I originally wrote this piece three years ago while reflecting on the ongoing effects of my birth father's life and death nearly fifty years ago. And, the maniacally dysfunctional life I lived for too many years after his death. The story did not end like that, thank God. I was fortunate that another hero came along, and my life became bookended by a second father. He also passed on, but only after many sacrificial years of demonstrating what authentic heroes are composed of and how they never die.
To my birth father Elmore 'Matt' Matheson and my second father Howard 'Hank' Smoyer, this piece is dedicated.
|July 2, 1960 My Fourth Birthday|
~~~True Heroes Never Really Die~~~~
Like a rain-soaked cloud on a stormy day, his death blanketed my mind infusing every pore. My breath felt strangled, and every hope voided leaving only sadness in its wake. My young soul simmered to bursting, but without any relief in sight.
My dad was gone. Goddamnit!
Ten-year-old boys are not equipped to suffer a wrenching loss such as death. That was the main attraction this day. The closing act designed to erase my father’s life from this earth.
Center stage surrounding the shiny casket stood garish sprays of flowers you only ever see at horse races—and funerals. From where I sat neatly filed away between Mom and Grandma, I could see the waxen features of Dad’s strong face protruding from the polished box. Archaic piped-in hymns kept the mood at a full-tilt grim, and Death’s boots stomped an indelible print into my miserably shattered soul.
We family members were segregated well away from the larger gallery of—mere spectators—those obligatory witnesses to our collective grief. A week later they would adjust their lives to do without Ellmore ‘Matt’ Matheson. Five decades (and counting) later he continued to occupy a front row seat in my day-to-day life.
Despite the drowning sadness of that day, my faith was at its peak; I clung desperately to a vain hope that Dad would shake himself awake and climb from that wretched box. Then we could go back home to the beautiful humdrum of our lives.
The crowd queued up to file passed the open casket. Not me. No, sir. No way.
I WOULD NOT be part of that ghastly parade.
More than one well-meaning relative stopped, and with a gentle pat on my hand encouraged me to come along and view his corpse. What could they have been thinking? Was convention so indispensable they found it necessary to heap even more torment onto such a young boy?
A horde of silent whispers grew in my head as one by one every spectator struggled not to look in my direction. Couldn’t they see that I had the most skin in this game?
And they were worried about tradition!
Surrounded by my family and friends, I felt utterly abandoned and the only person with enough care or courage to sit with me that day and say, "Everything will be alright," lay stretched out in the casket. He would have done so whether I was his son or not.
I was an only child, but now had less than nothing. Why had I been singled out to be cheated of a father? Where was God while my dad lay dying? (In a hospital room I was deemed too young to visit)
What, besides pure evil (perhaps ignorance) could let a child bounce down such wicked tangents as those jagged rocks of death? An unfamiliar rage crept like a wolf on the prowl circling through the dark forest closing in on me. Life was no longer innocent.
|The Outlaw 1985|
Hunched around its slowly dying fire for warmth, my innocence, and ambient peace were stolen away in such small bites that I wouldn’t recognize what had happened till years after anger bloomed with a life all its own. It wouldn't be until twenty-five years later that the fiery bitterness would finally begin to cool. The treasure Dad had stealthily hidden away would finally see daylight.
Since that ugly day so long ago, I've amassed a growing corps of personal heroes, yet, compared to a father, they play only minor supporting roles in the story of my life. I look to them to spur my skill, talent, and gifting; to inspire me to strive in character and craft. But, the Drum Major stands his post ahead of them all. Barely a day goes by without his lessons and examples working their way to the surface of my decisions, actions, and exploits. It’s incredible how much soul Dad was able to pack into the short ten years he guided my growing little life, almost as if he knew his time would be short.
If I die knowing my life had even half as profound an effect on my children and grandchildren as Dad had on mine, my life will have been well lived.
My earliest memory of Dad was when I was three or four years old. Somewhere in Europe, I was hanging from the doorway of a car and peeing into a malevolent rainstorm. He drew enough bravery from me that night to voluntarily dangle from an open door and do my business.
As years went on, he taught me the much more noble art of growing things. I sold produce to our neighbors, born from my vegetable plot. Still clear in my mind is Dad helping me discover the mystery of black spots that showed up on the leaves of my plants: Charcoal in the soil. Today no one could accuse me of being a good gardener, but how many lessons in commerce, responsibility, and hard work grew in that little garden? Over time, those lessons would grow into factory management and eventual business ownership.
|818 Mantle Lane Santa Ana, CA 1962|
Dad was able to correct single-handedly my pigeon-toed feet by simple, kind and consistent reminders not to walk like that. When I show my toddler son how to throw a ball or I must admonish his behavior, Dad still whispers in my ear the right words to say.
On one of our many spontaneous early A.M. fishing trips, I caught a crab, a monster by seven or eight-year-old standards. Its fearsome claws awed me, but Dad saw an opportunity for a lesson in courage.
"It's not as scary as it looks," he said. "Put your finger in the pincers and see."
I drew back with a fearful, "No!" Dad exerted the mild loving pressure it took to get me to do anything, and I put my finger in the claw. He was right of course. Just a little pinch. Today I know that most things are fiercer in appearance than they are in reality. Anything Dad asked me to do, I would do. And defiance, so commonplace in young people today, was nearly inconceivable for me. His ‘suggestions’ had the power to pull daring, hard work and sacrifice from a timid little boy who would rather not be those things.
Running home one day, from the threats of a bully (older and taller than I) Dad turned me around and marched me back to face Dale Rudd. Up until the very moment that Dad said, “Fight him,” I fully expected he would take care of the menace for me. That battle looked more like a dance than a fight (I’m sure Dad knew it would). Lesson learned- Never back down from a threat, the slightest temptation to do so sets me to thinking of Dad standing next to me.
He and I built a slot car track out in the garage. It was on a large board with pulleys that could be pulled up to the rafters and out of the way. How many simple things such as the use of tools and more complicated things like patience and persistence did that project teach?
One of my fondest recollections was going to work with Dad during my summer vacations. He retired from 27 years in the Army and now worked for the Santa Ana Parks Department. Eating lunch with him and his coworkers made me feel much older than my seven years. I spent the day catching frogs while he worked. We took the frogs home in Chinese food containers, and on the ride home in the cavernous four-door blue and white ‘55 Chevy they all disappeared. They were small but not minute. We never did find them.
|Me and Grandkids 2010ish|
Above all I think Dad taught me to be kind. It was his standout trait and showed in everything he did. He never explained, it was just part of who he was. You could be sure not to mistake his kindness for timidity or weakness, for he was never afraid to stand up for himself or a victim of another's abuse. He also had some very strong views on world affairs that wouldn't be very user friendly today.
In those days a family outing could simply be to drive around, and on one of these Dad accidentally hit and killed a small dog. I remember sitting in the car with Mom as he picked up that dead Wiener Dog and carried it through the neighborhood looking for its owners so he could tell them he was sorry.
If, in the end, I turn out half as kind and compassionate as Ellmore H. Matheson, I'm good.
The bitter memory of not being allowed to visit my dad in the hospital where he died still sits aching in my head like an abscessed tooth. Too young they said. I’m glad it’s not that way today.
In that at least our society has grown more compassionate.
Paramedics’ forcing him to ride the gurney downstairs was the last time I physically saw my dad alive. His repeated remonstrations to allow him to walk down the stairs still ring in my head. Every day he was in the hospital, I looked forward to talking with him on the phone. I don’t recall what we talked about, but I know both of us fully expected him to come home. Until the day I returned home to a gray room and a tearful mom.
"Come sit here Mikey," she said patting the cushion next to her.
The day of his funeral is still clear as yesterday. I was 10-1/2 years old. No young son should have to bury his father. Unfortunately, for us in this violent, disease prone world, it happens much too often.
I wasn't frightened (in the squeamish sense) to view his body, but refused to see my hero so powerless. He was superman, strong and without a doubt loved me. He had the answer to every question. How could he do so from that box? It has taken many years of life in the raw to learn that a hero like him could never really die, but lives on in every breath, decision and deed of my life.
Today he is just as strong if not stronger, and now 48 years down the road many of the seeds he planted in the first decade of my life are just now bearing their fruit. That’s a true hero, and one that can never really die.
Many years later, when as an adult I was stuck in a tailspin, my mom married another great man. It took me several years to reconcile him as a father to me. But I did.
|From Left My Daughter Sheri, Brandy, Mom, Dad Hank, Christal|
In discussing this thought with a good number of people, I found it difficult to locate more than a couple that have had even one GOOD father in their life, and I’ve had two.
I understand my tremendous good fortune.
While writing the original version of this piece my second father was battling cancer from which I fully expected him to recover. He died just as I was finishing.
Howard “Hank” Smoyer earned the right to be called my Dad. He was not an ‘also ran,’ but another real hero that will never die. It would take another story to tell you why.
Mixed up in the midst of all my madness and trouble, God used two real men to sculpt my life, and they are carving away still, for true heroes never really die.
|Tobias and I|