It is fitting that in my first memory of my father, he is running.
I am about four years old, and he is running toward me with a weird smile on his face. I don’t understand why he is coming toward me so fast, but he is smiling that strange smile, so I can only assume that he is happy and wants to hug me or something. He doesn’t slow down as he approaches, and I tense up, both confused and anticipating.
He runs right past me.
He runs to his pickup truck and grabs something out of it.
Then, he disappears through the bushes into our neighbor’s yard.
I stand there, trying to piece it all together. My mom walks out. She looks in the direction my father went. She looks worried.
“Why was Dad running?” I ask.
“There is a fire at our neighbor’s house,” comes the reply.
I ponder this. “But why was he smiling?”
She stares at me. “He wasn’t smiling.”
Years later, I learn what a grimace is. And years later, I can tell you what he grabbed out of the back of his truck: it was a fire extinguisher. I know that because he carries one in the back of his truck to this day.
I say that this is a fitting memory for my father because it is how I see him: He is a man of action.
Here is another memory:
I am about twelve years old. My family is walking through the mall one evening. We are on the second floor, near Sears, and we stop at Baskin Robbins for some ice cream. We sit on one of the benches that overlook the bottom floor of the mall while we eat our ice cream. We hear a commotion across the way, on the other side of the second floor. A fight has broken out in the mall. I have never seen a fight before, and I look up in time to see one man throw another man into a store front. The plexiglass undulates with the impact. People are lining the railing around the second floor watching. No one is moving except the two men.
Well, no one is moving except the two men and my father. I do even know my father has left us until I see him across the way, pulling one of the men off of the other one. Another man, with silver hair, also intervenes and stands between the two fighters, his arms outstretched toward each one, trying to keep them apart. Together, my father and this other man break up the fight. Strangely, I am horribly embarrassed by all of this. In my self-centered, self-conscious little world, I am embarrassed that my dad is part of such a public spectacle. Dad rejoins our family, and people watch us as we walk out of the mall. My embarrassment deepens.
Looking back, I am proud of him.
I am approximately seventeen. My brother and I are sitting in our trailer way back in the woods on our church’s property, of which my parents are caretakers. He and I are sitting up late, talking. Dad is asleep on the couch. I start to say something, and Mike shushes me. He hears a noise. I laugh at his scaredy-cat nature, but he gets up and looks out the back window, the one closest to the road. I hear him wake Dad.
“Dad, Dad! There’s a car coming, and it’s driving all crazy, slinging gravel and stuff!” It is awfully late for a car way back here, especially one driving out of control.
From a dead sleep, my Dad leaps off the couch and shoots out the front door. Stunned at Dad’s failure to grab a gun or to consider notifying the authorities, Mike nevertheless plunges after him, always loyal. Dad and Mike leap past the porch stairs and disappear around the side of the house. Beams from headlights bounce crazily into the trees. Mike yells, “They’re coming through the yard!” And then…
And then, I hear Dad let out a war cry and Mike follow suit. Lightning flashes across the sky, and thunder rumbles (it really does). Mom walks out on the porch, and says, “I’m calling the police.” Icy fear grips me in this completely surreal moment.
Brakes squeal. An engine roars again. The headlights turn away. I run back through the house and out the other side to see what has happened. Gravel is spraying everywhere as the car beats a hasty retreat. Mike is screaming expletives and throwing fistfuls of gravel after it. “Let’s go after them, Dad!” he yells. But now that the immediate danger is averted, Dad is calm again. “No, no, go inside. We are not going to ‘go after them,'” he chuckles.
After he has calmed us kids down, Dad and Mom go after them. Long story short, they find them and report them to the police.
(Later, I learn that in the moment that Dad let out his fearsome yell, he charged the car. On foot. With no weapons. I ask him, “Dad, what were you thinking?” He answers, “I’ll tell you what I was thinking. I was thinking, ‘If I can just get one hand onto that door handle. Just one hand…”)
One more story:
Dad and I are sitting in a Toyota dealership in early 2009, buying a Sienna. The man who has sold us the car is filling out the loan information, and he reveals that he recognizes Dad. He says, “You live on the lake, right?”
“Yes,” Dad chuckles, “How do you know that?”
The man grins sheepishly. “I was stranded on the water, and you gave me a tow.” Dad and I laugh, too. I know that Dad always helps people who are stranded on the lake. Strangely, the man also knows this. “You are always giving people tows,” he says.
I could tell so many more stories, but those four do well to exemplify my father. When people are in need or in danger, he does not hesitate to intervene. And when his family is in trouble, he will walk through fire to save them from danger. Perhaps many people will do the latter (although probably not with Dad’s gusto), but I don’t know too many people who faithfully practice the former. For example, when I was in college minoring in Psychology, I learned about the Kitty Genovese case. To summarize it, Kitty Genovese was a woman in New York who was stabbed in three separate attacks by the same man one evening over an extended period of time. Although she screamed for help, no one in the apartment complex called the police until it was too late. According to the Wikipedia article in the link, some of the facts surrounding the case have recently come into question, but the shocking reality remains that many people heard Genovese’s cries and assumed that someone else would do something about it. In light of this case, psychologists started researching what they called “the bystander effect.” In large crowds of people, they found that individual intervention into problems was actually less likely, since, for a variety of reasons, everyone tends to assume that someone else will handle the situation.
I think of the bystander effect when I think of all those people at the mall, watching the two men brawling.
I think of the bystander effect when the jet ski I’m riding has broken down on the lake, and all the boats continue to zip by as I wave my arms for help. I am always shocked at the lack of response.
My Dad doesn’t stand and watch people beat each other.
My Dad doesn’t pass by when someone is waving for help.
My Dad will charge a coming car if he has to.
And my Dad is the man I’ve watched my whole life.
I think it is because of my dad that when I hear about an issue, such as child slavery, I feel the need to do something to intervene. Or I hear about a situation at church and feel actual discomfort if I don’t do something, however small, to impact the situation. It has to be my dad’s influence, because my own natural impulse is to shy away from such problems. It is easy for me to hear about a problem in the world, like human trafficking, or, for that matter, to hear about a problem in the local church, like a young mom who is having a really hard time, and think, “Why should I be the one to get involved? What can I do?” It is easy for me to let self-doubt and second-guessing and even plain selfishness get in the way of helping the victim bleeding on the side of the road. Like the priest and the Levite in Jesus’ story, I am tempted to cross to the other side, away from the messiness of intervention. But that’s not how I was raised. That’s not how my Dad is.
Instead of, “Why me?” he thinks, “Why not me?”
Instead of, “Someone else will handle this,” he thinks, “I need to handle this.”
He is a man of action. And I want to be a woman of action. And my dream is for the church to be a people of action, to be the type of people who, when they see atrocity, or injustice, or desperate human need, say, “Not on our watch.”
Sometimes, when I see a problem, I honestly don’t know what to do. Sometimes, I can do precious little. But I do know one thing: Doing nothing is not an option.
My Dad taught me that.