I was eighteen years old, had absolutely no life plan, and I was sweating it. I was just weeks out of High School and working as a busboy/dishwasher at The Grill and Skillet diner. This place was gritty, like a diner out of some obscure Hollywood film. Walter, the cook, looked exactly like James Brown. Roaches would drop from inside the range hood right onto the grill. Walter would nonchalantly scrape the roaches away from the home fries into the grease trap without missing a beat. This was extremely hard work, paid nearly nothing but I liked the people there and it was fun when I was still in school. Now that I had my diploma this job lost its luster and it was time to move on to something better. All of a sudden I felt like my life was going nowhere and, even scarier, I had no idea what my next move was going to be. I had two things that interested me, writing and architecture but didn't know how to make a living at either of them.
I was also the first in my family to graduate High School and college didn't seem within my grasp. With each day that passed I sank deeper into this abyss of terror and confusion at the realization that I was now an adult and I had to make my way in the world. My father must’ve keenly noticed the state I was in. One morning, as he was getting ready to leave for work dressed in his chambray work shirt with his first name, “Verlo” stitched in navy blue cursive across the white patch on his chest pocket, he asked what I was planning to do with my future.
My father’s question was met only by my blank stare accompanied by an orchestra of imaginary crickets.
“I could get you on at the shop.” he said.
His offer immediately filled me with a sense of trepidation. My father had been a welder in a machine shop as long as I could remember. He worked extremely long days, came home tired, dirty, and smelling like metal. Some nights he would walk the floors unable to sleep due to the pain of flash burns and metal shavings in his eyes. Despite all of this his job was honorable, it took great skill, and it provided our family with everything we needed and a little extra. His job as a welder allowed my mom not to have to work outside of the home while raising my brother and I.
Even at the age of eighteen I knew I was at a major crossroad. This was a point in which, depending on my choice, a course would be set that would be difficult to veer from. Even though I wasn’t sure what my dreams even were then I knew if I accepted this offer to become a welder it would mean a future with little time or energy to pursue any endeavors outside of this job.
I quickly responded with, “I’m sorry, dad, but I don’t want to be a welder.”
My heart was pounding so hard as he silently left for work that morning. I don’t even remember his response but I do remember being concerned that my answer hurt my father’s feelings. I was worried that he would think I was ashamed of him, that he would view me as ungrateful. That couldn’t have been further from the truth. I just knew in my heart his path wasn't my path. I was destined for something else, not something better but something different.
I am extremely proud of my father. His dad passed away when he was three years old. His mother (my grandmother) was poor and, although she did the best she could, my father found himself being raised off and on in a succession of foster homes throughout the 1940’s. In these foster homes he was subjected to abuse that he’s only briefly talked about. As a result of this he had a difficult time adjusting in school and he eventually dropped out in the eighth grade.
Despite all of the hardship life threw at him my father retained an extremely kind heart and a sense of selflessness. His childhood could have left him a bitter man, with a closed heart but it didn’t. To this day I know he would do anything he could for anyone he cares about, this alone is a monumental accomplishment given his upbringing. There’s much more.
Even with no paternal example to follow he has been a great father to my brother and I. He was always willing to be the first one to go down the biggest sledding hills, ride bikes the fastest, and fly kites the highest. I remember one afternoon we were flying a kite in the field of our neighborhood elementary school, Fairmoor. We had the kite up so high that we could barely see it and ran out of string. What did he do? He went to the store to get two more packages of kite string and we flew it even higher.
I was a very sickly, asthmatic child and he pushed me to my limits and beyond by taking me on twenty mile bike rides, long walks, and hikes when I was not more than nine or ten years old. As a result of this I became strong and fit and eventually rarely needed to use my asthma inhaler. Still today I have a love of bike rides and physical activity.
When my brother and I were growing up dad was the first to rush towards anything that had a hint of danger and fun. Naturally, my brother and I eagerly followed his example. Looking back now I see that our childhood was his second chance to enjoy all the fun he missed out on when he was younger. He made up for a lot of lost time with us.
My father was very strict when he had to be. He wasn’t the kind of dad that taught me how to get into an Ivy League University or the best mutual funds to pick for my 401k. However, his words, more often his actions, taught me everything in life that matters. He taught me to jump into challenges with both feet and to never be afraid to take chances. Dad raised me to always do my best and more importantly to never give up. He also taught us how to be creative, frugal, and how to survive without a safety net because he surely never had one.
My father’s lessons of dedication, strength, and determination have served my brother and I well in life. As I look back throughout my twenty years of struggling as an author, the fire that kept me going was largely stoked by my dad’s lessons. I often think if fate were just a little different and I would’ve had a different kind of father I would’ve given up decades ago. By doing so I would now be living the worst kind of life, a life of regret and I would always have wondered...what if?
Happy Father's Day, Dad! Thank you for the man that you are. You were and are the perfect father for me. Never forget you are loved, you are respected, and you are appreciated.
I promise, just like that kite we flew all those years ago, I will keep this life of mine flying higher and higher, no matter what.
~Eric Vance Walton~