I Finally Understood that my Father was Just a Man

Ben Estes
MDI President, Legacy Contributor

My father.

My dad, born in 1920, used to say he didn’t really know how to be a father. 

He was an only child and his parents divorced early. Until the age of eight, he bounced back and forth between mom and dad whenever fights, drunks, new girlfriends or boyfriends made raising him inconvenient. 

When he was eight, he ended up in an orphanage (they didn’t have foster care back then). At ten he was in a military school. By the time he was fifteen, he was on his own and working as a diesel mechanic at a CCC Camp in Hawthorne, Nevada. When he was 17, he contacted his mother to get parental permission to enter the US Navy. He hadn’t seen her in 11 years. When World War II started, he had been in the Navy for over four years. At 22 he made Chief Petty Officer.

Men grew up fast back then.

My Father and I didn’t “click” when I was a child. My dad had some anger issues, and although he never beat me or my family, his rage would scare me. I learned at a young age how to make him laugh (he was one of the funniest men I’ve ever known). When I was four, he got sober and joined AA. It didn’t eliminate his anger, but at least he had somewhere to process it. By the time I was a teenager, his anger didn’t scare me anymore, but it pissed me off and I judged him for it. When I was 15, I got sick of being there and I moved out on my own.

Like a lot of men, it has taken me a lifetime to learn who my father really was.

My relationship with my dad was fraught with emotion, both good and bad. As a child, my father didn’t know how to relate to me, and as an adult, I couldn’t do anything right. I loved my father, and I desperately wanted his love and approval, but I never seemed to live up to his expectations. In 1990, when I was 30 (in an attempt to bond with me) my father invited me to attend the World AA Convention in Seattle with him. I agreed to accompany him on the 13-hour drive to Seattle.

Needless to say, when you spend thirteen hours in a car with your dad, you both run out of “safe” things to talk about. On that trip, he told me that my mother was his third wife. He told me about his childhood and how alone he felt. He told me that he loved his father, but his dad’s alcoholism came between them. He told me about how his mother’s prescription drug habit came between them. He told me ALL about being a sailor, including the women he encountered. He told me all the things that dads don’t tell their sons “until they’re older.”

The things he told me were shocking, funny, embarrassing, and inspiring. 

He told me about things that forced him to question whether humanity was worth it. But most of all he told me in great detail about all the things he believed, all the things he was afraid of, all the things that inspired him and all the things he loved, including me. He wasn’t trying to convince me of anything, only to help me understand the journey of his life so I could better understand the choices he made. I finally understood that my father was just a man. I also understood how difficult his life had been, and I stopped judging him for not living up to my childhood expectations.

Two years later in 1992, I did the Sterling Men’s Weekend. Four months after that, my father did the Weekend, and we spent the next few years on a men’s team together. He stayed in the Division long enough to help create the Forge Men’s Division, the first men’s division in the Sacramento area.

When he died in 1999, we were as complete with each other as two people could be. I love my father, and I treasure every minute we ever spent together. 

I still hear his voice and know with certainty what he would say in any situation. I love you Dad.

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