The path I’m on right now (triathlons, climbing mountains on a bicycle, running long distances, etc.,) all started when I began to wonder what my kids would think of me when they’re grown. I wondered if they will think I was brave. I wish I were sure of it, but the truth is I’m still walking that path every day, looking for opportunities to live a life outside of the safety of our softened and convenient culture.
I read an Outside Magazine article by Michael Roberts about Jack Johnson and his dad back in 2010 that has stuck with me since. I think about young Jack watching his dad’s every move and his realization that he’d be a man one day too. And then I think about my dad. I think about my own kids watching me.
Here’s part of the article where Jack Johnson talks about his dad and his own coming of age:
“My whole life I’ve thought about it: As a young man, he hopped on a boat and sailed across the ocean. That’s a pretty strong image to have of your father. My dad led me to the water and said, ‘Here you go. Be careful,’” Johnson says. “You have to sit there and decide when you’re ready.”
“I would look out and see what he was doing on these big waves,” he says. “As a kid I’d think, Holy cow, do I have to do that one day? And, slowly, I would go out when it was knee-high. Then you start surfing waist-high. Next thing you know, you’re surfing waves as tall as you. One day you break a leash a quarter-mile offshore in 20-foot surf and you’re not scared at all. You realize you’ve gone through that rite of passage. You’ve become powerful in an intensely powerful situation.”
Reading this today I think about Jack’s father Jeff. It was his courage that led to Jack’s. I can’t get the line “Holy cow, do I have to do that one day?” out of my head. In a lot of ways I’ve felt that way about my dad my whole life.
I wasn’t even born yet, but he spent two tours in Vietnam – including a stint with the uber-special forces unit comprised of green berets, rangers, and seals called MACV-SOG. Their mission was so classified that the government denied the unit even existed for many years after the war. After Vietnam he ran bomb disposal units in the South Pacific and then finished off a career in the military.
I never knew much about that part of his life. I wasn’t supposed to ask. But somehow I knew. I sensed it. Because he is my dad. And you just know things about your dad. The way he stands. The quiet calmness. The scar on his arm. You just know.
Recently my dad has written down his story. Among other things he wrote a little about Vietnam: how he arrived in the Northern highlands just two weeks before the Tet Offensive. About the attacks they came under. The time he broke his pelvis jumping from an airplane and then jumped again the next day. I learned about his bronze stars and his Legion of Merit awards.
I read these words penned by my dad about the Tet Offensive:
“I learned what a person can endure. After three days and three nights with no sleep I laid down on a concrete floor with my flack jacket on, my steel helmet rolled back on my head for use as a pillow and my rifle by my side. I slept like a baby.”
A kid grows up wondering where his strength comes from. If he’s strong enough. Brave enough. I learned through my dad’s sacrifice. Maybe even more valiant the sacrifice of my mother – the one who raised four kids while he was away conducting secret missions.
I’m 38 years old still trying to surf that “big wave” that I heard about my dad surfing. And I know that my kids are watching me now, wondering if they’ll have to do it one day too.
I want to be courageous enough in life and in Faith to inspire my kids. They’re too young to be reading this now, but one day – having grown up enough to wonder about who I was – I want them to know that I tried to show courage through my life – like Jack Johnson’s dad did for him, and like their Papaw, my dad, did for me.
I didn’t follow him into the military, so I’m not going to war. But as I prepare for another 70.3 at Rev3 Knoxville in May and my first full 140.6 at Cedar Point in September I’m doing more than training for a triathlon. It’s not about the competition for me anymore. At 38 it’s another rite of passage. Still trying to measure up. To carry on the legacy. To establish new markers in the legacy.
Fatherhood does that both for you and to you.
Thanks to my mom and dad I’m a quarter mile offshore in 20 foot swells. And I’m not scared at all
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