If you’ve read much of anything on this blog, you know that my father is my absolute top-dog hero. And a great deal of that hero worship comes from his ability to deal with any crisis that comes up. And nowhere has his coping ability been more in evidence than in his on-going battle with cancer. In this four-part essay, I want to share his philosophy with whoever cares to read this blog.
Over the years I have come to learn that he achieves this miracle of coping by applying a relatively simple two-part philosophy. Here, in the first installment of my essay, I will share the first part of that philosophy and how I came to learn it.
Family vacations were a rare occurrence in our little tribe. But in my seventh summer we took a week long vacation at a rental cabin on Hamlin Lake near Ludington, MI. It was a beautiful summer, and a great time to be a kid. It was a busy summer for me, as I learned two important skills as well as a couple of major life lesson.
Leading off that summer I got to take my very first swimming class – Beginners Swimming. Now I was never a gifted athlete by any stretch of the imagination, and one of the physical gifts I did (and still do) possess is a prodigious behind. That’s great for falling backwards with, but it does not streamline the process of knifing through the water when your bottom floats up out of said water. So to no one’s deep surprise, I failed Beginners Swimming.
Now, being a kid, my first instinct on returning home from my failure was to lie about it. And, being a kid, it didn’t take long to get caught in the lie when my mother called the Rec. Dept. to complain about them making the course so hard that nobody could pass it. Now I was in deep as my mother wailed about the twin indignities of having a son who was both a liar and a failure. How would she ever be able to face her church circle again?
In the summer time, Dad taught Driver’s Education at the high school. Needless to say, this was an extremely stressful profession. Dad always came home completely on edge and not too happy with the world. I spent the afternoon in deep dread of the punishment that my mother warned me that Dad would levy. Of course, that wasn’t the case. After hearing the sordid tale from my mother, Dad went out to the backyard, lit a cigar, and decompressed for the longest couple of minutes of my young life.
Besides his natural gifts, Dad had spent a portion of his time in the Army commanding a firing range – both rifle and artillery. This helped develop his voice into a finely tuned instrument of command. My younger brother John and I absolutely knew what the voice of God sounded like – it sounded just like Dad. So I lay quietly in my room, waiting for the inevitable bolt from beyond that would be my father’s summons.
When it came, I reported to the backyard to face my doom. Dad quietly asked me what happened at swim class – and I came totally clean. In a very, very, quiet voice, Dad told me that another session would start next week and then he asked me if I would like to try Beginner’s Swimming again. Despite my deep fear of Beginner’s Swimming, I simply couldn’t disappoint Dad, so I said yes. And two weeks later I was a Certified Beginning Swimmer.
This taught me the lesson that while good news could be shared with my mother, bad news should always go to Dad first.
It was this same summer, while at the cottage on Hamlin Lake that I learned to fish. Sure, the three of us – Dad, John, & I – had walked the block over to Lloyd’s Bayou and dangled a bobber from a cane pole before. But at Hamlin Lake I graduated to an actual rod and reel. I got to learn how to cast and use real lures, not just a blob of a worm under a giant red and white bobber.
Dad and I had had many fine bonding experiences to this point, but surely this was the finest thing that a lad of seven summers could experience. Real fishing with a real rod and reel – why it was practically an adult experience. Any good father knows that real fishing is best taught on a short pier, such as the one that was part of our rental that summer.
It was a glorious thing, those fishing lessons. Just Dad and I on the pier together, fishing like real men. Bluegills, sunfish, and even the occasional bass were the trophies that we would bring back to the cottage in triumph. Could anything be better or more adult? I was totally caught up in the adventure of it all. I listened to every word that came out of Dad’s mouth. I was fully committed to learning everything that there was to know about real fishing. And I was so caught up in all of this absorption that I walked completely off the end of that little pier!
Time is already malleable enough when you are a seven-year-old boy. But when you are a seven-year-old boy who has just walked off the end of a pier and fallen into the water, time stretches thin enough for you to consider many of the world’s great thoughts. Thoughts like “I’m going to die,” and “Dad is going to be so disappointed in me.” But for some strange reason there was not time enough to bring to fore those hard earned lessons of Beginner’s Swimming. So, my young mind concluded, I am simply going to die here in the waters of Hamlin Lake.
And then I heard it. The voice of God, or at least my father’s booming command voice, came down from above. “Stand Up,” it said. Now such is the tone and timbre of the command voice possessed by cosmic entities such as God and my father that it must be obeyed. So I immediately ceased my thrashing and stood up. The water came nearly up to my armpits. The embarrassment didn’t stop, but at least my little life was no longer in danger. And the voice said to me “When an emergency happens, the most important thing to remember is ‘don’t panic.’”
We stayed out there in the sun fishing right through lunchtime – long enough for my clothes to dry. Then we had lessons in cleaning and filleting fish. We took those wonderful trophy catches up to the cottage and fried them up in corn meal for dinner. It was many years before Dad and I spoke of that comic near tragedy again. When we did, Dad claimed to have forgotten all about it. But the critical first portion of Dad’s coping philosophy was never forgotten.
When an emergency happens, don’t panic.
Part 2 can be found here.