My youngest child is now twelve. I was fifty when she was born, a child of my second marriage. There are six preceding her ranging in age from forty-six down to the twelve-year-old. The forty-six year-old was one of the unaccompanied minors out of Vietnam in 1975; that puts me at twenty-eight with an eleven-year-old who didn’t speak any English other than “hello” and “no sweat.” The youngest still at home, as I best recall, was born talking in complete sentences, a vocabulary replete with “I want everything,” which, naturally, I have tried my best to accommodate. Were she your child, you’d do the same.
A child at fifty almost made me a geezer dad. That’s a guy who heads for the store for Pampers, becomes confused, and returns with Depends. It’s a lame joke, but the bemusement, almost edging to embarrassment, of becoming a fifty-year-old dad was real. It wore off, though, swiftly replaced with unreasoning outrage when once mistaken for her grandfather. I know, yes, yes. At fifty I was old enough to be her grandfather, but that’s not the point, now is it?
I’m a good dad, by the way. I changed diapers on them all, save the eldest, of course, and took my turn walking them at night when they were colic. I provided a “learning enriched” home environment”maps pasted on the wall for quick geography lessons, books galore, exotic learning toys (which, except for the robot that chased the dog, never seem to work quite as well as advertised). I fed them, watered them, and took them on winter hikes and ignored complaints about how cold it was.
I made them watch every history program that ever showed up on PBS, gave them suggested reading lists, even read Green Eggs and Ham to them when they were little, and made sure we always had a dog in the house, plus assorted shelf pets. Under my care my children successfully raised a baby swallow, an orphaned robin, and nursed a wounded pigeon to health. We provided hospice for a dove, incurred a fifty dollar veterinary bill for a squirrel, and went to the Grand Canyon.
I’m not a self-taught dad. What I know as a successful father with the younger children yet at home, I learned almost exclusively by correcting the mistakes I made with the older children now out on their own. This, at least, is what the older ones tell me.
But I also had my own dad for a model. Frankly, a lot of that was negative example. If Dad did it, I vowed I would not; or if he didn’t, I would. That’s glib, and also very wrong as I reflect. Matters between father and son, parent and child, are rarely that neat. My father”who turns eighty nine next month”is a product of his generation, a Depression-era childhood and a World War II draftee; a white man in a 1950s union through the Civil Rights movement, getting ahead on union scale.
Three things I recall. Little League baseball, for instance. I hated baseball; I wasn’t any good at it. Fortunately my entire time was out in left field where nothing was much expected. Dad would sometimes umpire. When I got to bat while he umpired, I had three automatic strikes; just take an out and wave up the next batter. If the pitch went wild toward Oklahoma, I had a strike. If it went north toward Nebraska, I had a strike. If it plopped down nine feet in front of the plate and never budged another inch, I had a strike. That’s not fair, I said. “It’s not,” he agreed. “But nobody will say you got a walk just because I let you. You swing and try to get a hit. Maybe you miss, but it’ll be honest, and if you do hit it, you did it all yourself.” I’d hit very few”hardly ever”but I did swing more.
My father inherited all the racial prejudices of his generation. I cannot actually describe it as racism, certainly not a virulent sort. I never heard any conversation about keeping them in their place, just away from his union. His prejudice was merely an undifferentiated feeling the races should not mix, combined with a rock-certain conviction that every black man in America personally wanted to break into his union and take his job away. On the other hand, there was Ralph, a black employee up at the lumberyard. Dad wouldn’t deal with anyone but Ralph. Ralph knew his stuff and knew it better than any white man in the business.
In the mid-1960s Ralph had an eleven-year-old boy, old enough for Boy Scouts. Dad, who was the troop committee chairman, told Ralph to get the kid in Scouts. There’s no colored Scout troop in town, Ralph pointed out. He can join ours, said my father, and so the boy did.
That was how Boy Scout Troop 85 became the first racially integrated troop in my hometown, and not without static from the hitherto racially exclusive church that sponsored our troop. Dad handled that, too, but I never learned how. I doubt his prejudices have entirely changed, even with two biracial great-grandchildren in the family. But, just like he knew and trusted Ralph individually, so he knows these kids as his own. Every other minority is in a group out there someplace. As undifferentiated as his prejudice is, and as irritating as I yet find it, his trust and respect, even his love, is to the person he knows.
Dad started life on a tenant farm in Kansas. He’s worked his whole life, hard, demanding, physical work, and never got beyond tenth grade. But the work he did was skilled. When I was in my early twenties, he took a welding test for a job with a nuclear power plant. He was given a 4x4x9-inch chunk of steel almost cut in half by a broad “v” so deep you could flex it. His test was to fill the cut with layer on layer of welding seams, grind and polish it smooth, and then it would be x-rayed. If the x-ray exposed any bubbles along the layers or within the seams, indicating an incomplete weld, he wouldn’t get the job.
He got the job. He showed the finished length of steel to me with some pride. For the first time in my life I was frankly astonished by the work my dad did more than astonished, I shared his pride.
Until then what he did seemed common, and I suppose common is still the word. But after hefting that heavy steel in my hands, examining it this way and that and admiring its apparent seamlessness, I came to appreciate in a way I never had before how my dad and so many guys like him did and continue to do common work so uncommonly well.
Did my dad teach me any lasting lessons? I suppose so, but mostly I think we all have to stumble our own way, find our own lessons. I did not raise my children the way I was raised. My earlier rule probably isn’t a bad one if our children want to improve on the parenting we gave them. But I do know, my dad never cut me any slack, he stood up for Ralph and his boy, and his skill in welding was a thing of wonder.
He wasn’t the perfect dad, but then I wasn’t the perfect son. For dads like him and me and now my sons, each of us far from perfection, challenging children to their best effort, standing up if only once in a life at the right time for the right thing, and looking with pride at what our work has done, maybe that’s enough for any son to remember and for any father to achieve.
Russell E. Saltzman, who recently completed a sabbatical as associate editor of First Things , is pastor of Ruskin Heights Lutheran Church in Kansas City, Missouri.