I grew up listening to Waylon and Willie croon on about their heroes being old, worn-out cowboys. Heroes are those rare people that make an indelible impact on our lives, so forcefully that they cause not only our admiration, but often our emulation. Well, while I like the song, I never wanted to be a cowboy. There was, however, someone that I tried to pattern my life after: my real life hero, my dad. Yeah, I know that it sounds cliché and all, but it really is true. I love Bluegrass music, Merle Haggard, and football because he did. I joined the Navy because he had been a sailor. I worked as an engineer because he did. I tried to smoke Winston cigarettes because that was his brand, even though the “cool” people smoked Marlboro. (Luckily that was a short lived attempt at my own brand of being a maverick. Plus, I never could get used to the smell.)
His life was hard, and because of that he was a hard man. His philosophy of life was simple: work hard and take care of your little acre. In other words, take care of you and yours, leave everyone else to theirs. Not an earth shattering revelation or groundbreaking epistemology of course, but it was his. He grew up very poor in the mountains of East Kentucky and left school in the eighth grade to help support the family. At nineteen he joined the Navy and spent his time in Asia touring on the USS Oriskany CV34 (The Mighty “O”) on two WestPac’s . He got a giant cobra tattoo in Hong Kong, and his True Love knuckles in the Philippians. (Did I mention my tattoo??? When I left for Boot Camp, my dad didn’t warn me about loose women or crotchety old CC’s, but he did tell me that if I got a tattoo to make sure a short sleeved shirt covered it up. Smart man and advice I’m glad I heeded. Current occupation and all.) He worked at NASA building platforms for the Saturn program, and married my mom making a buck an hour. Four kids and a move to Georgia later, he was in management at Sheet Metal Engineers. Things were going well when he lost two children in separate car crashes about five years apart. Life was never really the same.
On August 8, 2012 he lost his final battle, a bout with Pulmonary Alveolar Proteinosis, of all things. PAP is a very rare lung disorder (about 500 cases per year worldwide) that is an autoimmune disease; the body cranks up the production of the surfactant protein and fills the air sacks in the lungs with fluid. Throughout his life he taught me things, and I guess that makes him my hero still. Even though he had become dependent on me in his last years, he will always be the one man that I will think about and wonder what he would have done in a given situation.
I will miss him terribly, and can only hope that I can measure up to the high benchmark he set for me. My hero is not a cowboy. He is a sheet metal worker. Not a barroom brawler, but a hard worker. Not a whoremonger, but a devoted husband. Not a modern-day drifter, but a dedicated family man. Not a high rider, but my dad.