Thinking about my dad, size mattered. His bicep’s mesmerized me back when I was a child. It seemed impossible for a person’s arms to be that humongous. You would especially notice them on days when he would hang around the house in his white tee-shirt, sleeves rolled up, (but no longer sheathing those packs of cigarettes he puffed prior to my birth.)
He took advantage of his height and muscles to rein in his four growing sons. He even had the blustery talk of a giant. And so we did what we could to avoid being whacked, busted up against the head, lashed with a willow switch until we bled raw, literally getting kicked out of the house, taken down a notch, beaten to within an inch of our lives, having our behinds blistered… It was mostly trash talk, but at the time we kids fell for it.
Sure, if he lost his temper there would be corporeal consequences. We boys sent a seventh grade babysitter home in tears once. That earned us some smacks with an apple tree stick: one whack depending on the age of the offender, which I the eldest thought unfair. And then there was the worst time of all, with a belt: the time my brother Jim and I had a paper route in Dalton City. Mrs. Earle at the candy shop allowed us to run a tab. We would pay it off from our newspaper profits. That arrangement lasted until my dad discovered that the tab exceeded not only our profits, but also the gross receipts from our weekly collections. We were short the cash to pay our one and only vendor, the Decatur Review. Our behinds weren’t exactly blistered, but it was hard to sit for a spell.
We were a little scared of my dad. The only time my mom was scary was when she decided to let my dad settle matters. He was six feet tall, and in all the family photos he towered over his parents, siblings, wife, and children. We saw the proof of his strength when we witnessed him move stuff like couches and pianos. I watched him strain to push cars out of snowbanks. One year, on vacation, he (or my uncle) drove the car too close to the lake and spent an hour straining and grunting to get it out of the muck. In a good mood, he would occasionally hoist mom in his arms and carry her through a doorway. He even wrestled our feral horse on occasion. And one of his college jobs was delivering furniture and appliances.
In an Arizona motel room one night, our family of seven (including a cousin along for that trip) was packed into one cheap room. It didn’t have air conditioning, of course, but the windows were stuck open, which helped… until a vicious thunderstorm hit around 3 a.m. It must have sprayed my parents bed enough for my dad to jump out of the covers, lunge at the window, and struggle to wrestle it down. I think I was the only one awake to witness the tussle. Staying perfectly still and silent, it seemed more than my dad having a hard time closing a window. It seemed I was beholding a battle between the powers and principalities. My dad appeared to be Hercules to me, (perhaps in part because he was dressed exactly like some of the statues I’ve seen of the god.)
Early on my dad must of reckoned that physical strength was necessary for surviving in this world. He also learned that verbal swagger was a strong substitute for actually having to use your muscles to punch someone out. Being the strongman became fundamental to his personae. Even when he was 90 and barely able to stand after a debilitating stroke, he occasionally reverted to his old ways. My brother Steve was helping him one day when my dad got frustrated and started punching him. The bluster was still there, but the punch no longer packed a wallop. The stroke had temporarily made him forget that he had long ago gone from strength to strength.
My dad learned soon enough that muscles weren’t the only source of personal strength. The Psalmist refers to the joy of going “from strength to strength.” As age steals some of our physical power, new forms reveal themselves.
By the time my dad was middle aged, he had discovered and developed those kinds of strength that come from relationships and religion, flexibility and forbearance, preparation and persistence, storytelling and self-discipline, optimism and orneriness.
Being ornery could make him the strongest one in the room because it exhausted everyone else while taking very little effort on his part. Optimism is contagious, and when he surprised people with it, they tended to go along. Self-discipline, for my dad, meant delaying gratification so he could get his work done. Such reliability gave him the strength that comes from others trusting him. My dad’s legendary story-telling gave him the kind of strength that could lift the spirits of others. Preparation and persistence were sources of strength that helped him move churches forward. Forbearance allowed him to let go of wounding slights and insults, and thus left him free to focus his energies and attentions on things that made him happy. Religion gave him access to sources of strength beyond himself. But more than any other strength, it was ultimately relationships that would constitute the bulk of his powers.
Of all the relationships that made my dad strong, the one he had with my mom was the most prominent, and the most powerful. The writer of Ecclesiastes noted, “two are better than one…for if they fall, one will lift up the other…if two lie together they keep warm…though one might prevail, two will withstand.” (Eccl. 4: 9-12) My mom and dad brought everything they knew about different forms of strength into their marriage. It was a marriage that featured countless arguments and an equal number of reconciliations. It was a dynamic strength that only comes from “a long obedience in the same direction.” (Eugene Peterson) Their marriage was two days shy of 67 years when he died. The two of them somehow found a way to pick each other up, even if the other didn’t deserve it. And they became stronger through sickness, want, failure, disappointment, relocation, diverging careers, family dramas, and opposite personalities.
As people share anecdotes and vignettes of my dad’s life, it is clear that he was nearly always the strongman in the room, even after his stroke, even after the skin on his arms flopped loose where muscles had once reigned, even after he became the shortest one in the room. He went from strength to strength.
In his younger days it was more about pride and security. But as he became wiser, his strength was mostly about happiness, for himself and others. Strength that is devoted to controlling others, or to becoming superior, or to compensating for lack of self-confidence bears seeds of its own destruction. It is what we mean when we say that those who live by the sword die by the sword.
But strength that is devoted to happiness and camaraderie possesses something eternal. When such is the case, we indeed move from strength to strength, even to our last breath. I know: I saw it with my own eyes.