Today is my dad’s 50th birthday. It would be nice to run home for a surprise party or go out for dinner, but the distance makes this a bit difficult right now. I could do the usual phone call when he gets home from work, and that would be fine. But I chatted with Mom and Dad for almost 2 hours the other night, so I thought I’d do something a little different here on my little, insignificant corner of the World Wide Web.
Many people have told me I have a gift for writing, so I hope this comes out as a gift for my dad on this special day. For those of you reading that know and love Al Berg, please post comments or happy birthday messages by commenting on this article when you have a chance.
Like many an American boy, the most vivid of my childhood memories with my dad revolve around sports. Ever since I can remember, he always made time to play catch with us, hit whiffle golf balls in the back yard, practice our tennis ground strokes, or take a bike ride around South Fargo.
During the summer, he dropped off our golf clubs in the morning and then picked them up from the course on the way home from work. This allowed Paul and I to ride bike unhindered by the awkwardness of a golf bag.
Then there were the infamous one-on-one football games between Paul and me, with dad serving as all-time quarterback. Inevitably, these games ended early with Paul crying because dad was intentionally throwing interceptions so that I would win. Dad was innocent and tried to explain how these things happened because Paul didn’t run the routes properly. Being the younger by three years and substantially shorter, the victimized Paul would have none of it. Yet dad endured and kept playing sports with us until we reached the age where we started to beat him. At this point, the basketball and tennis ceased, as Paul and I preferred to play against each other. While it seemed unremarkable and even expected during my childhood, I am amazed at how he found the time to make playing with his boys a priority.
While we were never poor by any means, there wasn’t a lot of extra money to run to the store on a whim and buy the boys whatever they wanted. Herein lies the genius of dad’s instruction. He found a way to motivate, teach, and give to us all at the same time. Even if we had had more expendable income, this would have been the optimal way to handle the situation.
Frequently I accompanied him to the old Scheels store on University Drive to look at baseball gloves, tennis rackets, golf clubs, and bikes or to Best Buy to peruse the latest Minidisk players or televisions. After returning home I would dream about ways to get my hands on these most precious of possessions. Often a baseball glove or bike would be partly a birthday gift and partly paid for by our savings.
The story I love to tell, even to this day, is how dad gave us each 3 glass baby food jars. With masking tape we labeled one jar tithe (10% to the church), one savings, and one spending. Here we learned to prioritize our weekly allowance and money earned by doing odd jobs. When were finally able to make our big purchases, I could hardly contain myself as we went to Metropolitan Bank and pulled out 2 or 3 $100 bills from my account! The satisfaction was infinitely greater than if dad had simply slapped them on the credit card.
Later he did whatever it took to help me succeed by driving me to my two paper routes every morning. On another occasion he mowed 20 laws for me in order to keep my lawn care business going while I was on a mission trip. He did these things with a smile on his face and almost always with a positive attitude.
I’m not sure why, because Lord knows he had opportunities, but Dad never was one to lecture me. Sure I had the “Type A” personality, but I was still a kid. Rather, there must have been a lot of subtle messages of responsibility along the way.
While our church met in a school for a few years, our family often shared the responsibility of setting up or taking down for a Sunday or Wednesday service. Also, Dad was often the only soundman during those years. We showed up early to set up the audio snake, microphones, speakers, and folding chairs and went home late after taking it all down. He carefully showed us how to wind cords properly and evenly space rows of chairs.
When I was only 8, he allowed me to help him mow the middle of the lawn and later allowed me to do it all by myself. Even after I accidentally ruined one of our lawn mowers, he did not yell at me and continued giving me responsibility. By his example and teaching, he showed us the importance of doing something well.
The memories from high school aren’t quite as nostalgic, but this has nothing to do with any fault of my father. Any adolescent strives for independence and I did so even more fervently. While we didn’t fight, I know it was hard for my dad to see me struggle to find friends and yet not want to confide in him more. But even though I may have hurt him at times by my distance, he was always at my side.
Whether it was Babe Ruth baseball or Bruin basketball, he and mom were faithfully there to support me. Even when he had to come early to watch me play JV, he still stayed through varsity games and rooted me on during my two to four minutes of playing time. He was never the gossiping type that whined about the lack of playing time with other parents or the coach. There was always a positive message of “Kyle, other parents keep telling me you’re a good player. They don’t understand why you don’t play more.” I’m just realizing this now, but that was a very positive way to keep me upbeat yet avoid being critical and negative toward the coach.
When I went off to college at ORU, an interesting transition took place. We became more like friends than anything. As I matured exponentially, it was actually enjoyable talking to my dad on the phone. It felt so nice to have these conversations after so stridently seeking independence during high school. He never complained that I was 800 miles from home and needed to go to school at a closer university.
He and my mom were always happy for me and would tell me of the growth that was taking place in my life. While they may never have realized it, this was another example of giving me responsibility. It kept with the pattern dad had always used with us growing up: Give them responsibility until they give you a reason to take it away. When asked why I think I had great parents as a child, without hesitation, I cite this giving of responsibility.
To say my dad was selfless in regard to his family would be an understatement. I marvel at how he did the majority of the cooking even when it wasn’t his favorite thing to do or had no idea what to make for supper on a given night. He patiently accepted the majority of the responsibilities around the house and with the boys so that my mom could pursue her dream at Park Christian School.
There are those who do things for others but it comes off as an obligation or they try to make others feel guilty for giving them the responsibility. Dad was never this way. At times it was extremely difficult and he would cry, but never did he complain to us. It was this consistent modeling of character and selflessness that taught us humility–again without having to say anything.
I have made at least 3 very big decisions in my life: Attending ORU, interning in Washington D.C., and moving to Argentina. For a long time, the support of my dad in my decisions did not seem like a big deal. Then I met my friend John in Washington D.C. As I listened to the anguish in his voice after being criticized by his dad for pursuing his dream of being a teacher and studying history, I quickly came to appreciate the gift of my father. My dad has not only supported my decisions, but has encouraged me and told me what a great opportunity I had. Even in the eclectic mix of these stages of life, he has been with me the whole way. The countless hours he has spent on his knees for my brother and me is a debt we can never repay. The best I can do is to make him proud throughout the rest of my life.
Finally, my dad’s lack of a strong father figure during his childhood makes all of this even more impressive. While his dad was not a drunken wife-beater, he had little input into my dad’s life. Call him a neutral influence if you will. His only instructions were often “don’t do this or that,” but without explanation or taking the time to build character in his sons. Also, he was 45 when my dad was born and continually ailed by arthritis. He passed away when my dad was only 22 or 23 years old.
They say there is no manual to parenting and it’s learned on the fly. While this is true, and my parents are far from perfect, I will have an incredible advantage whenever it’s my turn to be a father. This is perhaps the greatest gift I’ve received–the opportunity to take what I’ve seen modeled in my dad, both good and bad, learn from it, and pass along the opportunity for an even better life to my children.
For some reason, I can have trouble sharing my affection with my family. I’ll work on that. But right now I want to say, “Dad, I love you with all of my heart. I’m crying as I finish this and reflect upon the great fortunate I’ve had. Sure, there are things you wish you had done better. But who doesn’t? Thank you from the bottom of my heart for being the single greatest influence in my life. I owe you more than you’ll ever know. The Christian heritage you have given me is priceless. I hope to make you proud and give you the biggest heavenly reward possible with the results of my life. May God bless you on this special day. I miss you very much and hope to see you soon.”