Friday, June 14


  photo MomDadAndRyan_zps58818603.jpg
(Dad, mom and me. Circa 1982.)

I never write about my dad, and I don’t really know why.

He’s a ridiculous, larger-than-life character. A chain-smoking, Survivorman-esque sportsman. A hunter, fisherman and trapper of game large and small. A former dairy farmer, turned tavern owner, turned bird farmer. A grizzled, salt and pepper beard. A broken glass voice that literally hurts your ears, ravaged by decades of alcohol, cigarettes and general yelling at things that piss him off. While I currently inhabit a generation of urban hipsters that grow facial hair and drink PBR as a way to pretend they have something in common with their fathers, my dad’s mere existence reminds me that we’re only playing dress-up. Theodore James Olson is a man, and the older I get, the more I realize it.

As you would assume, my dad and I don’t talk a lot anymore, and frankly, we didn’t talk a lot back when we had more opportunities to do so. As a kid, I remember that he was run ragged by his job on the family’s dairy farm, and the few hours he had at home were usually spent sleeping or working on some outdoor project. We always got along, but we were predominantly acquaintances due to nothing else but circumstance. He didn’t try very hard, I didn’t try very hard, and we still sort of don’t. Seems like a bleak diagnosis, but I thought about it for a good five minutes, and that’s really the best way I can describe it. Family is like that sometimes, and it doesn't necessarily mean that you don't care.

When I was about 10, my parents divorced and I stopped living with my dad. Even at the time, I knew this was the best decision for the family. My parents were arguing pretty much non-stop at this point. My dad was in no real hurry to be more attentive to the marriage, and my mom (and her infinite anxiety) was asking too much of a guy that clearly wasn’t going to change. They loved each other, but were fundamentally incompatible. My mom would go on to remarry (and re-divorce) several years later, and my dad would go on to marry a woman he remains with to this day. Present day, my mom and dad are on good terms, live no more than a few minutes from each other and talk every few days. They’re both grandparents now (my sister has a son), and as unwilling as he might be to admit it, I’m sure he adores babysitting that kid whenever he gets the chance.

I went through my entire teenage phase without the constant presence of a father, and I have no doubt that this affected the way I communicated as well as the company I kept. Becoming man of the house at such a young age gave me a rather hefty aversion to male authority or belittling, ‘big brother’ friendships. While most in my position would search for a father figure, I attempted to become one, and I still prefer the company (and criticism) of women as a result. I never had a problem with how this turned out for me, so I guess I was one of the lucky ones. It could have been a lot worse had I not had a logical head on my shoulders.

I would send my dad cards on his birthday and see him about two or three times a year, a pattern I more or less keep to this day, 20 years later (he usually buys me a case of craft beer every Christmas, which makes perfect sense). It works for us; like I said, we get along just fine (my time living with him was as enjoyable of a childhood as I could have hoped for), we just don’t have all that much to talk about, and we know it. I’m not afraid to tell him that I love him, and I also wouldn’t be afraid to tell him that, due to his absence, I had to learn about a lot of things on my own that would have been easier with a man around. Doesn’t matter anymore, though, because as I matured and became a husband, I learned to wholly forgive both parents for every misstep that may have harmed me.

My parents are young. Both were under 20 when I was born. They had no intention of having a child together, and they had no intention of getting married, but my arrival put a hitch into a boatload of their future plans (which probably included a boat, now that I think of it). They tried their absolute best for what they had to work with at the time. They also made huge mistakes, but I’d be a prick to continue to fault them. I looked through a photo album a few weeks ago, and saw a photo of me on my dad’s lap at an early age. I marveled at how young my dad looked- he looked just like me, but with a moustache (a genetic trait among many that I didn’t earn from him). Then I realized that he was 21 years old in the photo.

When I was 21, I was so neck-deep in my own selfish, nonsensical problems that I assuredly would have been the most deadbeat father on Earth. I would have made more selfish mistakes than I could have counted. It’s for this reason (and many more) that you reach an age where you have to drop the resentment of your parents once and for all. Unless they broke the law in the way that they raised you (and my folks didn’t), then you have to find a way to make them okay in your head, because the only thing it’s doing is driving you (and maybe them) crazy. Again, at some point, you’re going to have to forgive your parents for not being the parents you wanted, and I have.

But hey, we did have some good times, and my dad has definitely lived a life worthy of random celebration. So I took an hour to write down whatever random memorable moments I could think of during the childhood I spent in his company. These are the things I think of when I think of my dad, and in honor of Father's Day, I'm sharing them for you now.

1. My dad saved my life when I was 8 or 9. I had climbed into the passenger's side of his truck, failing to buckle up or properly close the large door (I was kind of an idiot). A few seconds later, we took a hard left turn, my door popped open and I started to fly out. Using what can only be described as Dad Strength (a superpower that only arrives upon fatherhood), he reached over and snagged me in a snap, fighting the centrifugal force while still steering the truck. When we lurched to a stop, there was a few seconds of silence before he began chewing me out for not buckling up. Best-case scenario, I would have been thrown from the truck. Worst-case, I would have been run over. I never thanked him for that; I probably should.

2. Although it still defies logic (another example of Dad Strength), my dad could always beat me in a running race. Even to the age of 35 and me in my teens, he always managed to win. I was a pretty decent sprinter at the time, and he was a chain smoking non-athlete to say the least, but the dude always won.

3. On a particularly freezing Winter night, I was stuck at the farm with dad as he milked cows (as a dairy farmer, this used to be done manually and several times a day). I was miserable; the barn wasn't insulated and I had nothing to even preoccupy my brain to distract me from looming hypothermia. Needless to say, I was whining up a storm for quite some time. My toes were numb; my socks and boots weren't doing the trick. I told my dad this, and he gave me his socks while finishing the rest of his work sockless in boots. That's a manly act; it was seriously goddamn freezing that night.

4. Sticking with the dairy farm, I once saw him get kicked in the face by a cow, leaving him with a lower lip swollen to the size of a golf ball. He didn't miss a day of work.

5. The first time (the first time) he met my wife (then 18 or 19 years old), we went to his game bird farm to say hello. As a sportsman, dad tends to see beauty in things that most of us...might not see beauty in. Anyway, when we walked into the farm, dad was rooting around in a meat freezer, and eventually produced a Ziploc bag full of pheasant heads. He tossed them in my wife's general direction, proclaiming "Aren't they beautiful?" Celia rolled with it, I was mortified, and for my dad, he thought it was as welcoming of a gesture as one could hope for. Later in the conversation, he discussed the logical ramifications of the disposing of a human body. There is no question that I got my sense of humor from him.

6. Once when he was pushing my sister on our backyard swing set, a bird shit directly onto the brim of his hat, and he didn't even pause to look up or remove said hat. He knew what happened, but he didn't want the bird to think it won.

7. As a sportsman, my dad liked to trap small animals (think mink, fox, skunk, etc.). In order to trap animals, you need to lure them with some kind of...well, lure. A good lure is usually hormonal, such as animal urine or something that they secrete from various glands (this is about as much as I know). Well, one Summer weekend, my dad disappeared into his shed to concoct a special blend of lure of his own design (Note: my dad is not a scientist). I'm not sure what he mixed together in that shed, but it ended up being an inadvertent chemical weapon. He got sick, the shed needed to be torn down, and a good portion of the grass surrounding the shed died. He saved a small bottle of this lure, and we he uncorked it a few months later, a visible plume of smoke rose from the bottle. We still talk about this at family gatherings.

8. I punched him straight in the stomach once as hard as I could, and he didn't even flinch. We weren't even fighting or anything, he told me to.

9. One of the things I admire most about dad is that he's his own boss. He has run his own businesses for over 20 years now, and honestly doesn't seem to care about money whatsoever. His desire to not be bothered might be the thing I most inherited from him; while most of my family takes great delight in dissecting human behavior in an attempt to find reasons to be outraged, my dad would be fine, absolutely content without reserve, if he never saw anyone else ever again for the rest of his life. As a man, there's something very noble (if not bizarre) about this true lack of ego.

10. One of the bleak realities of working on a dairy farm is that animals will inevitably die almost every week. From cows to stray cats, farm living is a near-daily task of cleaning up gross messes. When animals would die, there was a mass grave out in the middle of a field where they would be transported and disposed of. I had always heard about this place, but never actually saw it until one day when I asked to ride along with my dad as he hauled away a stillborn calf.

We pulled up about 100 feet from the grave, but it still took my breath away when I rolled my window down on the pickup truck. It was horrific; decades of animals in various stages of decay. I watched my dad drag the calf down from the tailgate and onto the pile without so much as a twitch of disgust, pause for a few seconds (either out of respect or merely to rest his arms), and slowly make his way back to where I was. He was wearing coveralls stained by years of similar, back-breaking labor.

What I saw standing on a mound of festering animals was a man-- and a father-- doing his job. The job he had been asked to do his entire adult life up to that point, taking into consideration how quickly 'adult life' begins in a family of farmers. From that moment on, any time I felt that I had the right to honestly complain about a job that I had to do, I thought about what my dad did to support his family for the first few years, and how well I would have fared under the circumstances. For the last decade, I've made money by sitting in front of a computer in an air-conditioned, corpse-free office. I don't have a right to complain.

I should probably send a card this year.

A corpse-free office is really the best office one can have.
A couple years back I built a tower on the back 40 of an old dairy farm up in Exeland, right on the Sawyer/Rusk County line. The farmer had used the wooded area as the dumping grounds for years and it was surreal to be staking out a tower compound with hundreds of mossy cow skulls strewn about.
CELIA - They finally shoveled away the hobos that were killed during the cold snap.
WALLROCK - I'm glad to hear this is a common practice. I mean, they've got to go somewhere, right?
Well written.
Thanks, buddy.
This was a good essay. Dads sometimes have it kind of rough and we don't always appreciate our parents until there's a lot of distance between us and them.
Thanks much; it's been a while since I've received so many kind words, messages and e-mails about an essay. Extremely happy that it resonated.

You're right; for as personal of a story as this is, it's a situation everyone with family can relate to. The older we get, the more we see people for who they are, and we get a better sense of empathy and understanding (well, some of us do, at least).

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