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A Father’s Day Tribute

Posted on June 20, 2015 by Blake Leath

Though I perceive it’s somewhat unusual for siblings to see eye-to-eye on many issues, it has long been my understanding that Tracy and I agree on most hot-potatoes like religion, politics and pop-culture, our one brief kerfuffle regarding Tom Cruise notwithstanding because I subsequently joined her boycott.  Chief among our important agreements, I shall add, is the view that when it comes to dads, we undeservedly won a lottery.

The fact that parental identity is both “out of our hands” yet “immeasurably influential on our being” is a top tier paradox, if you ask me.  We choose neither our parents nor our genes and, whether it was good or bad, are mightily influenced by our upbringing.  Matters of nature and nurture—biology and behavior—pre-date our volition, happen unto us, and cast bright lights or long shadows across the stages upon which we will perform our entire lives.  For the goodness, we can take no credit.  For the darkness, we must bear no blame.  From whence we come and whether because of it or in spite of it, what is true now is that today’s decisions are our decisions.  An eternal architect precedes and succeeds our entire lineage, so regardless the temporary software, great or glitchy, our source code (“under-ware,” let’s say) can guide us forward if we’ll let it.

Volumes have and are and will forever be written about such existential and ontological matters, but for this particular Father’s Day, I would simply like to pause and give thanks to my own precious pop because, in a bad and broken world where memories fade and life is short, it’s both the least and the most I can do.

Olfactory being a primal sense, it should come as no surprise that the earliest memories I summon about Dad always involve the way he smelled.  It would seem that he has worn the same cologne my entire life and, to this day, when he enters the room I am immediately transported four decades back in time.  Shaving cream, sawdust, gasoline and gun smoke have similar effects.  In equal measure, I remember watching him shave and being fascinated that his face didn’t come clean-off with the razor, padding around beside him while he wielded his hammer and saw on countless projects, studying with great curiosity as he maneuvered that weed-eater and topped off our push-mower with a guzzling, gulping, burping tin can that accordioned in and out like a gasping lung, and standing in awe as he worked his 30-30 lever action rifle or various 12 and 20-gauge shotguns.

From our first lily pads in Dallas on Purdue and Harvard, we’d make the rounds shoveling sand at his fixer-upper jobsites in the ’hood.  As able, he would relieve my mom and lead Tracy and me first to the public pool and then onward to the pharmacy where we’d plop down at the old-timey counter for chocolate malts and grilled cheese sandwiches.  Back in our kitchen, we’d set up obstacles for Evel Knievel’s stunt cycle or rescue small fictitiously stranded objects from around the house with a joysticked and whizzy battery-powered helicopter that was tethered to a plastic aircraft carrier.  Out in the street after heavy torrential rains, we’d race red wigglers vs. grubs down curbs’ rushing currents in six-inch-long magnolia leaf skiffs or halved walnut shell boats replete with toothpick masts and postage stamp sails, the winner being the first worm into the nearest gutter.  We’d catch a peek of the Dallas Tornado practicing on campus or playing at Ownby, “all American” in their red, white and blue.  Weeknights, we might find ourselves at The Rib and, Sundays after church, at Sing’s for mandarin chicken with bean sprouts and steamed rice.  He took us to see “Jaws” and we hunkered down weekly to learn what bullied and unsuspecting town “Kung Fu’s” Kwai Chang Caine would liberate through his misty flashbacks, fortune cookie advice and slow-mo chop-socky moves.

We irretrievably flew a styrofoam airplane with a 3’ wingspan from the top of a parking structure clear into the heavens and palmed whirlygigs toward blue skies on long afternoons.  Once, to my great amusement, he allowed me to stand on the hood of his car, tie the loose end of a spool of thread around the legs of an immeasurably annoying and obnoxious cicada that grunted and groaned and buzzed and heaved and rose and circled high into the air like a kite in a cyclone before an uninvited and opportunistic bird swooped down and devoured the buggy-eyed B-52, resulting in a slack thread that rapidly descended toward earth.  To my father’s chagrin, I idiotically dove from the car to catch the floating noose, landing on my forehead in the street.  I treasure the prized scar that reminds me—every time I look in the mirror—of our mischievous mayhem that day.

Subsequently migrating north to the undeveloped wilds of late 1970s Flower Mound, Texas, Dad outfitted me with a yellow fiberglass Fred Bear bow for target practice and a Daisy pellet gun for plinking.  On Tuesday nights, we’d head ravenously to Mama’s Pizza and, on Saturdays, eagerly to see era blasts that included “Rocky,” “Star Wars,” “ET,” every Chuck Norris movie, and “The Deep.”  The fun continued at home with jumpy classics like “The Legend of Boggy Creek” and the inimitable “Incredible Hulk” in which Dr. David Banner picked-up where Caine left off, journeying from town to town and participating in convenient contrivances that now began with a mysterious stranger turning green, then back again, then slinging his jacket over his shoulder and heading up the road accompanied only by the spare “Lonely Man” piano tinklings.

Side by side, my father and I raked heavy leaves every autumn, forming piles bigger than cars and encircling them with tree-stump seating before roaring bonfires with friends, Young Lifers, Fellowships of Christian Athletes, and the First United Methodist and First Baptist Churches of Lewisville.  We played games of HORSE on our basketball court, the same court upon which I later tried to smash one of my lost baby teeth with a hammer (interesting fact: teeth are strong; way stronger than concrete and hammers).  We erected a volleyball/badminton net in the back yard.  I cleaned and swam in the Penguin Pool he commissioned.  We knobbed our behemoth gold Marantz receiver over to 96.3 KSCS, threaded a pair of 2’ tall speakers through a wide front window, jammed to Twitty, Gayle, Mandrell, Rabbit, Jones, Milsap and Rogers while we drank tea, ate warm egg salad sandwiches prepared by Mom, and constructed a wrap-around wood deck that began in the front and concluded 270° clear on the third side that was weeks in the making and is surely visible from space.  We piered deep into concrete a 25’ tall hollow steel pipe T-bar structure from which we suspended a whooshing disc-swing that became the most insanely exhilarating and popular ride on Timbercreek Trail.  We gleefully dune-buggied at 40 mph with mechanically gifted neighbors adorned in wild motorcycle helmets and goofy ski goggles across adjoining fields and forded muddy creek beds together, the very creek beds we zip-lined over and would, every spring, unloaded box after box of shotgun shells upon, performing our small civic duty to eliminate the writhing and twisted masses of moccasin and copperhead snake-balls that emerged alongside the receding river banks after sustained rains and flooding.

In the midst of these myriad chores and shenanigans, our family could be found—religiously, if you will—serving, periodically revivaling, and attending church two to three times a week, Dad always in his real McCoy and me in my clip-on tie.

For Christmas, he manufactured a go-cart with a co-worker so I’d have my first set of wheels and, when I became sufficiently responsible, built a large stall for a beautiful black quarter-horse named Sugar who was my beloved companion for several years, carrying me adventurously and full-throated across the eighty acres behind our few before the land gave way to three-hundred houses and Marcus High School.  In subsequent years, my friends and I would see FloMo’s Founding Fathers and key stakeholders (the Trietsch, Feagins, McGee, McMakin, Gerault, Morriss, Kirkpatrick, Huffines, Marcus, Nasher and Rheudasil families among them) do their darnedest like Tolkien’s Ents to forestall and then navigate the slow but inevitable tractored cavalcade of modernity as it marched across utopia, all but consuming the entirety of our idyllic Hundred Acre Wood.  Before that eventuality, however, and perhaps with a wince, Dad got me a mini-bike upon which I pretended to be Evel Knievel incarnate, performing stunts with Quinten Witherspoon, Lisa Durham, Tim and Grant Rocket, and Wally Berryman.  I relished the sound, shape and smell of that clangy, sputtery, gassy forked ride that carried me along rural trails, crunchy gravel roads, and steaming and sizzling cracked asphalt to visit friends’ houses and their refreshingly chlorinated swimming holes for hourless games of Marco Polo, diving competitions and elaborate underwater fight scene choreographies.

As an adult, I left Flower Mound for twelve years to begin a new life with my wife and would, upon my return, discover that the many signposts and landmarks of my youth existed now mostly in memory, virtually every notable pasture, homestead, ranch, farm and prior hunting ground eclipsed by ‘progress’ and replaced with gas stations, grocery stores, churches, banks, restaurants and fast food joints, schools, medical complexes, neighborhoods or apartments, and strip malls comprised disproportionately of nail salons and donut shops.  As if in amber, the third street of my childhood—the one that so prominently figures in the sweep of my jubilant adolescence—has become a shadowy ribbon of archaeological pavement, still preserved, but what began with Morriss Road to the east, then houses and MHS to the north nears its lamentable conclusion with the now begun “River Walk at Central Park” to the south.  It is true what they say, “There is no going home.”

But I shall not forget the time Dad took me pheasant hunting in Kansas with several of his friends or, in 1981, drove me to Deer Valley Resort the first week it opened.  I remember the new carpet smell, gleaming interiors and brass handrails as if we experienced them yesterday. 

Year after year, Dad taught me to play pool and ping-pong and golf, many times over again and then some more for extra measure and, while none of it stuck, the memories and mechanics themselves are super-glued to my gray matter.

We tubed the Schlitterbahn, swam at Padre and Mustang Island, and he canoed our sunscreen-slathered family of four down the clearest, coldest river in Hot Springs, Arkansas where I recall his uncanny ability to spot teensy sunning turtles and dangling vipers a half-mile away.  I’ve watched him waterski backwards, do twisty somersaulting acrobatics off diving boards, whistle louder than a braying donkey, and scare an unsuspecting trailer-full of Halloween kids astride hay bales when he leapt from the deep, dark woods in full-blown werewolf costume, armed with a just-fired and still smokin’ shotgun for good measure.  He faithfully attended every football game, every track and taekwondo meet, and drove me to and from SMU for my SAT, calming my nerves along the way. 

He now paints owls and more, but has always drawn crazy cartoons and clever caricatures for family, friends and neighbors for reasons no more complicated than the “just thinking of you today” variety.  Like still waters running deep, his steadfastness and love have always abided, often through his hands and their work, but equally in the small or entirely unspoken gestures.  As a boy, I inadvertently flooded our home on two occasions, once because I turned the shut-off valve at the street in the wrong direction before he performed repairs, and once because I clogged the toilet.  On each occasion he said nothing—simply fixed it all (which took days and cost untold fortunes), overlooked the accident, and moved on.  As is the case with many sons, I surmise, I lacked the frictionless ease with which one might articulate Sorry and Thank You and I Love You and Can We Just Move On, so Dad never needed me to, always sensing my innards and scooping me up and over to the other side by way of some handy distraction for which I am incalculably grateful. 

I’ve observed him carefully, peacefully, solitarily sharpen knife after knife to whittle seahorses, tortoises or ornate nativity scenes from raw blocks of wood, engrave figurines atop gnarly tree branches reborn as slick walking sticks, and carve four-inch-long bows & arrows from ordinary shrubs that lined the sidewalk of his childhood home. 

In conversations with friends and strangers from here to Timbuktu, I’ve watched him channel, with equal measure and to great effect, the broad affectations of knowingly sly and aw-shucks orators like Samuel Clemens and Will Rogers, sharing fascinating facts, sweet jokes about frogs and the duck’s bill, and meandering stories about this, that, the other thing, everything, important things, the most important thing, and nothing in particular.

Though his gait is somewhat wobblier than before, rarely a week has passed during any given year that he has not held a weed-eater, knife or golf club in his hands, which themselves remain virtually unchanged: tawny and tan, equally strong and gentle, as capable of lifting a heavy load as tying a knot in thread.  At 77, he drove two days to organize my garage and install an overhead light he made for above our office conference table that is the wonder of all guests. 

Perhaps most importantly, he shows me what it is to be a husband and father, always using “Darling” when speaking to my mom.

Nearly sixty years ago he left his home, studying architecture, psychology and religion at Kilgore College, the University of Houston, and Baylor.  He has always enjoyed the outdoors and frequently shoots better than his age on the course, recording another 70 for the record books on the dewy morning of June 6, 2015.  Twenty-three years ago, at age 55 and possessing a 2-handicap, he began golfing competitively, culminating in five club championships and qualifying for and playing twice in the Texas State Amateur as well as the U.S. Senior Amateur.  In October of this year, he will golf in the North Carolina Senior Games (where he took Gold last year), preceded in September by ping-pong (in which he last took Silver).

Still vigorous and vibrant at 78 years of age, Dad lives with his bride of fifty years in the mountains of North Carolina, “Near where they filmed ‘The Last of the Mohicans,’” as the Leaths like to say, seemingly demarcating everything with a movie reference.  The setting is wistfully apropos, because he is very nearly the last. 

Their current home, a modest mountain cottage, is quaint and colorful with a warm and welcoming entry porch that proudly flies the American flag and is buttressed in the rear by two tidy wood decks, each of which is festooned with bright flowers, drippy hanging baskets, lots of seating, a menagerie of red and brown bird feeders, and a couple nifty wasp traps (the old fashioned kind: water-filled mason jars screwed below tiny wood coffins barely bigger than a Rubik’s cube, designed as if by God’s undertaker—with a narrow pitched entrance and no way out).  Dad can frequently be found around back, Shenandoah, John Gary, or The Tenors’ “Angels Calling” blaring from a speaker.

He remains my finest example of manhood, fatherhood, marriage.  He loves the Lord and knows His promises, treasures Mom, and treats his children tenderly, always preferring to be the sermon than to give one. 

I accepted long ago that his example was far more than I could ever hope to replicate in my own life; his knowledge too vast, his skills too great, his bridge too far, his watermark too high.  I agree very much with the notion that one’s reach should exceed his grasp, so I strive valiantly for the knight of my childhood but mostly just count myself fortunate to have accompanied one portion of a life so extraordinary, to bear this scar on my forehead, and to possess hands that are similar to and had the great fortune of being held by his.