5 Things I Learned from My Dad

Last Sunday, we celebrated Father’s Day, a day I’ll admit to having a difficult relationship with. For most of my life, my father was either deployed, we lived apart, or he vacationed in Gettysburg on Father’s Day. As a result, we have no traditions: we don’t brunch nor catch a ballgame nor do we picnic. I think we both feel uneasy about the societal pressure placed on celebrating the “normal” father-child relationship.

I used to feel angry about not having a dad who was around to attend events, who would show up at my new house to help get me settled, or who would jump at the chance to babysit his grandsons. But that’s just not who my dad is. Once I came to understand and appreciate him all he has taught me, our relationship shifted. The funny thing is he hasn’t really changed. I have.

My dad is one of my heroes. I’m glad we have our own version of “normal” because he’s taught me important lessons. Among these are:

  1. Debby and her brother John in Yosemite National Park, 1968.

    Read the trail markers — and the signs. My parents took me tent camping for the first time before I was six-months-old. We camped all over the country, from the Everglades to Yosemite and the Poconos (our favorite park was Promised Land State Park). I learned to read trail markers before I could read books, and the smell of a campfire still brings a smile to my face. Being in nature, in the mountains and forest, hiking over fallen trees and fording streams is something that always reminds me of my dad. Some of our best stories come from camping, like the time we were the first people in Yosemite after the spring thaw. My dad selected a good spot for our campsite, carefully situating us between run-off gullies. After we’d gone to bed, another family arrived and set up camp—in the dark, right in one of those ditches. There was a tremendous thunderstorm in the night, a real “gully washer.” We awoke to sounds of cursing and crying drowning out the sound of the storm. My dad peered through the flaps of our canvas tent to see a man stuffing an entire tent, poles still inserted, into the back of a station wagon before careening off down the mountain. Whenever my dad recounts this story, he chuckles a little. I know he feels bad for the mystery family and their circumstances, but his message to us was clear: you have to read both the obvious and the subtle signs in order to be successful. Where you pitch your tent matters.

  2. Life may be tough, but there’s always time to laugh. I grew up under modest circumstances and I knew my father did, too. He was born in 1940. Once his father re-upped to join the Pacific fleet in World War II, his own mother placed my dad in an orphanage. My great-aunt located my dad and made him her temporary ward for a short time. I still don’t know the entire story, but I can only imagine how this topsy-turvy early life impacted my dad’s sense of self and security. Yet, somehow he’s always got a twinkle in his eye and is up to some mischief. For example, croquet at our family barbecues involves a lot of laughing and looks like something out of Calvin and Hobbes. One of my vivid childhood memories involves wicked water battles against several of our California neighbors instigated by can you guess? — my dad. This war included hoses, strategically placed buckets, and kids used as shields. My heart palpitates recalling our handsome neighbor lifting me up to protect himself from my dad’s onslaught. I recall the pin-like cool of the water squirting from the hose onto my bare legs. Squeals of laughter echo in my ears. I secretly love it when one of my sons gets into mischief, is caught, and his response is, “I have to tell Pop-pop” knowing my dad would be proud. (I often thought J.K. Rowling’s Marauder’s Map would be an excellent gift for my dad. Mischief managed.)
  3. My dad as a Union Solider with the Bucktail Brigade, Brandywine Reenactment, 1993.

    When you love something, jump in all the way. I’ve always been a history geek. In elementary school, I read every biography I could put my hands on about our founding fathers. The American Revolution fascinated me. (I still have a crush on Benjamin Franklin.) Imagine my delight when the Bicentennial celebrations began and my dad, stationed by then at Norfolk, arranged for us to visit Williamsburg, VA. I was in heaven! Tri-corner hats, muskets, peanut soup. The blistering heat didn’t even faze me. He raised the bar even further when he took us to tour the covered wagons at Valley Forge. It was around this time that my dad learned he, too, loved history. He bought a metal detector and we’d scavenge for coins and musket balls. I remember that summer as a happy one: of time spent together, exploring and delighting in discovery. Several years later, my dad’s passion moved past the Revolution and onto the Civil War. He’s been reenacting as both a Union and, occasionally, a Rebel soldier since the 1980s. Gettysburg is his area of expertise, and he continues to spend many hours there, walking the battlefields, learning. If you want to know any of the strategies, who was where when, how the battle was won, my dad can tell you. He even wrote a novel based upon a time-traveling reenactor!

  4. My dad’s Navy enlistment photo, 1958.

    Adventure awaits — take loads of pictures. My dad joined the Navy at eighteen years old. He’s traveled around the globe and crossed the equator several times. (There’s some disgusting Navy ritual the first time one crosses the equator involving trash and kissing a fat guy’s belly.) I loved receiving his blue air-mail letters, posted from Singapore, Cambodia, Greece, Italy, Scotland, Turkey, and France, to name a few. He would also send packages which contained wonderful gifts from the countries he visited. I loved the red silken pajamas from Japan with golden toggles to close up the top and the set of Greek dolls dressed in traditional clothing. But it was his photographs I eagerly awaited because he had a way of capturing on film the essence of a place. The Parthenon at sunset and the mighty Colosseum solidified themselves in my brain, making me a traveler long before I applied for my first passport. There were photos of elephants tromping in the mud and cobras rising from woven baskets before turbaned flutists. His life seemed so magical and, well, different than the one we were living while we awaited his return. I remember sitting transfixed as we went through his pictures, listening to the stories he recounted. I yearned to see the world because of him.

  5. Family history matters. My dad researched our family’s genealogy doggedly, often hitting walls he couldn’t figure out how to scale. Names were changed, misspelled, or flat-out wrong. Dates and places were approximated. Myths had been fabricated to hide the family shame. None of these road-blocks stopped him. He wrote letters, sent emails, visited places, accumulating along the way reams of paper from the National Archives. He contacted distant relatives to score copies of fuzzy photographs (along the way solving the mystery of an alleged “horse thief” who turned out instead to be a polygamist). He discovered Civil War heroes and a veteran, much to his delight. Carefully recorded details he provided to me so I could build our family tree, augmenting it with birth and death certificates, census records, and gravestone photos. We’ve compiled a living legacy and it’s been a joy to share this passion with him, to find joy in solving mysteries together.

A few years ago, my dad gifted cardboard boxes to my brother and I. They were each jam-packed with photographs, letters, and newspaper clippings. Sifting through the gems in my box, I’ve uncovered fascinating tidbits about long-forgotten aunts and uncles. Photographs of my grandfather at Pearl Harbor are among my favorites. Slowly, I’ve been digitizing the photographs not only for preservation purposes but also to more readily share them with my family. The first monumental task was getting them organized.

Are you interested in exploring the lessons you’ve learned from your dad? Let’s meet for a virtual coffee date!



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