I like to write – and for the most part the words come easily for me, but this particular entry has been very difficult for me. Oh, I had the body and conclusion together in a timely manner, but getting an introduction put together has been very difficult – much like the subject I am writing about was, is and will be difficult.
There has been nothing in my life that I wanted to badly for which I was so poorly prepared. Not that I didn’t try- I watched young parents intently, read any number of parenting books and took college classes on parenting and successful marriage…none of which prepared me as well as I was prepared by my constant childhood friend, the television. Lacking effective guidance at home I tried to pattern myself into a blend of Ward Cleaver of “Leave It To Beaver” and Lucas McCain of ‘The Rifleman” which I felt would give me a good mix of compassion and proactivity.
Yeah, well, kinda…The reality hit in the form of two sons with each with an I.Q. much higher than mine at which point my lofty ideals blew out the window to be replaced with the following.
- Love your kids – and let them know you love them.
- I didn’t get to go to “dad school” but I am doing the best as I can as I make it up as I go.
- Teaching your children usually means getting the test first followed by the lesson.
- Those tests and lessons rarely give any warning before arrival.
Such was the case when I was tossed a curve ball in the form of Huntsville (AL) which hadn’t been anywhere on the list of possible kid-training sites when we started our family. For that matter it hadn’t been on any of my lists until I met Lori. During our first married decade we occasionally passed through the town to see her folks – and while I was pleasantly surprised at the traces of cosmopolitan living that came with NASA’s presence Huntsville never really “clicked” for me. Unfortunately that disconnection did nothing but add to the mild disorientation that came with living there in the fall of 1989 when Lori’s folks invited us to live with them while we saved money for graduate school.
The change in climate and culture was not so much a shock as it was an electrocution. There was the expected tension from trying to mesh different sleep schedules, food preferences and entertainment selections – but we also had to deal with the culture shock that came from moving from the laid-back Pacific Rim to the conservative Deep South. It was also at this time we were starting to encounter “attitude” from our up-to-this-point easy going oldest son Conrad as he began the transition from childhood to “tweener” …with all the friction that change entails.
We were blessed with compensations, one of them being the counter-balancing effect of Conrad’s innate “goodness” – and another being Monte Santo, a small but beautiful state park nestled up on a ridge right up against Huntsville’s east boundary. It was one of the most accessible state parks I have ever seen, the location fooling you into thinking you were out in the wilds someplace when in fact you were right up against a busy upscale neighborhood. The heart of the park was an old burned out lodge that sat just back from the edge of a cliff with a dramatic view into a neighboring valley. All that remained of the building were the exterior rock walls held together with cement and a rustic rough-hewn boardwalk/porch that girdled the outside of the ruin. In my outdoor-guy world-view these remaining walls made a nice practice climbing area, and while it had been a couple years since I had done any scrambling I was up the pitch and standing on top in just a few minutes.
As I stood up there enjoying the view, I heard a small voice below me.
“Daddy?” (It was my Conrad) “Can I climb up there too?”
My first reaction to his question was relief that he had asked permission to climb up instead of just scrambling up on his own…but then the proverbial light-bulb signaling an idea clicked on in my head and pushed me into “Tardis Time” and deep thought.
(Note: Tardis Time: those moments when minutes clicking inside my brain move much slower than exterior time in much the same way that Dr. Who’s TARDIS is larger on the inside than on the outside.)
This was not just a question of my son climbing up rocks; with a jolt of insight I could see that this action be a pivotal moment in the development of his confidence in his overall life – something I had been sadly lacking in as a child, teenager and young adult. Usually we read about parents working hard to provide wealth and opportunity for their children that they themselves never enjoyed. In my life I had learned that confidence and security in a parent’s love could do more to help a young person succeed than all the money in the world. Loving my kids came naturally but instilling confidence was rarely an easy or happy process (not too many smiles amongst the jump school black-hats as I recall). As my introspective moment of elongated time came back into sync with the real world I realized I had a very hard task ahead of me.
I knew I could handle any safety issue that might come about so I replied “Yes, you can climb up – but if you start you can’t quit. You have to climb all the way to the top “. With a grin wide enough to dwarf Steven Tyler’s gaping pie-hole he started up…but at the halfway point I heard the words I did not want to hear “Daddy – I want to go back down. I’m scared”.
I put an emotional mask on, reminded him of the conditions I had set and that he should continue climbing. He was not quite old enough to be totally defiant and drop down despite my words, but he was old enough to vent his spleen on the way up, telling me that I was mean, I didn’t love him and he didn’t love me. I kept a stone face until a passing hawk gave me an excuse to turn slightly to one side so I could hide the tears that ran like a river down my cheeks.
Minutes crawled by, the muttered commentary broken only by the scrape of sneakers and fingers on rock. To my surprised the harsh invective began to slow down, and then stopped altogether to be replaced by a barely suppressed giggle. As Conrad got closer to the top of the wall he got happier, and when he reached the top he was doing a little dance, laughing and chanting “I did it! I did it! I did it!” I quickly wiped the tears away as he carefully walked along the top of the wall to where I was standing and we spent the next half-hour in guy-talk, sharing our individual experiences and techniques before climbing back down, the mid-climb commentary forgotten.
So, how did this affect my son?
Most people that know me now are very aware that both my sons are attorneys; both of them graduates of very high-powered schools (Georgetown & Vanderbilt) and both of them are very good at their specialties. What most people don’t know is that years ago I wanted to go to law school as well. Between my junior and senior years of high school I was a delegate to the Alaska Boy’s State and while I was there I served as the minutes clerk of the House of Representatives. The insight I gained by that experience with legal and political processes totally fascinated me and with great excitement I announced to my family that law school was my career goal. Immediately a tsunami of doubt and criticism appeared, leaving me so awash in deep “devil’s advocacy” that I quietly changed my plans. I didn’t have the self-confidence to press on despite the opposition.
As my boys have grown up and left home our relationship has changed. Conrad and I haven’t talked much about that day in the fall of 1989 but during one of those rare moments he told me that climbing all the way up the wall had made a difference; that it helped him develop confidence in himself. Once again I had to “look at a passing hawk” – Seldom have ever felt joy the way my son brought it to me with his comment.
Joy is a scarce commodity for me at this point in my life but it still brings a smile to my face as I type the words out fifteen years after Conrad made that comment. As I stand in the threshold of my elder years I feel sad when I think back on so many things that I missed out on because of self-doubt– but at the same time I feel great joy that my children were able to gain the confidence to attempt and achieve some of those goals .