving from the open front door of our house, her face beaming with a look of jubilant liberation not seen since the fall of the Berlin Wall. As we headed over the crest of the hill, I'm pretty sure I heard KC and the Sunshine Band's "That's the Way (uh huh, uh huh), I Like It (uh huh, uh huh)" cranking from the CD player inside our house.

The trip had all the little challenges one would expect. There were the occasional arguments over who had what toy first, who got the bag with the most pretzels in it, and so on. William pounded me with the same question--"Are we there yet"--at least a thousand times as we made our way up the interstate and along back roads. And, of course, there was the joy of bathroom stops. Trying to help a three-year-old go potty in a public restroom while attempting to keep a two-year-old from sticking his hands in places even bacteria won't go is quite an undertaking. It's a lot like trying to block out for a rebound in basketball. You find yourself shifting from side-to-side with your back to the smaller child--your body being the only thing between him and a toilet that hasn't been cleaned since Clinton was president. Simultaneously, you try to help the older child pee in something made for a six-foot adult. The younger child tries to counter your every move, toddling back and forth, looking for an opening to the commode he's determined to investigate. All the while, you try to lift your other little man the extra inch he needs so that his pee will actually fly over the side of the toilet rather than hitting the edge and splattering all over the three of you. And if all that didn't create a tranquil enough atmosphere, a trucker named J.R. is in the adjoining stall, releasing odors that make you wonder if, perhaps, you haven't just located Saddam Hussein's missing weapons of mass destruction.

Despite the bathroom wars, occasional whining, and the challenges of keeping three little ones corralled at a fast food restaurant, the trip actually went very well. Emerson, William, and Carson were well-behaved (typical kids, but well-behaved). My brother and sister were both visiting with their families, which meant that my parents had all three kids and all six grandchildren under one roof at the same time. We went hiking, inner-tubed on the river, rode four-wheelers, roasted marshmallows, and watched fireworks on the Fourth of July. All in all, it was a fun week.

While I was there, my dad gave me something interesting. It was a typed copy of originally hand-written journal entries recorded by his father in 1944. My grandfather wrote about his time in the army during World War II. He described much of the training he underwent as "hell." He wrote about how glad he was to see his wife and kids on leave. He described his time in England, just before D-day. Finally, he wrote about landing at Omaha Beach and the horrors he witnessed in combat as he and his brothers in arms fought their way through France. In a time I've only read about, under conditions I can't begin to imagine, my grandfather wrote:

"We were in enemy territory... we were pushing them (the Germans) back slowly all the time... they were taking awfully bad losses with horrible sights that we could see along the way. Sights too horrible to mention. Some were French civilians who were unable to leave their homes and towns in time... killed in the wreckage... It was an awful sight which I hope I never have to experience again... For several nights after I couldn't sleep, for I was still seeing those sights and fighting those horrible battles in my dreams. No one will ever be able to understand just how it is or how a fella feels... for it is too horrible to be understood... There were some terrible sights. My sympathy is with each and everyone on the front lines, for if they are on the front with any infantry division they are catching plenty of hell."

I never knew my grandfather; he died before my parents were even married. But as I sat quietly on my parent's couch late one night after everyone was in bed, reading these words, it made me think about what kind of man my grandfather must have been. What did the world look like to him and the other fathers of his generation? I cannot imagine what it must have been like to live through the things he saw in WWII. I have no idea how such an experience affects a person. I can't begin to appreciate the sacrifices my grandfather made. Not only did many of his generation cross oceans to fight wars on foreign soil, but prior to that they struggled through the Great Depression to feed, clothe, and house their families. They fought for their country, yes. But more than that, they fought for their families. It was, no doubt, my father and his siblings for whom my grandfather valiantly marched into battle. It was, I'm sure, my grandmother's face he saw during those rare times when the fighting ceased and he had a moment to remember why he was going through "hell." For all the times my grandfather wrote about the horrors and hardships of war, I've not seen where he wrote anything about regretting his decision to go. I guess that was because of what and who he was defending.

My father also gave me a box of old family photos he'd set aside for me. Many of them pictured me as a small child or my father as a young man. These, too, made me think. I thought about my own father and how much I'm growing to appreciate the challenges and concerns that, no doubt, dogged him from time to time as he worked and struggled (along with my mother) to provide our family with a loving and secure home. Now that I'm a dad, I can understand and appreciate all the things he did for us much more than I once did.

It's funny, when you're a little child (about the age of my kids) your dad is your hero for things that he's really not. You think he's invincible. You think he can beat up any other guy in the world. You think he's superhuman. As you get older, you come to realize that this simply isn't the case. But when you grow up, your dad becomes your hero again--only this time, it's for the things he really is: a man who provided, spent time with you, shielded you from all the stresses he and your mom must have felt concerning money, job, health issues, and so on. As a father, yourself, you finally understand how hard it is to make your kids feel completely safe in a turbulent, unpredictable, and insecure world. A dad may not be strong enough to beat up every other guy around, but it takes an incredible amount of strength to spend time playing and laughing in the backyard with your children when, all the while, you're not sure how you're going to pay all of next month's bills.

Reading my grandfather's journal and looking at those photos made me think about time. I realized, if only for a few moments, how fast time flies. There was a time when my grandfather was a young man in the army. There was a time when my dad was just a young father trying to figure out how to take care of three small children. There was a time when all I cared about was playing Spiderman in my parents' backyard. It seems like just yesterday I was sharing a room with my older brother in our little house in Kernersville, North Carolina, riding my bike to school in Wilmington, or keeping a watchful eye to make sure that no one bothered my little sister on her first day of junior high school. Now I'm the young dad (or, at least, relatively young). I'm the one trying to make sure my kids feel safe, secure, and loved no matter what happens in life. Just like my grandfather and father no doubt did, I occasionally have my moments after the kids are in bed or when it's just Meredith and I when I feel like the world is caving in on me. I need my times to think, pray, run my hands through my hair, and just try to deal with the pressures of life. But overall, life is good. Moving too fast, perhaps, but good.

And so, the daddy baton is passed from generation to generation. The circumstances may be different. For my grandfather, it was a depression, a war, and the rise of a new world order that included nuclear weapons, the cold war, and the US as a world power. For my father, it was the social turbulence of the sixties and seventies, the nation's loss of trust in a government that bungled Vietnam, and the feelings of disappointment following Watergate. But whatever the external differences, the challenges of fatherhood remain fairly consistent. We, as dads, see ourselves as the protectors of our families. We seek to shield and take care of our little ones. Regardless of how insecure and afraid we might sometimes feel, we are bound and determined to make sure our kids feel safe and secure. And, just like my grandfather, we'll walk through "hell" to do it.

So here's to all the fathers, past and present, who have cared enough to lay down their lives (often in quiet, unnoticed ways) to protect, defend, and shelter their children. Brave and usually unsung heroes, we dads gladly sacrifice whatever is necessary for the benefit of our families. We're content with the fact that our sons and daughters don their walls with pictures of sports heroes and favorite stars rather than pics of their "old man." We even accept the fact that after all the games of football and catch in the backyard, it's the words "Hi, Mom" that they'll mouth into the television camera after they score the winning touchdown or the final goal. We don't do all that we do for our kids for accolades; we do it because we love our little ones more than life itself.

I guess what I'm saying is, "Thank you, Pappy." I never knew you, but the sacrifices you made for my dad were ultimately for me and my kids as well. And thanks, Pop, for all the little things (and the big ones) you did and continue to do for me. I'm sure that when I was little there were occasionally tough times, but I didn't know it because I was too busy having fun, feeling loved, and believing that all was right with my little world. And now it's my turn. God-willing, I'll never have to fight in a war like my grandfather. But, just like my dad, I hope and pray that I stand ready to do whatever it takes to provide my kids with everything they need emotionally as well as materially. My hope is that, one day, my kids and grand kids will look back on old pictures or read my old journals and feel the same sense of gratitude and responsibility that I feel. But for now, I hope they just have a blast riding their bikes, sharing a room, or playing Spiderman in the backyard.

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