When I was seven years old, my dad took my brother and me on a hike around our small town in south Mississippi. That hike would turn into one of the most terrifying moments of my life.
We walked along the Leaf River for a couple of miles until my brother and I were too tired to enjoy ourselves anymore. But unfortunately, by that point, the only bridge we could cross without hiking another mile was the bridge used by the train. To my horror, my wild-man survivalist dad decided we would all cross it in a single file line.
We crossed the bridge one extremely slow step at a time because in between the railroad ties, we could see nothing but a view of the Leaf River about 50 feet below. My brother and I were rightfully terrified that a train would come, but Dad calmly told us that if that happened, we would all jump from the bridge together and he would swim us to the bank of the river.
We prayed desperate prayers for mercy as we crept over the bridge and heard a train off in the distance, and when we finally made it to the other side, we cheered for Jesus and ourselves. “You did it, boys,” Dad said, and somehow I knew I could do anything with a little courage and God’s help.
When I was eight, a kid on our block beat me up, and after I pulled myself together, Dad took me into the back room of our apartment to teach me how to fight. He explained how to defend myself, and then he impersonated a bully and started pushing me. I knew what he was trying to do, but somehow it pricked a tender part of me and I just started sobbing.
He took me into his big arms and said, “It’s okay, son. We don’t have to do this right now. We can figure out how to fight another time.”
As Dad held me and let me cry, the shame of being beaten up lifted. It was okay for me to cry, it was okay for me to be weak. One day, I would be stronger – and I knew that was true because he said so.
Ten-year-old boys at my school were expected to be interested in hunting, fishing, and sports. I, on the other hand, liked producing radio theater with a tape recorder, a cassette tape, and homemade sound effects.
My dad didn’t try to arm twist me into being a little boy that I wasn’t. When I asked him to listen to my tapes, he sat next to the tape recorder and laughed wildly at the antics of my characters and the voices I used to portray them.
“Wow! You’re really good at that,” he would say.
I have not outgrown my father’s affirmations. I recall these stories at age 38 and feel as brave as I did when we crossed those train tracks; as confident as I did about my creative abilities; and proud to be a man who, like my father, isn’t afraid to cry.
On Sunday morning, Father’s Day, my three little kids will wake up and come downstairs to see me. It’s one of my favorite times of the day. Of the year. And I’ll be especially conscious of the ways I verbally affirm them, knowing that 30 years from now, when they’re all grown up and loving their own children, there’s a good chance they’ll still be hearing my voice.