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Fathers, Sons, and the Punch Heard Round the Gym

I can’t say I’ve thrown many haymakers in my day, but I certainly remember the first.

The punch in question occurred before a basketball game when I was in fifth grade, and its landing spot was on the smirking mug of my own teammate. As memory serves, it was a Saturday tournament, my squad was preparing to warm up before our first game of the day, and a loudmouth named Russell noticed my somewhat-large dad asleep on his back atop the bleachers.

“Hey, look, guys,” Russell exclaimed, gesturing toward my dad. “A beached whale!” Hearing this insult directed at my hero, and without even fleeting hesitation, I turned around and made certain that Russell had eaten his daily allowance of knuckle sandwiches.

I was benched for the game -- a punishment totally worth the pricetag -- and when Dad heard the reason why I had to sit for four quarters, he could barely conceal his pride as he forced an explanation of why “violence is never the answer.” After all, a goofb

all kid had stood up for his old man the only way he knew how. I was the player of the game in Dad’s eyes, and I was only on the box score as a DNP. (For the record, Russell and I laughed about it later on, and in all the years since.)

In a few short months, I’ll become a father myself, and in between providing footrubs and reading pre-parent literature that suggests one provide a great many footrubs, I’ve been pondering episodes such as this one from my own childhood. Many of t

he questions my wife and I have about all that’s yet to come are perfectly answerable, either by medical professionals or via the panic-inducing war stories -- blowouts, tantrums and teething, oh my! -- that friends and coworkers have disguised as advice.

But the questions that have become more common, outside of which cheeses and cleaning products are still permissible in our household, are more of the existential variety: what sort of kid will ours be? Sure, we hope he or she is cute and healthy and says many of the darnedest things, but I don’t think it’s uncommon to look a little further down the road, to when I’m that somewhat-large dad catching some winks on the bleachers during a Saturday tournament. Or, perhaps more appropriately, I find myself hoping that I’ll be up to the task should I have to impart some Andy Griffith-level wisdom should my own progeny come out swinging.

As I so often do when there are concerns that can’t be solved with a Google search, I went to my dear old Dad to ease my mind.

“Everyone’s terrified when it’s their first child. And it doesn’t matter how much you read or prepare, you won’t really be ready.” Oh, great. Thanks, Dad. But he continued, “Here’s the thing, though: nobody really knows what they’re doing. You can’t really worry yourself with not screwing up, just do the best you can and pray like crazy.”

Then, when the conversation turned to the punch that landed me in the locker room for a good portion of my fifth-grade basketball jamboree, he remembered one part that I’d conveniently managed to forget.

“What I remember is how when I talked to you about it, how hard you were trying not to cry. You were so remorseful, and I think I ended up consoling you, in fact. And weird as it was, that’s what you hope for as a parent, that you’ll see some of your own values show up in your kids. You were wrong, and you admitted it. But you showed a little loyalty and backbone, too.” Dad never got around to complimenting me on my left jab, probably on account of time.

“But,” he finished, “don’t worry about having all the answers. You’ll get there. For now, just do all you can to prepare yourselves for something you can’t fully prepare for.”

Footrubs it is.

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