JM 6-19 Column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 22, 2004

For almost five years, I’ve written a newspaper column every week. Whereas some columnists take a week off and run and old column, I never have.

This week, for a number of reasons, I’m breaking “the streak.” A lot has changed at our newspaper in the past year, and our reader base has grown tremendously. Because of that, the following column originally published on June 15, 2003.

For the most part, I try to keep these columns focused on events and issues that immediately, or in a round-about way, affect Demopolis. This week, I’d like to tell you a personal story.

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In the end, my hope is that the people in Demopolis take something from it.

Today is Father’s Day, but in 1979, my father lost a long bout with cancer. I wasn’t even five years old at the time, and if honesty must prevail, I didn’t know my dad that well. I was too young; incapable of forming a relationship beyond the usual request for toys and more food.

Losing a father, I suppose, could have been the worst thing that happened to a young man like me. Sure, my mother offered discipline and a caring hand, but she couldn’t offer some of the essentials to a young boy’s childhood.

She couldn’t — or didn’t know how to — take me camping. She tried, but mom had a hard time throwing a baseball with me. She broke too many nails trying to play basketball. And for those situations that need a good discussing during adolescence, she would have had a hard time convincing me that she really understood.

Close to four years after my father passed away, mom remarried a man that I’m convinced God put on this earth just for my family. But on the day they were married, you couldn’t have paid me a million bucks to make me accept a new father.

By that time, I was nine and had grown accustomed to getting the things I wanted. I knew how to “work the system,” if that’s what you would call it, and having a new man in charge went over about as well as having my baseball glove taken away.

It would be less than the truth if I pretended to remember all the conversations we had in my “new” house after mom remarried. I can’t recall what made me so uncomfortable with a new dad, but surely most can imagine that a kid my age struggled with a new man in charge.

It was late one afternoon when my “new” dad came home from work and played basketball with me for a while. I’ll never forget the conversation we had that day, either. I was mad at him about something or another, and I decided to use the well-shaped excuse of a deceased father on him.

At that point, my new dad (who adopted my brother, sister and me upon marrying mom) sat me on a brick ledge and opened one of the most pointed conversations I’ve ever had with a person.

He explained that he was my father and that he’d do anything for his son. He talked about what a great person my first father was, and he made it clear that he’d do everything he could to be just as fine a father.

At that point, something changed in me. I realized the man sitting next to me was my father now, and that my children would one day call him “granddad.” I also realized that this man had done everything he possibly knew to win me over as a son.

Almost 20 years after that conversation, my “new” father is no longer new. He has fast become a best friend who would go to bat for me if the rest of the world didn’t. And when I look back on those younger days, I realize he was the best father a kid could have.

He took me camping — even saved me, during a long hike from stepping on the biggest black snake you’ve ever seen. He threw the baseball with me and forced me to stay in the batter’s box when an inside pitch came screaming by. His nails never broke when he played basketball, and he even taught me a little about getting tough underneath the basket.

More importantly, Dad always encouraged me, even when that meant handing over a bit of cedar discipline.

These days, discipline isn’t a part of the relationship between my dad and me. Instead, we counsel each other. When things are tough at work, no one listens better than he does. When things are tough at his job, I hope I listen just as well. And when things are fine for the both of us, we usually spend our time talking about things that will challenge us next week, all the while hitting golf balls into more ponds and trees than a golf course should allow.

Today, there are a ton of young men in West Alabama and around this country who don’t understand how wonderful a father-son relationship can be. For many, divorce has caused the divide. For others, death has prevailed over those still living.

To all the young men out there, whether he’s a step-father or a “new” father, I ask — from mere personal experience — that you give him a second chance. You’ll never understand the reward if you don’t.

And to the step-fathers and “new” fathers, give your children the only thing they really want: A father.

It’s not easy at first, but nothing can beat the lifetime relationship I am blessed with today.