“Anyone can be a father, but it takes someone special to be a dad, and that’s why I call you dad”
– Wade Boggs
My dad is my hero.
Not because he’s perfect, just the opposite in fact.
When I was a teenager, he and I would argue about pretty much everything in an effort to out-stubborn the other. I would always win… wait no… he would win… he was the most stubborn… but I was right… so I would win.
I still remember us arguing about the fact that several intersections had cameras and sensors to detect when traffic approached so the light would change for the less-busy streets. He didn’t believe me. Even though we could clearly see there was something pointing at us. He stopped the car and told me to walk home.
When we weren’t arguing, he was my coach, my teacher, and a master story-teller. I was raised on my dad’s stories of his youth, and they were the most fantastic stories.
My dad’s childhood
My dad’s first memory of his mother was driving little cars over the mounds her legs made in the covers of her bed.
“I don’t have a memory of her when she wasn’t sick.”
His mom had cancer when he was young and was bedridden as far back as my dad could remember.
His father had built some reflecting pools that fell into the next with small pebbles in the bottom in his backyard next to a creek. There was a five foot drop from the second pool to the last pool. One day, my dad was playing in the pools and he fell from the second pool to the last pool. The water was drained so my dad landed flat on his back against the small pebbles that lined the bottom of the pool. The fall knocked the wind out of him. Once he could breathe again, he started screaming.
He remembers seeing his sick mother in her pajamas coming toward him and, with superhuman strength, lift her injured boy and carry him back to the house where she plucked out the stones embedded in his back. This physical exertion wiped out his mother’s strength and he doesn’t remember her ever recovering.
My dad tears up every time he tells the story. He taught me that there is nothing stronger than a mother’s love for her child.
His mother died from cancer not long after. He was 7 years old. He was the youngest of 7, and his older sister once told me “when mom died, you could see the light just disappear from his eyes.”
His father remarried and my dad became the 11th of 12 children, with the youngest girl getting all the attention as the little princess. My dad and his stepmom never got along and my dad was bullied by the older siblings close enough to his age to care.
In elementary school, he pulled a knife on a kid, cut off some of the kid’s hair, and told him never to mess with him again. He pushed the school piano down a flight of stairs just to see what would happen. On weekends, he’d go to the school and throw rocks at the windows to break them all out. He was a troublemaker.
My dad’s teenage years
He spoke to a pretty girl during his first day at a new middle school. Her boyfriend (we’ll call him Ken) found out about it and told my dad to meet him at the flagpole at the end of the day. A crowd gathered and enclosed him in the middle of the circle where Ken was waiting with his belt around his knuckles and two of his friends. Brave little Ken wasn’t going to give my dad a fair fight. Three on one to teach a lesson.
Luckily, the two biggest athletes in the school had taken a liking to my dad earlier that morning during some pick up basketball. They stepped into the circle on my dad’s side. Ken told them he didn’t have any beef with them, just my dad. They told Ken that’s fine, but if Ken’s two friends fight, these two would fight with my dad. Ken didn’t want any part of that.
My dad reflects on how you never know who’s watching or paying attention to what you’re doing. Try and work hard because you might just impress someone who can help you out in the future.
My dad went to 3 different high schools. At the first, he stole cars for joy rides, shot arrows at houses, and tied fish line in the shape of an ‘X’ over the opposing team’s team’s basketball hoop. During warm ups, the first player went in for a layup and the ball rolled off the rim. The kid was surprised, gave a “shucks” expression, but it happens. After the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th players all saw the same thing happen, the coach went under the basket and threw a ball up from underneath, only to see it rebound right back at him. An announcement in school the next day asking for knowledge about the prankster didn’t convince my dad to turn himself in.
After his family moved to Provo, my dad had to try and make new friends. During this time, his stepmom gave his dad an ultimatum.
You see, my dad’s stepmom marked the good food for her kids and different food for my dad and his handicap brother. My dad decided to heat up some meat, potatoes, and gravy marked for the other family, but for his brother.
His stepmom confronted him, telling him that he and his brother were not allowed to eat that. He told her too bad, he was taking it to his brother. She hit the food and the hot gravy went all over my dad. She told his dad, “either he goes, or I go.”
My dad was sent to live with his sister in Southern California, more specifically Brawley. Here, my dad was a minority. The students were mostly Latino and African American, to further distinguish my dad in this town, he was one of only three seniors who were Mormons. My dad quickly gained a reputation as a good football and basketball player, earning the respect of the athletes of the school while not necessary acting like a Mormon.
One day, a group of black athletes were rounding up the white Mormons to teach them a lesson. The Church was in the middle of changing a policy that, at the time, prevented blacks from holding the priesthood. These guys had a couple Mormon boys pinned against lockers and it was clear that things were about to get violent. My dad stepped between them and said, “well then you’re going to have to teach me a lesson too.”
“But you’re not a Mormon! You’re normal.” they said.
“No, I am a Mormon, and if you’re going to do something to them, you’re going to have to do something to me too.”
They apologized and never gave them any more trouble.
My dad admits that he wasn’t trying to be a tough guy. He fully expected to get the another-word-for-crap kicked out of him, but he taught me to always stand up for your beliefs and for others, even if there’s a good chance you’re going to get beat up. “I was lucky this time, because it could’ve gone very differently.” Luckily, his earlier lesson from middle school helped him again.
While still in Brawley, a local gang leader who my dad and his friends affectionately nicknamed ‘Pizza Face’ (because of his bad acne) hit one of my dad’s friends at the grocery store while my dad was outside waiting in the car. The friend came back and told my dad about it. My dad drove to Pizza Face’s house, pulled the softball bat out of his trunk, and waited for Pizza Face to get home.
Pizza Face rolled up to my dad standing outside his car door with the bat. Pizza Face told my dad, “let me get in my house and grab my gun and we’ll see how tough you are.”
My dad’s response, “I’d like to see you make it to your house.”
Pizza Face drove away, but the principal of the high school later told my dad that he shouldn’t attend graduation because there were threats on his life.
My dad sticks up for his friends and never backs down from a bully.
As an adult, my dad was eating dinner at a Denny’s. There was a single black mother with her two kids eating in a booth. Two drunk white guys sitting nearby started calling her, her 6-year-old daughter, and 15-year-old son all sorts of vile names, taunting her and her children. One of the guys (we’ll call him Ken-2) grabbed a bowl of corn from the table and threw it on the 15-year-old boy’s face. The boy and his sister started crying.
My dad went over, grabbed Ken-2 by the arms and told him that’s enough.
“Oh yeah, what are you going to do about it?”
My dad was blindsided and hit in the eye by Ken’s friend (we’ll call him Jerry), and pushed into the bar. My dad grabbed a plate (if you’ve ever eaten at Denny’s you know these plates are thick), and smashed it over the Jerry’s face. He then started punching and wrestling Ken-2 until two police officers came and stopped the fight at gun point.
My dad fought against hatred and again, he hates bullies.
It couldn’t all be true… Right?
My dad told me these stories and several others throughout my time growing up, each with their own lessons that he’d learned. As I got older, I started to come to the realization that these stories may not have been 100% true, but I still thought my dad was the coolest, toughest guy around.
Just before I left on a church mission, he and I took a road trip to San Diego and passed through Brawley. We looked up one of his friends (one who was pinned against a locker in the previous story), hoping he still lived there. Turns out, he did, and he was more than happy to connect and show us around town.
The guy drove my dad and me around the town showing us what had changed and what hadn’t since my dad had left. We went to the high school where my dad’s friend went to the exact locker where my dad had defended him and his sister, recounting the story exactly how my dad had told me years before.
He drove us to Pizza Face’s house and told the story of my dad standing up to the biggest, baddest guy in town.
One historical landmark after another with the same recounting of what my dad had done to give this guy the most exciting year of high school.
It was hard to believe. My dad was telling the truth.
The best advice I’ve every received
My dad had a troubled upbringing. He did stupid things during his first marriage that took his two kids away from him. He’s made mistakes as he’s tried to navigate marriage, stepchildren, and life. He is still as stubborn as an ox and can lack tact at times, but he is the best man I’ve ever known.
Growing up, my father would repeat the same phrase to me every day. Going all the way back to elementary school, as I’d be leaving to walk to school he’d tell me,
“Do your best.”
I didn’t fully understand at the time what it meant and ran off to basic math and hopscotch.
In middle school during those awkward teenage years where I still needed him to drop me off to school, as I’d get out of the car he’d remind me, “Do your best.”
I’d roll my eyes, trying to look cool for my friends and not appreciate what he was saying.
In high school, as I’d leave home to go to school (now I had a car), before a test, or before an athletic event, he’d tell me, “Do your best.”
I thought that meant just getting good grades or winning a game.
I left home, went to another country, and tried to serve people on a church mission. I didn’t understand the language, I didn’t understand the people, and struggled with some companions. He wrote me a letter every week for two years. He’d sign every letter with, “Do your best.
I’d try and work harder.
Returning home, I started my higher education and began a serious relationship that turned into marriage. The classes were more difficult. The relationship was more complex than any I’d ever experienced before. The challenges and struggles were different than anything I’d ever faced. I’d go to him for advice and counsel.
At the end of our conversation he’d remind me,
“Do your best.”
Starting my professional life I began in a dead end job that frustrated me and left me feeling unappreciated. I didn’t feel like I was doing enough, making enough, changing enough. When I asked if things would get better, he’d assure me they would and say, “all you can control is whether or not you Do your best.”
Things got better professionally and then I became a father.
“How am I going to raise a daughter? How am I going to keep her safe, protect her, teach her?”
“Do your best.”
My dad volunteered for a while, teaching young adults at the local youth detention facility. These kids had committed crimes and were being held for sentencing. He would teach them the lessons he had learned throughout his life. I attended one of his lessons and the kids were discussing the cards they had been dealt.
“It’s not fair.”
“You don’t understand where we come from.”
“You’ve never had to deal with what we’ve had to deal with.”
My dad would answer that he may not know exactly what they’re going through and without giving too many details, he’d tell them they might be surprised how much he could relate.
One young man continued along the line of how could he live up to the expectations adults, judges, teachers, or police put on him.
My dad paused, looked over at me (I had been quiet the whole time just listening), and said, “This is my youngest son. Every day since he was a kid, I’d remind him of something when he’d leave my protection and go out into the world where I wouldn’t be there to keep him safe. Erik, do you remember what I told you?”
Without hesitation I answered, “Do your best.”
He looked at the kid and said, “No one expects you to be perfect. But all of us who care about you and love you hope and pray that you will always do your best. Things may still turn out differently than you had hoped, but do your best to get out of jail, get out of the life of crime, and get into better friend circles, better activities, and a more productive life.”
Now that I’m a father of three, my kids get frustrated (and scream, and yell, and cry… like… all the time). Math is “haaaard.” Reading is haaaard. School, soccer, dance, tee ball are haaaaard.
What do I tell them?
“Do your best.”
That’s all we can ever do. We won’t ace every test. We won’t win every game. We will mess up throughout our lives. But in the end, I think we’re going stand in front of our Father and he’ll ask,
“So, did you do your best?”
Happy Father’s Day
P.S. My dad is still alive and well. He’s as stubborn and grumpy as ever, but he’s now more my best friend than he is my dad, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. When not under quarantine, we go to lunch every Wednesday to catch up on life and share what we’re dealing with.