The Letter Jacket – An Ode to Dad

Love arrives in all forms and in the most surprising ways.

One time it showed up as a gift from my Dad, who has been away from us now just over two years.  It was sudden, it was cancer and a devastating battle to watch. Memories jump in and out during the extended process of missing someone, and for me this particular moment offered an amazing turning point in the relationship with the only person who ever earned the Dad title.

It sounds complicated, but it turns out to be pretty simple.

My biological father was a nice enough guy, but he never won his struggle with alcohol.  There was also another step-father in there, but it was a dark, and violent time, and I think the abuse likely set up a tumultuous beginning with my Dad.

How much does a successful, swinging, single guy have to love a woman to marry her and take in and adopt her four sons?  Quite a bit actually.  This level of commitment, love and responsibility is a rare treat in the modern world, but my Dad was up to the task and then some.

That wasn’t even the tricky part, as I was already old enough to be the cynical teen with trust issues.  It was a rocky start.  I had to work for the family business, it wasn’t a choice.  At least not a choice at first, but it was simply a matter of economic necessity to get the family of six on our collective feet.

I never got an allowance, yet my below minimum wage cash flow provided me with what I needed, and for the first time in my life, some things that I wanted too.  I worked at least five days a week, attended school and then of course, there were the chores.  I was the eldest sibling, thus the domestic work load included babysitting my younger brothers, and horrible things like the dishes and laundry.   Dishes remain a drudgery, I’m simply better at washing them now.

There were arguments, a couple very long terms of being grounded, and the adjustment to a new community wasn’t a smooth transition for me either.  Top all that off with the trauma of a football coach suggesting I seek out other sports.  Football was my favorite of all the sports I played, and coming from a smaller town where everyone played, it was a tough moment.

Dad suggested I go out for the city swim team.  It was a funny suggestion, because I did not know how to swim.  He basically thought it was a doubly good idea because I could at least learn how while participating in a new sport.

I declined.

He insisted.

I was ready to be grounded again, based on how well the discussion was going, and then he offered a compromise.  If I a tried it and stuck with it for a month, I could then choose to stay on the team or do something else.  I did wonder aloud if I could avoid drowning for thirty consecutive days, otherwise it was a fair deal.

I begged a couple of my friends to join with me in aquatic suffering, and they did.  Of course they were both better in the water than me, it was just nice to have company while I was flopping around on a competitive swim team.

I survived the month.  And then another.  I learned how to swim.  After that I learned how to race.  I learned how to compete in every event.  The following year was my junior year and I went out for the high school swim team.  It was a very good team with several future college scholarship athletes.  I pushed hard, stayed with it and earned my first athletic letter.

I went to look at letter jackets, I was still working for the family business.  There were two types of jacket available, the vinyl sleeves were more affordable and in my price range And then there was the expensive, yet awesome white letter sleeves off setting our primary school color of royal blue.  I had to hold off and work a couple more weeks to see if I could gather enough funds to pull off the leather jacket.

I explained my situation to my parents, just to keep them in the loop.  The very next day there it was.  On a hanger, with leather sleeves and all.

My Dad generally let my Mom do all the gift shopping.  Shopping was never his thing.  The relationship with my Dad had been all uphill, and the man who does not shop went and bought me one the most meaningful, thoughtful gifts of all time.

It was because of him I could swim at all.  It was because of him I had a job to get the things I needed.  He never offered a lot of flowery comments or praise, but it was one amazing way to say, “Good job son”  — without having to say a single word.

Now you know, it only sounded complicated.  It is really pretty simple.

Thanks Dad, I love and miss you.

–From D.J. to David Allen Lund