The first time I saw him I thought he was a fireman. He was in a black uniform with a white cap.
But I learned he wasn’t a fireman, he was a sailor. He met my Mom and then completed a triangle of our family. If my Mother will forgive me, it was a good thing he did. It’s not that my Mom wasn’t a capable single parent, but she had to do it all before he came along. After he came into our lives things didn’t get easy, but they got easier, and we had someone looking out for us. Any examination of where we were before and where we ended up would show how drastically things improved for us once my Mom and Dad were married. We ended up going places we never would have. I was 10 when the man I thought was a fireman entered our lives.
Sometimes heroes are not defined by what they are but rather by what they are not. My Dad was not a bad-tempered man or a drunk. He was not mean or vengeful. My Dad wasn’t jealous or petty, he wasn’t inconsiderate. He wasn’t violent or a womanizer or a liar. He wasn’t a loafer. He wasn’t arrogant and he didn’t belittle others. He wasn’t selfish with his time.
In many ways he was a simple man. He entered the United States Navy when he was 17, embarking on what would be two decades of service. He sailed all around the world – had the ink on his arms to prove it – and he never seemed to look back. If you asked him where he’d been, he’d shrug and say “I was there.” He was proud but he wasn’t brash. He enjoyed western novels and shoot-em-up movies and boxing. He would watch boxing with me and he’d be on the edge of his seat swaying his torso from side to side, as if he himself was fighting in the ring. He didn’t discuss philosophy or art, but he had a core philosophy of fairness and hard work, and his art was his ability to tell stories. Often it wasn’t until the final sentence that you realized his story was a joke. Then his eyes would get wide and his smile would tell you that he GOTCHA!
That art of story telling is what made him so personable. Everywhere he went, he knew someone. At the restaurant, at the gas station, the VFW, the county fair. Those people skills helped him in his second career in the Navy, when he helped young people into the service. With his enthusiasm and honesty, he guided them into a new life of opportunity. He was a sailor on dry land, but he was a jolly one who was so good at recruiting new sailors that he spent almost as much time doing that as he did tying knots.
When I first saw him he was a young man – younger than I am now – and he was in his prime. He wasn’t slim but he wasn’t fat. He had short, skinny little legs, but his body was solid. From the knees to his shoulders it appeared he was one big muscle. If you ever wrestled him you would marvel at the strength of his grip in his hands and arms. Once he had you, you could not get out. He gathered my Mom into his arms and he never let go.
No, my Dad wasn’t a fireman. But heroes are often defined by what they aren’t. Firemen assume responsibility for others, they work long hours, they are away from their family. They protect us and they make us safer. They put others before themselves. They are heroes.
I wasn’t wrong that day. In a way my Dad was a fireman. I’m just glad I got to see him in action.