Once upon a time, there was a young man who was born and raised in North Carolina,. He was not born a prince though there was a young woman who thought he was handsome enough to be one. The young man joined the Air Force and married that girl, his high school sweetheart, whisking her away to a different life. Together, they had two little girls and settled down to raise them. I am one of those girls. And today, that man celebrates his birthday. The would-be prince grew into a king—the king of dads, for he knew how to raise his daughters to be good, kind, caring people.
My dad taught me things my mother couldn't. Growing up, I took it upon myself be the son he never said he wanted. I was a bit of a tomboy, or so I thought. He taught me to fish, even though I always made him pierce the worm with the hook as I winced and looked away. He taught me how to shoot guns at a local dump, using glass bottles or tin cans as targets, even though I'd take a few shots and get bored or get a sore arm, and so I did what any other normal kid would do; I combed through the garbage for people's discarded treasures. One time I found some romantic letters, which led me off into flights of fancy about the writer and recipient, and why the missives were now moldering in piles of trash. I was apparently not fully committed to my avowed role of tomboy.
He taught me to ride a bicycle. I can still picture him standing in our dirt driveway, training wheel in one hand, screwdriver in the other, watching as I wobbled away from him.
My dad is patient. He taught my sister and me to drive, insisting we learn on an automatic transmission and a manual. Family lore is that each of us went out with my mother once and, in both instances, mother and daughter came back vowing never again, leaving my father to be our sole driving instructor. He rarely lost patience, although he would sometimes stomp the floor or grab the dashboard. My worst learning-to-drive moment came when he had me drive his manual drive truck to a sizable hill on the nearby army base. The road had a four-way intersection at the hill's summit, complete with stop signs. I kept stalling the car and rolling back. Over and over again. A large truck with an open bed FILLED with trainees—which meant they were my age—pulled up behind me. At one point, the truck had to back up before I rolled back into them during on of my stop/stall/restart cycles. But Dad stayed calm through the whole thing. I was less calm. But he wouldn’t let me give up, telling me I could do it and, eventually, I did. I drove through the intersection and down the other side, leaving behind any pride I might have had on the pavement behind me. The troops cheer for me when I finally made it.
My dad was the family doctor. He was a reluctant fixer of broken household objects, but because he was an Air Force medic, he was an excellent fixer of humans. He bandaged my many childhood scrapes and cuts. My most memorable injury occurred in first grade when I fell on pavement at school. This strip of tar was called the blacktop and descended from the back doors of the building down to the playground. This was the era of merry-go-rounds that would fling you off and metal slides that got so hot under the Southern sun they would scorch the back of your legs, so why not hard pavement slope with sharp pebbles leading to a playground? I can still hear the warnings of the teachers: "Don't run on the black top!" Those voices are belatedly engraved in my head along with the scar I got from falling on the aforementioned blacktop while running, just as they predicted. Anyway. I cut my head. My dad, the medic, picked me up in a box car ambulance and carted me to the ER where he worked. I got seven stitches and a probable starring role in future cautionary tales. I changed schools after first grade so can not confirm my legendary status as a warning to others, but it seems quite conceivable. When it was time for the stitches to come out, my dad gently picked them out at home, savings a trip to the base hospital.
Even as an adult, he patched me up. He was visiting one time, and I sliced my thumb on a mandolin slicer. When they tell you to always use the food holder, you should listen! I usually follow rules and instructions, namely because when I don't, I tend to bleed. This time was no exception. Luckily I had set the blade to the thin setting, so it only took a few layers of skin off. Glad I wasn't using the julienne blade. Dad was imperturbable as always as he helped me stop the bleeding, applied antibiotic ointment and bandages and, after a trip to the local drug store, introduced me to the finger cot. How had I gone all those years without knowing about finger condoms?
My dad has a sense of humor. Dad spent a lot of time patiently waiting for my mother while she shopped. But sometimes, he got a little bored. One time, when she was perusing sewing supplies at our local Woolworth's, he stood with his back to us.
"Richard," my mom called.
Dad turned around, hands clasped behind his back, spools of thread stuck in his eye sockets and looked around, which sent me into gales of laughter.
Another time, he had me help him test the self-timer on his new 35-millimeter camera. I sat on the hood of our green Datsun B210, as he set the timer, then he hurried over to lean on the car next to me, and we grinned at the tripod for a few seconds. I am not sure if he thought the camera had taken the picture or the self-timer had not worked, but he ran back to the camera and got a great shot of me laughing and him sprinting directly at the lens. We laughed about that for years, and I love the way he was able to laugh at himself.
And once, when my mother had seemingly retired from cooking and we were eating out a lot, she cooked dinner one night and announced it was ready. We all field outside and sat in the car.
My dad is a go-with-the-flow kind of guy. When my kids and I visit him for spring break, he will do anything we want to do: eat out, go to a park, go shopping, drive to Charleston for the day. He accompanied me on two out of three adoption trips to China and showed up for anything and everything, patiently waiting and holding a diaper bag or a baby. Our guide for my third child was astonished he was so hands-on with my new baby daughter. "Chinese grandpas aren't like that!" she proclaimed, shaking her head in wonder. But my dad always loved babies and they loved him. He was a huge help on both trips. We say that he carried my son, who was almost 3 at adoption, all over China.
My dad is generous: I had an allowance and a lucrative business as neighborhood babysitter and pet sitter, but that didn’t stop him from slipping me a few bills from time to time. He worked nights back then, and I remember at least once, when I was leaving early in the morning on a school trip, he stopped at Krispy Kreme on his way home from work. He swung by our house, picked me up, and drove me to school. I boarded the bus bearing several dozen freshly made doughnuts. It was one of the most popular moments of my teen years.
So here's to my dad, who has always cared. Who has always been there for me. Who taught me right from wrong, Who taught me how to laugh. Who taught me patience (even though I don't always display it as well as he does). Who taught me how to be a good parent.
So while he didn't win the Nobel prize, or discover the cure for cancer, he did something pretty spectacular. He showed up as a husband and a father, all day, every day. He cared. He loved. He taught. He laughed. He was a steadfast rock in the storms of life. Never, for one minute, did I ever doubt he loved me. So he may not have been born a prince, but he is a king to me, always.