I have always been a small person. Size 8 shoe, if that tells you anything. I spent half my life trying to keep 29” waist pants from falling off my boney hips. A married man, shopping in the boy’s section at JC Penny. Grown men’s clothes didn’t fit me. It was embarrassing.
I hated to show anybody my driver’s license. 5’10”, 125 lbs. I was the kid that could hide behind the door post. I talked my Dad into buying me a set of weights one summer. I was gonna use those barbells and dumbbells to work on what God gave me. Which wasn’t much. The bodybuilder ads in the back of the comic books had inspired me. But I never could commit to the work. Those weights sat so long on the back porch that the dirt dobbers set up a mud condominium on them.
My size comes honestly from my Dad. As a kid, I never thought about his stature. You know how it is. He was larger than life. Turns out that he was only about 5’9” and weighed about 155 lbs. Right now, I’ve got him beat by 1 inch and about 10 pounds. And every bit of that extra ten pounds is fluff around the mid-section.
His birthday came and went a couple weeks ago. Born the week of July 4th. We always took our vacations to Panama City Beach during the holiday week because the foundry was shut down for inventory. That was the week he could get away. I never thought about it being his birthday much while I was in the pool or jumping through the waves at the beach. But the 7th of July gets my attention now more than ever.
I am becoming him. That is the fate of every son, I suspect. And those who knew him would tell me that this is not a bad deal. To become like him. I know I have some of his mannerisms. Some of his habits. I look at the back of my hands and I see his hands propped up over the steering wheel of my truck.
I walk from the barn up across the tree farm, and one of the guys will say to me, “How come you walk so fast? I gotta trot to catch up to you.”
Another one will poke at me, “You sure are in a hurry, like somebody’s after you.”
I’m not in a hurry. I’m walking. This is my pace. My kids have always complained about my gait. “Will you slow down. You’re leaving me behind.”
My standard reply to these and all complaints about the pace of my walk is this. “This is how I walk. I got it from trying to keep up with my Dad.” Which is true. He never walked anywhere slowly. He’d walk out past the barn and down to the lake, and it was up to me to keep up. If I got behind, he wouldn’t even turn around, he’d just holler back to me, “Come on.”
As I got older, I made a game of it. I watched his footprint in the field and tried to put mine exactly where his had just been. Always behind him. Never beside him. And to this day, I’m still trying to keep up with him, I suppose. As I set the pace and walk here at the farm, I find an odd sense of satisfaction in my soul and a sheepish grin on my face because of him.
I can still hear him. “Come on. Daylight’s a’ burning.”
I owe a lot to him. My faith in God came from him before it became mine. If I have any inclination to help my neighbors, that came from him. Any ability to keep a cool head in a heated situation. Him. Determination to see something through to the end. Him. Willing to try and fix anything by myself whether I know what I’m doing or not. Definitely him. The perseverance to love only one woman on this earth. Him all the way.
Even my interest in telling a good story came from him. He was a storyteller extraordinaire. Funny stories. Men sitting around a campfire kind of stories that sucked you in full tilt until you realized that he was pulling your leg.
When he passed away and people from all over gathered at the funeral home in Griffin, the comments were all nearly the same. “I sure loved your Dad. He was a fine man. Nobody could tell a yarn like John. I’m gonna miss him, but I know I’m gonna miss his stories.”
I was sitting at the Whistling Pig last Friday. Bacon cheeseburger with onion rings and sweet tea. Vance and Sandy and Brent and David were talking about racing cars in high school. 1970. Sandy put his Chevy up against a Barracuda just outside of town. Vance said, “I forget who it was that stood out front and dropped his hands. Sandy had backed his car up a little to get lined up. He revved it up at 5000 rpms before he dumped the clutch. That Cuda took off like a scalded dog. And Sandy took off backwards. He forgot to shift out of reverse.” We all chuckled, and just when it settled down a bit, Vance added, “Sho’ made that Cuda look fast.”
My Dad would have loved that one.
Thing is, there was another fella there with his boy. I introduced myself when I sat down. Bobby is a pipe contractor and because it’s summer, his son was with him. Dirty boots. Mud on his boy-sized pant legs. The kid was taking it all in. It didn’t look like he was paying attention to anything other than ketchup and fries. But he was. Grown men telling stories.
After Bobby got up and left, Brent said, “That boy is watching his Daddy. Y’all see that? He’s doing everything he does. And I told him, ‘Your boy is watching you. Don’t you forget that.’”
We all got a little quiet. Maybe even a little contemplative. Men in their sixties thinking back to the men who taught us life’s lessons. Finding our own way but never able or wanting to deny the voice that still guides us from time to time.
I’ve never met a man who at some point didn’t say, “I sure wish I could talk to Dad again. I’ve got things I should have said and questions I should have asked.”
Which is the way it is in this life. Boys becoming men like their Dads, and their Dads before them. Taking steps in their footprints. The dedication to work and to love and to faith and to laughter is not something that comes upon a young man without effort and influence.
And finally, it occurs to us old guys. Somewhere along the way a fella realizes that it doesn’t matter what size shoe he wears or how much his driver’s license says he weighs. All of that is immaterial.
The size of a man is in his heart.
And that being the case, my Dad left behind a heart larger than life.