“The Debt We Owe to Fathers”
From The Job of Being a Dad, 1923
By Frank H. Cheley
Most boys never do really appreciate their Dads until they are gone – often in fact until they have boys of their own to perplex them and to harass them and to cause them to look backward through the years to boyhood again and it is then that all that Dad meant in their growing lives dawns upon them and they yearn for some way in which to fling back the past and tell the Dad that is no more just what they really think of him now.
As I write, my mind runs back to my own simple home. I can see my father coming down the street, bent, weary from a long day of manual labor probably on a scaffold laying brick, his dinner pail in his hand, his boots and sometimes his face spattered with fresh lime, his fingers cracked and sore. Certainly no man was ever more loyal to his home and his boys! Sometimes he was strangely silent, too weary to romp or play or even chat. I can see him now, his simple supper over, sitting down in his own chair by the window to rest while Mother told of the day or a half dozen of us plied him with a hundred questions or a half dozen unreasonable demands. Very often on a Sunday afternoon he would take us kids for a walk to see the new buildings that were in process of construction and always took great pains to explain just what everything meant and how proud he always was of any odd trinket that we made with our own hands. Especially do I recall a certain crude log cabin model that I built for a favorite teacher. It represented infinite labor to me. He looked it all over kindly, commented on this and that feature and then placing his hand on my shoulder he said in his quiet way, “Kid, you’ll amount to something yet.” That bit of real appreciation from Dad was a landmark in my development as a boy.
Yet how many times I misunderstood his apparent lack of interest or enthusiasm for the things that loomed big in my boy-mind, and how many times I took advantage of a weary toiler for his flock and accepted without so much as a word of appreciation a hundred benefits that in my boyish egotism I felt were my just due.
I could not understand how any father could deny a single request of his very own son regardless of whether the request would be good for me or not. I could not see why boys had to go to bed or why they could not sleep just as long in the morning as they cared to. I could not understand why I had to cut the wood on Saturday when I had planned to go fishing, or why if he wanted a great big lawn, he shouldn’t cut it after ten hours of labor on a brick wall.
I’m afraid I must confess I was an exceedingly unappreciative youth, especially of my father — and then came that day which must come to every ambitious lad – the day he steps out into the world for himself. It is a momentous time in the life of a boy when he comes to the place where he has to do without his father! The new trunk was packed and shipped to the station. A big boy in a new suit and shoes and hat had had many little “private sessions” with his mother where everything was talked over. Father had been strangely silent. Several times he was on the verge of saying something, only to turn abruptly away and perhaps leave the room hastily. The parting hour had come. It was in that tense hour that a certain big, proud, half defiant boy discovered his Dad – realized fully for the first time the friend he was leaving behind!
Hand met hand, a smooth soft one in a great calloused one. There was a grip that was different; there was a look that I had never noticed in those gray eyes before; a yearning that I did not understand then, because I had yet to become the father of a boy; and then he said with a bit of a quaver in his voice that I had never heard there before, as he thrust a little roll of bills into my hand, “Here, kid, it isn’t very much, but it will help you if you get broke. If I ever need it worse than you do, you can pay it back. If I don’t, it’s yours.” There was a tight little squeeze, a trace of a tear that was quickly brushed away and then man to man we understood each other. The train rolled in, there were the usual good-byes, but above them all was my father’s “Keep a stiff upper lip, boy. I’m counting on you strong.” As I looked down into that face that day I noticed as I never had before the steel gray hair, the toil-bent shoulders, the majesty and quiet power of the man who for all the years of my youth had worked for me and fought for me and planned for me; who had trained me as best he knew to take my place in the world and to bear his name with honor.
From that day on we were drawn closer together. Every experience out in the world brought my father back to me and his wise suggestion and counsel stood me in stead again and again, and even now as I write, with a lad of my own challenging me in a hundred different ways, I am conscious again and again of the debt I owe my father, and as I read the biographies of men and as I meet fathers everywhere I become more keenly conscious of not only my personal debt, but of the great debt that all men everywhere owe to their Dads, for, after all, if there were no splendid Dad there would be no splendid boys, exceptions to the contrary notwithstanding.
Our own beloved Edgar Guest who, more than any other modern writer, has pictured for us the ideal father and son relationship, say in his story, “What My Father Did for Me”:
“During our walks together he had a way of calling my attention to men he wanted me to know, and always he talked about them. He seemed to be acting as a pair of magnifying glasses for me, enlarging the good qualities of others that I might see them clearly. I never saw a great man without my father’s explaining to me why he was great, nor a bad man without being made to understand what made him bad. In that way I learned what traits to acquire and what faults to avoid. He was teaching me by example and I didn’t know I was being taught.
He left us little in the way of worldly wealth; but to-day, as I run over the pages of my memory and recall the splendor of his service, I find that my debt to him is one which the best I shall ever do, or be, will but partially repay.
For the bigger and finer things of life were his bequests to me.
I owe to him the years of peace and comfort that have been mine.
I have made good friends and true, because my father taught me how lasting friendships are made.
I have found much happiness in life, because he taught me where happiness could be found.
I have traveled not far, but safely, because he taught me wisely.
I have been spared regret and shame and misery and the embarrassment of thoughtless follies by the tact and genius of his counsel; and scarcely a day goes by, even now, that I do not discover, in my heritage from him, some new vein of riches.”
A certain famous college professor, in writing of the influence of his father in getting him ready to be a successful teacher, makes the following striking comments about his father:
“It is to my father that I owe the tastes and instincts which led me to become a college teacher. He was a merchant by force of circumstances, but a scholar by instinct. His chief pride was in his library, and if fortune had dealt more kindly with him, he would have retired early and lived among his books. The happiest memories of my childhood cluster around his spacious library, with its cheerful open fireplace over which he had inscribed in Gothic script the legend:
‘I would rather be a beggar and dwell in an attic that a king who did not love books.’
In the place of the Mother Goose he fed my boyish mind on the myths of Greece and the Old Norse legends. I reveled in Plutarch’s Lives; and I shall never forget the wonder of the evenings when I sat curled up in one of his big leather chairs while he told me of the siege of Troy, and of Ulysses’s long wanderings.
A home without books, he would say, is not home at all; and being an outspoken man, careless of the opinions of others, he made no secret of his contempt for some of his business acquaintances who filled their houses with rich furnishings for the body, and provided nothing in the way of sustenance for the mind.
‘A man who loves books has made himself master of time and circumstances, my son,’ he said to me in his vigorous fashion. ‘He is a citizen of all the ages; the best minds of every generation are his friends. He can summon them to converse with him at will — and leave them without offense. Neither wealth nor companionship nor diversion are essential to him. Let him take down a volume and at once he is transported to a prince’s court, or admitted to the confidences of a great general, or seated in the front row to witness the performance of one of the world’s great dramas. Get money, if you will. It is useful. But, above all, get books. For the older you grow, the more you will understand that in them is the richest satisfaction in life.’”
Such illustrations might be added indefinitely. Of them, there is no end; inspiring stories of fathers teaching, training, guiding sons into the paths they had dreamed for themselves but never realized.
Kermit Roosevelt gives us just such an intimate peep in the profound influences of his great father in the lives of his sons. In Kermit’s splendid book of reminiscence, “The Happy Hunting Grounds,” he says:
“Father always threw himself into our plays and romps when we were small as if he were no older than ourselves, and with all that he had seen and done and gone through, there was never any one with so fresh and enthusiastic an attitude. His wonderful versatility and his enormous power of concentration and absorption were unequaled. He could turn from the consideration of the most grave problems of State to romp with us children as if there was not a worry in the world.
When in a little town in Germany my brother and I got news of my father’s death there kept running through my head with monotonous insistency Kipling’s lines:
‘He scarce had need to doff his pride,
Or slough the dress of earth,
E’en as he trod that day to God
So walked he from his birth,
In simpleness and gentleness and honor
And clean mirth.’
That was my father, to whose comradeship and guidance so many of us look forward to in the Happy Hunting Grounds.”
(via The Art of Manliness)