My goal this summer is to get the little guy to listen to one Harry Chapin song. And to paint his bedroom. That’s it. One song, one bedroom. Simple dad, simple summer.
If I were to put together a kit for raising boys, it would have fish hooks, some rope for making knots, a slingshot, a Chapin song, some old Jim Murray sports columns, a baseball, a football, a library card, a good set of wrenches, a map of western Canada, some Kerouac, some Didion, a guitar, a pair of hiking boots and a passport.
That would get him to age 25 or so.
After that, there’d be another kit, for the making of a man. It would include a silk necktie, some Fitzgerald, some Miles Davis, a fly rod, a Chelsea Handler book, some Dave Barry, a EuroRail train pass, a pair of dice, a Fitbit, a money belt and two tickets to the World Series.
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The thing about dads is we just wing it. We don’t read parenting books. We rarely look at blogs. Our only reference point is our own fathers — flawed as they were, wonderful as they were. No man is only one thing.
What we admire — with a reverence that grows over time — is our own fathers. They are the only reference books we really trust. No nonsense. No fluff.
With a dad, you learn values, behavior, humor, perseverance. These traits are conveyed via “dadisms” — little bolts of wisdom. “Do it right, or do it over,” when a kid rushes through a task. “You gotta be smarter than the hammer,” when a boy accidentally bonks himself in the forehead.
Or the versatile: “Don’t be an idiot,” when a dad sends a teen boy out on his own.
The sayings are passed down from generation to generation, like hazel eyes, flat feet or errant golf swings. You think dadisms are nothing at the time, just the annoying advice of an aging grump who spends too many hours straightening the garage.
Don’t be an idiot. Dadisms are everything, whether they come from a dad, an uncle or a good coach.
For Father’s Day, I’d like to take my sons back to the early ’70s for one day, just to witness what I was up against as a teen.
First of all, none of the girls in my high school wore bras. It’s amazing that the boys in the early ’70s learned anything at all. Honestly, my SAT scores would’ve been 300 points higher had the girls in my high school worn bras. I could’ve been a surgeon.
If I took my sons back to the ’70s, they could also meet their grandfather in his prime, while in his mid-40s, renting a huge gas-powered rototiller to prep the garden in the spring, a big raging bull of a machine that nearly shook loose his arms as he churned up the wet, rich pudding of the Middle West.
My dad smelled of sweat, cigarettes and Sea & Ski. He would pause only for an occasional Viceroy, maybe for some iced tea or a Bud to stay hydrated. Then he’d get right back to that heaving rototiller, a prize fighter staggering out of the corner in the 14th round, swinging at invisible adversaries, garden gnats in his nostrils, in work boots caked with muck.
It was pretty much my father’s only physical workout of the year, this garden stuff. Sweating buckets, he’d lay out rows of onions, carrots, green beans, even corn. Weeks later, this is how the birds and rabbits in the neighborhood got their daily requirement of onions, carrots, green beans and corn.
Other than marriage, gardening was the only hobby my father had, till he turned unsuccessfully to fishing, which was just an excuse to kick back and smoke stale cigars in rental rowboats three states away.
Boys, I’d say, that’s your Grandpa out there in that garden. I want you to be just like him — except for the cigarettes; except for the gin; except for the road rage triggered by something as simple as some poor nun forgetting to signal a right turn.
Other than that, he was a good and honorable man, taught me everything about knots and good books and how to keep going amid life’s ups and downs.
Yeah, boys, that’s my old man out there in that muddy garden. My Harry Chapin song, my lighthouse. What do you say we go give the man a hand?
Chris.Erskine@latimes.com, Twitter: @erskinetimes