Father’s Day

My father and me, testing a Cub Scout rubber-band rocket in about 1975.

My father and me, testing a Cub Scout rubber-band rocket in about 1975.

Publisher’s Weekly just put out its list of the “10 Worst Dads in Books,” which seems like bad timing just before Father’s Day. While the article notes that “bad dads turn up less in fiction than bad moms,” the issue of bad fathers in books reminded me of some early discussions I had with publishers about The Man Who Thought Like a Ship. 

I contacted a few commercial publishers, but they seemed disappointed that I hadn’t suffered any childhood angst, that my father hadn’t left me scarred somehow by showing greater love for his ships than his children.

Fortunately, the folks at Texas A&M Press knew my father well, and they understood. I approached my book as a journalist, but also as a son writing about his father. The fact that he was an inspiration was, I decided, part of the narrative. Soon after my father’s obituary appeared in the New York Times, a friend from Oregon emailed me and said “he sounds like the father the rest of us always wished we had.” I suppose that’s true.

A few months before he died, my father asked me out of the blue if I ever resented the fact the he was gone so much when I was growing up. I was shocked. We’d never talked about it, but even though he was often overseas for months at a time, I never felt abandoned. What I remembered was the hours he spent helping me on projects, taking me places, encouraging my interests and intellectual curiosity.

“I can’t think of anything that mattered to me that you weren’t there for,” I told him.

He looked surprised. “I missed your high school graduation,” he said. “Your mother never let me forget it.”

I thought about it for a moment and realized he was right. He’d gotten delayed overseas that year and hadn’t made it home in time. But I stood by my statement, and I still do.

After my father’s death in 2007, my brother and I knew lots of people would focus on his amazing accomplishments in nautical archaeology. In writing our eulogies, we wanted to focus on him as a father. Later, I tried to capture that in the book, too. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

Several years ago, after an INA board meeting, one of Dad’s students approached me and said she wanted to tell me how much Dad meant to his students and what a profound impact he’d had on their lives.

I remember thinking “yeah, he does that.” After all, if anyone can testify to the profound impact that Dad had on their lives, I can.

As many of you know, we spent a year on Cyprus when I was a kid – I was about seven at the time. That experience in and of itself was life changing – not many kids have a Crusader castle for a playground. But it was that time on Cyprus that awakened my interest in writing.

There weren’t a lot of books in English readily available for kids my age, and I was still young enough to command a bedtime story.

Often, the power would go off about the time I was getting ready for bed, and so between the lack of literature and the lack of lights, Dad began telling me stories from history. I learned about the Battle of Thermopolyae, the conquest of Alexander the Great, and, of course, Richard the Lionheart and the Third Crusade in our darkened living room.

But one night, Dad sat down at story time with some typewritten pages in his hand and began to read them to me. It was the tale of a pine tree – an Aleppo pine – that grew in a zig zag fashion. Because of this deformity, the other trees in the forest laughed at him. They were made into furniture and fine woodworking, but this tree, this Crooked Aleppo, was left behind.

One day a shipwright showed up in the forest and decided that the crooked tree would be perfect for the keel of a ship – a merchant ship as it were. The ship and its keel, crooked no more, sailed the Mediterranean for many years until one day it sank. Many more years went by until strange men with tanks on their backs uncovered the keel. They tried to raise him, and he broke into 16 pieces. They rebuilt him in a Crusader castle in a small town in northern Cyprus.

I think I caught on at the first mention of the word “keel,” but it didn’t matter. I was captivated. Every writer has some story, something they read in their youth, that they can point to as the spark that ignited their passion for words. For me, it was the story of Crooked Aleppo.

Not only was it a great story, but it was a story about something I knew and, more importantly, written by someone I knew. And written for me. It made me realize that stories didn’t just appear on shelves or in magazines, people wrote them. They wrote them for others. And I could write them too.

The summer we returned from Cyprus, I shamelessly copied my Dad’s format. I wrote an entire series about every piece of the Kyrenia ship – the frames, the maststep, the mast.

And from then on, I was always writing, always weaving stories.

It almost backfired, though. Years later, when I was a senior in high school, still driven by my passion for writing, I was dragging my feet about college. [Kids, you may now plug your ears.]

One night my dad came into my room and said we needed to talk seriously about college. I basically said I was thinking I’d just become a great and famous writer instead.

My dad, of course, didn’t get angry, didn’t raise his voice or even show any signs of disapproval. He paused for a moment, and then calmly said that he understood how I felt, but that I should realize making a living as a writer could be difficult and that it was a subjective business. And then he said: “I think you’re a good writer. But I’m your father, and I’m a little biased. So we have to realize there’s a chance you could stink. And if you stink, you’ll want something to fall back on.”

Even at 17, I couldn’t argue with that logic. Needless to say, I enrolled in A&M, found a career that combined my passion for words with the thirst for knowledge I inherited from my father and have spent the past 20 or so years trying very hard not to stink.

All of you who knew my dad as a friend, colleague, professor, mentor, brother, uncle or grandfather, were fortunate. But Dave and I were uniquely blessed because we knew him as a father.

At the time, it all seemed very normal, but I was reminded of how special it was just a few days ago when a friend in Oregon, having seen the stories on Dad’s death, said: “He sounds like the father the rest of us always wished we had.”

I’ve been a father myself now for about 16 ½ years, and every day I try to live up to the example he set. Every day, I come up short. His are shoes too big to fill.

Fortunately, my father also taught me perseverance, determination and that important achievements come through persistence.

Dad showed us the importance of chasing dreams. In fact, his life could be a practical guide to chasing dreams. He took risks, he gambled, but his gambles were rooted in practical sensibility and his victories were muted with humility.

As he allowed us to share in this great adventure that was his life, he never forgot the importance of simple pleasures like bedtime stories.

And in pursuing his own dream, he managed to ignite the dreams of others.

Maybe there are a lot of bad dads in books. I’m grateful to tell the story of a good one. Happy Father’s Day.

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About lorensteffy

Loren Steffy is a writer, speaker and consultant. He is the author of Drowning in Oil: BP and the Reckless Pursuit of Profit published by McGraw-Hill in 2010 and The Man Who Thought Like a Ship, published by Texas A&M University Press in April 2012. A journalist for more than 25 years, he was most recently the business columnist for the Houston Chronicle.
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