My father was, is and shall forever be my hero.

When I was a little boy, I truly believed there was nothing that he could not do. Even with the passage of time, and the adult realization that he was only human after all, Dad was still the person I most wanted to be like. The person I least wanted to disappoint. The person whose opinion always meant the most to me.

It was only when I became old enough to understand such things that I realized just how much of a hero Dad truly was. He overcame what I suppose might most charitably be called a “rough childhood,” enduring all manner of indignities and abuse at the hands of his own father. Prevailing wisdom would have us believe that those who are abused as children are more likely to grow up and become abusers themselves, and certainly there is ample evidence to support the veracity of this observation. 

But here, as in so many other aspects of his life, Dad was the exception rather than the rule. Yes, he could become angry when my brothers or myself committed some childish indiscretion, and yes he punished us when he felt it was necessary. But that anger, and any punishment that might have resulted from it, was always tempered by his very real love for us. 

Somehow he managed to convey that love even when we were being punished. And looking back on it now, I can honestly say that I never received a punishment I didn’t deserve. That was something a lot of my friends at school were not able to say, although it would be years before I would fully realize this. 

And along the way he managed to make countless happy memories for himself, despite the circumstances of his childhood. Over time, as he would share some of the stories of his countless misadventures while growing up, I began to see Dad as something of a 20th century Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn. Some of the stories he shared even Mark Twain might have thought twice about sharing with his readers, and I can vividly remember my mother admonishing Dad when he shared some particular story and she feared we might rush out to emulate him.

And so Dad was always quick to warn us about the possible dangers in following his example. But he always did so with a twinkle in his eye, as if to say, “Life is an adventure. When in doubt, go ahead.”

Unlike his own father, Dad took an interest in the lives of his sons, and did what he could to support us - and to show us whatever options he thought might be worthy of our consideration. Unlike many of my friends’ fathers, he never once said “This is what I want you to do with your life.” He was always ready to give advice whenever we sought it - but he was also always quick to say, “It’s your life, your decision. I can’t make it for you.”

I can’t speak for either of my brothers, but I know that in my own case that advice was sought quite often, from my childhood to the last time we were able to get together roughly a month ago. One of the things I learned about my father when I was still very young was that there was nothing I couldn’t come to him to talk about. And over the years we talked about a great many things - but it became something of a joke within the family after I became an adult myself that the one talk we never had during my formative years was THE Talk. You know, the one about the birds and the bees. Somehow we were always so busy talking about other things - politics, religion, literature, music, movies - that this particular topic just never seemed to come up.

Once, after Melissa and I had been married for several years and were expecting the birth of our first son, I playfully asked him how it was that we never got around to talking about that particular subject. Dad just grinned and said, “You’re your father’s son. I knew you’d figure that one out on your own.”

Though he never would have referred to himself that way, Dad was an artist when it came to working with wood. Over the years he built all manner of things for friends and family, most of which he simply gave to them as gifts. That could sometimes be a source of minor conflict between him and Mom; she never really complained, mind you, but she was known on occasion to point out how much money he might have spent on wood, paint and hardware for some particular project and how much he might have made if he were to charge for the finished project rather than simply give it away. 

But Dad was fond of saying that if he had been doing these projects for money, he would have been doing them for the wrong reason. Although he never came right out and said it, we all - Mom included - understood that the only payment that mattered to Dad was the smiles on the faces of those who were lucky enough to be the recipients of his efforts. Over the years he built rocking chairs, clocks, candle holders, toys, picture frames, bookends, yard ornaments - even little bitty structures that resembled birdhouses, but were built more with houseflies on mind. And so much more. 

And his ingenuity when it came to designing those projects was a constant source of amazement to me. When I was in junior high school, Dad designed and built a living room sofa for my mother that had storage units under the seat cushions and a back that opened up to reveal hidden built-in bookshelves. That was impressive enough, but what I found even more extraordinary at the time was the way he kept all the leftover scraps of wood - pieces that most likely would have found their way into the garbage bin in most workshops - and instead of throwing them away used them to make a number of other items for around the house.

But while woodworking was the way he most often expressed his artistic side, it was not the only one. He could have pursued a career as a professional photographer if he’d wanted to, and he took no small measure of pride in the fact that my oldest son has expressed an interest in such a career himself. He worked with leather, plastics and metal. He drew and painted, and sometimes turned his drawings into pieces of elaborate wood art. He once built a toy hut out of a coconut shell, and even built scale model cars and houses out of paper index cards using just an Exacto knife, Elmer’s glue and a set of felt-tip markers. 

He was a pretty fair writer, as well, and he seemed to take some measure in the fact that I was able to pursue a career as a professional writer. He wasn’t one for lavishing praise on us when we had our successes in life, but he let us know he was proud of us all the same. No, it wasn’t expressed in the loud, boastful manner of the ex-jock whose kid just scored the winning touchdown; rather it was a sort of quiet satisfaction that his sons or grandchildren were finding their own way in the world, an acknowledgement that all the years he spent trying to teach us had not been in vain.

Over the years I learned that this quiet sense of pride was a far greater expression of a father’s love than the loudest boasts or biggest bumper sticker could ever be. And though I didn’t fully appreciate it until I was a father myself, it was through the sharing of his own life experiences that Dad me both the wisdom and the fortitude I needed to pick myself up, brush myself off and keep trying, even when it seems that the rest of the world is against me.

In that respect he was always the best role model that a person could hope for. He’s the one who taught me that common sense is more important than a “fancy college degree”; that it is always better to question authority, even if the authority ultimately proves to have been right; that we rarely learn anything without making mistakes; that making a better world requires something a little more substantial than lip service and the occasional monetary contribution; that prayer alone is an empty gesture if we don’t commit to working to help make the prayer come true; and that the men and women of best character are seldom identified simply by their occupation, church, social standing or the words coming out of their mouths.

It’s a kind of simple wisdom that seems increasingly hard to find in the world today. And yet the fact that it still exists at all, especially in these times, is enough to provide some hope for the future. It amazes me how much both of my son sound like their grandfather whenever they start voicing their opinions on issues ranging from politics or the environment to the quality of modern television programming. 

I remember the grin that would spread across Dad’s face whenever Melissa or myself would tell them about something one of the boys said that reminded us of Dad. I think he rather enjoyed the thought that he had passed something of himself on to another generation.

I can say with some degree of authority that he passed on more than he ever realized. So much of the man I grew up to become - my tastes in literature and music, my political and religious beliefs, my stances on sociological issues, even my chosen career - stems directly from my father’s influence. Even the compliments my wife and I have received over the years for the fine young men our sons have grown up to become are probably more properly directed towards my Dad, because he set the example.

Don’t get me wrong; Dad was no saint, and he would have been the first one to say so. And I have little doubt that he would haver done so with that mischievous grin of his, and some sort of comment about how saints tend to be a little boring, anyway.

Dad was fond of pointing out how some little flaw in one of his woodworking projects - the sort of thing that might prompt other craftsmen to toss the project aside and start all over again - were in fact the very things that gave his projects character. They were proof, he said, of the project’s uniqueness, its personality. And therefore to be, in its own way, admired and even celebrated.

And you know something? He was absolutely right. His own life was a testament to that fact. He truly was one of a kind. And in the end, that’s what I loved the most about him.

(Copyright © 2018 by John Allen Small