Father Still Knows Best

Father's Day is one of those holidays that you just don't get until you're a father. Dad and Mom on their 50th wedding anniversary, in 2011.

Yes, you understand the concept - thank Dad for being Dad - but you just don't realize what it means to Dad until you are a dad. And even then, Father's Day - and for that matter, fatherhood itself - doesn't seem to be the same experience as you'd thought it was for your own father.

From my perspective, my dad always knew what he was doing, and he still does. Me - not so much.

I am 52 years old, and I have a son going into his sophomore year in college and a daughter going into her senior year in high school. They will tell you I constantly look as if I can't find my keys, even when I haven't lost my keys. Meanwhile, when my father (now 77) was 52, he had a 25-year-old son (me) who was floundering through adulthood, two daughters out of college and another son in college. Challenges came and went, and he handled each with the calm demeanor of someone who already knew what the outcome would be.

Again: me, not so much. In TV Land terms, I am Barney Fife to my dad's Andy Taylor.

Then there is the invincibility factor. I'd always counted on that certain intangible invincibility factor to allow me to lord over my kids well into their 30s, if not longer. Heck, my dad is a decade or two past his prime, and I still flinch when he makes a quick move with his right hand.

By the time my son was five years old, I'd lost it. With nothing to do on a rainy Sunday afternoon, he and I sat down to a good old-fashioned game of checkers. Two double jumps, five "king-me's" and a few too many "what was I thinking?'s" later, he stood victorious over the checkerboard. And I'd tried my best.

It wouldn't have been so bad except earlier in the day his three-year-old sister had beaten me in the Monsters Inc.® Memory™ card game, 10 to 9. And I had tried to beat her as well.

Until that point, I had been smugly rigging the results of each match with my daughter and my son, engineering the outcomes of games in order to meet my strategic parenting goals - wins to boost their self-confidence, losses to help them learn how to handle defeat and turn it to their advantage, games that went on forever to teach them stick-to-it-iveness, and games that frustrated the heck out of them to teach them good sportsmanship.

Well, that didn't last long.

There is something terrifying about looking into the eyes of one of your preschool kids and grappling with the reality that he or she just beat you fair and square in a mental game. I realized that here was a person I couldn't control after all, and, at least in one activity, whom I couldn't defeat.

It's like standing in front of the big cats exhibit at the zoo, coolly talking about how human beings have subjugated and hold mastery over tigers, and suddenly realizing that there's an open door out of the cage just a few feet away.

I've not regained the aura of invincibility over the intervening years.

Meanwhile, my dad still holds the invincibility factor over me. He's a legend in my own mind. He tells me stories about playing softball in his late teens in the Brooklyn bar league, back in the 1950s, competing in games on small diamonds of city dirt in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, in front of hundreds of local mobsters with thousands of dollars riding on the outcome.

Back then, they used wooden bats hewn from real trees that were no doubt knocked down by lumberjacks using their bare hands. Every swing of the bat sent sap flying. The softballs were string spheres covered with real leather and hand-stitched together by hardworking, soon-to-be-unemployed Americans somewhere in our soon-to-be-dying textiles belt.

These rustic implements were the equivalent of stone tools when compared with today's triplelined, argon-filled, titanium alloy bats and Red-Dot, Blue-Dot and What-Was-Dot softballs. Thanks to these space age devices, every well-struck line drive in a modern-day softball game has at least a decent chance of ending a life.

Back then, skinny teenagers like my dad managed to knock that overstuffed pillow of a ball over the fence on a rope, using their Bunyonesque splinter of a bat, before running around the bases in black and white with that odd, half-hitched, herky-jerky trot they all had before home video cameras forced us to confront how stupid we look when we run. Meanwhile, I still haven't hit one out.

For me as a father, Father's Day has turned out to be when my kids and my wife honor me for doing my befuddled best, rarely sure of the right next step and never certain about the outcome. But for me as a son, Father's Day always will be the day I honor my father for somehow guiding a goof-off like me to finding a happy and fulfilling life. Thanks, Dad.