Sometimes late at night, when the house is so quiet I can hear the familiar complaints of the friendly old floorboards stretching their limbs, and the house is warmed by love, I tiptoe into my four-year-old son's room and sit on the floor in a corner, and I just watch him sleep. His clothes are always strewn around the room, while his baseball cap hangs proudly on the doorknob. I always have to be careful not to trip over his "Big League Football," which I know to be lying securely, I could sit there all night. And as I watch him, in these quiet moments, I can't help but remember my old man and the lessons he taught me about life.
While once I thought my dad was just about the biggest man in the whole wide world, in fact he was quiet small, and thin, and his face was as cracked and pockmarked as the old leather seats of his beloved '52 Pontiac.Dad had grown up dirt-poor on the great American plains. As a boy he had watched the once fertile farmland turn into the infamous Dustbowl. He often told me, "They called it the Dustbowl 'cause every night with my momma would take me and my brother outside with our wooden bowls and fill 'em to the top with dust. 'That's it, boys,' she'd tell us. 'Eat up.'"
My old man never forgot his hardscrabble days, even long after he grew up and could afford the nice things in life. By the time I was born he knew he'd never have to worry where his next meal was coming from, but it was important to him that his sons learn the hard lessons life teaches. He wanted to make sure that I would be tough enough to survive and prosper as he had done. To him, life was one big hard lesson.
I guess the first important lesson my dad taught me was to be independent. I was just four years old when he took me out to the shopping center and left me there. I'll never forget that feeling as I watched him drive away, with just that little loving wave. A few days later, when that nice policeman brought me home, my dad and I both knew I'd learned a very important lesson.
My dad had learned how to deal with emergencies, and was always eager to help provide opportunities to test how I would respond to unexpected problems. I'll never forget the day of my ninth birthday. Dad was driving and I was next to him in the passenger seat. Suddenly he screamed, "Think fast!" and leaped right out of the car. I had to learn how to drive right there on the spot. But as long as I live, I'll never forget that broad, proud smile on his face when I pulled that old car up the driveway. That was my old man.
As Dad got older and that cough became worse, he knew he wasn't going to always be there for me, and he wanted to make sure I could handle the real tough times. I was fourteen years old, I remember, when the police came to the high school to arrest me. As they booked me, they explained that "an anonymous called" had informed them that I had help up a convenience store. I smiled. That was my old man, I knew, teaching me how to deal with adversity. But two days later he was right there to bail me out.
Oh, sometimes the lessons were hard. I sure did miss my little brother after that tragic "accident." And when my dad spent all the money I'd saved for college, it helped me learn that I could survive on almost nothing. But there wasn't one single day when I doubted his love for me.
My old man isn't here anymore, but I've never forgotten the lessons he taught me. So sometimes, late at night, when I'm sitting there on the floor, I look at my son, sleeping like an angel, and I know that one day soon I'll be taking him to the mall.
Just like my old man.