This is a piece I wrote two years ago as I reflected on the ongoing effects of my birth father who died nearly fifty years ago. And, the manically dysfunctional life I lived ‘spun out’ for too many years. I was fortunate that my life was bookended by a second father who also passed on, but after many sacrificial years of demonstrating what true heroes are and how they never die.
To my birth father Elmore ‘Matt’ Matheson and my second father Howard ‘Hank’ Smoyer, this piece is dedicated.
~~~True Heroes Never Really Die~~~~
Like a rain-soaked cloud on a stormy day, his death blanketed my mind infusing every pore. My breath felt strangled, and every hope abandoned leaving only sadness in its sloshing wake. My young soul simmered to bursting without any relief in sight.
My dad was gone. Goddamnit!
Ten-year-old boys are not equipped to suffer such a wrenching loss as death which seemed to me to be the main attraction that day. The closing act designed to erase my father’s life from this earth.
Center stage stood the shiny casket amidst garish sprays of flowers you only ever see at horse races—and funerals. I sat neatly filed away between Mom and Grandma, and from there I could see the waxen features of Dad’s strong face protruding from the polished box. Archaic piped-in hymns kept the mood in the room at full-tilt grim, and Death’s boots stomped their indelible print into my miserably shattered soul.
We family members had been segregated well away from the larger gallery of—mere spectators—whose obligation was to be witnesses of our collective grief. A week later they would adjust their lives to do without Ellmore ‘Matt’ Matheson. Five decades (and counting) later he continues to occupy a front row seat in my day-to-day life.
Despite the drowning sadness of that day, my faith was at its peak; I clung desperately to a vain hope that Dad would shake himself awake and climb from that wretched box. Then we could go back home to the wonderful humdrum of our lives.
The crowd queued up to file passed the open casket.
Not me. No, sir. No way.
I WOULD NOT be part of that ghastly parade.
More than one well-meaning relative stopped. With a gentle pat on my hand and a few seemingly kind words, they attempted to coax me into coming along for a look at his corpse as if it was as easy as a trip to the zoo.
What could they have been thinking?
Was tradition so indispensable they found it necessary to heap even more torment onto such a young boy?
A horde of silent whispers grew in my head as I felt every spectator struggling not to look in my direction. Why couldn’t they see that I had the most skin in this game? And a game it seemed to me at the time.
Even though my family and friends were all around me, I felt utterly abandoned. The only person with enough care or courage to sit with me lay stretched out in a casket.
He would have done so whether I was his son or not.
I was an only child, but now had less than nothing.
Why had I been singled out to be cheated of my father?
Where was God while my dad lay dying? (In a hospital room I was deemed too young to visit)
What, besides pure evil (perhaps ignorance) could let a child bounce down such wicked tangents like the jagged rocks of death?
An unfamiliar rage crept like a wolf on the prowl and circled through the dark forest that I was not mature enough to see closing in on me. Life was no longer innocent.
Hunched around its dying fire for warmth, my innocence, and ambient peace was stolen away in such small bites that I wouldn’t recognize what had happened till years later after anger bloomed with a life all its own.
It wouldn’t be until twenty-five years following that the fiery bitterness would finally begin to cool. The treasure Dad had stealthily hidden away would finally get to see daylight.
Since that ugly day so long ago, I’ve amassed a growing corps of personal heroes, yet, compared to a father, they play only minor supporting roles in the story of my life. I look to them to spur my skill, talent, and gifting; to inspire me to strive in character and craft. But, the Drum Major stands his post ahead of them all, and Barely a day goes by without his lessons and examples working their way to the surface of my decisions, actions, and exploits. It’s incredible how much soul Dad was able to pack into the short ten years he guided my growing little life, almost as if he knew his time would be short.
If I die knowing my life had even half as profound an effect on my children and grandchildren as Dad had on mine, my life will have been well lived.
My earliest memory of Dad was when I was three or four years old. Somewhere in Europe, I was hanging from the doorway of a car and peeing into a malevolent rainstorm. He drew enough bravery from me that night to voluntarily dangle from an open door and do my business.
As years went on, he taught me the much more noble art of growing things. I sold produce to our neighbors, grown in my vegetable plot. Still, clear in my mind is Dad helping me discover the mystery of black spots that showed up on the leaves of my plants: Charcoal in the soil. Today no one could accuse me of being a good gardener, but how many lessons in commerce, responsibility, and hard work grew in that little garden? Over time, those experiences would grow into factory management and eventual business ownership.
Dad was able to correct my pigeon-toed feet single-handedly by using simple, kind and consistent reminders not to walk like that.
When I show my five-year-old son how to throw a ball, or I must admonish his behavior, Dad still whispers in my ear the right words to say.
On one of many spontaneous early A.M. fishing trips, I remember catching a crab, monstrous-looking by seven or eight-year-old standards. Its fearsome claws awed me, but Dad saw an opportunity for a lesson in courage.
“It’s not as scary as it looks,” he said.
“Put your finger in the pincers and see.”
I drew back and shrieked, “No!” but Dad exerted the mild pressure it took to get me to do anything he asked, and I put my finger in the claw. Of course, he was right. Just a little pinch. Today I know that most things are fiercer in appearance than in reality.
Anything Dad asked me to do, I would do. And defiance, so commonplace in young people today, was nearly inconceivable for me. His ‘suggestions’ had the power to pull daring, hard work and sacrifice from a timid little boy who would rather not be those things.
Running home one day, from the threats of a bully (older and taller than I) Dad turned me around and marched me back to face Dale Rudd. Up until the very moment that Dad said, “Fight him,” I fully expected he would take care of the menace for me. That battle looked more like a dance than a fight (I’m sure Dad knew it would). Lesson learned—Never back down from a threat, and the slightest temptation to do so sets me to thinking of Dad standing next to me.
He and I built a slot car track out in the garage. It was on a large board with pulleys that could be pulled up to the rafters and out of the way. How many simple things such as the use of tools and more complicated things like patience and persistence do you suppose that project taught me?
My fondest recollections include going to work with Dad during my summer vacations. He had retired after twenty-seven years in the Army and now worked for the Santa Ana Parks Department. Eating lunch with him and his coworkers made me feel much older than my seven years. I spent the day catching frogs while he worked. One day, we took the frogs home in Chinese food containers, and on the ride home in our cavernous four-door blue and white ‘55 Chevy they all disappeared. Those frogs were small but not minute. We never did find them. I imagine him telling that story in heaven and getting laughs all around.
Above all, I think Dad taught me to be kind. It was his standout trait and showed in everything he did. He never explained, it was just part of who he was. You could be sure not to mistake his kindness for timidity or weakness, though. He was never afraid to stand up for himself or an innocent victim of someone else’s abuse. He had some strong views on world affairs that wouldn’t be very user-friendly today.
In those days, a family outing could simply be to drive around the city or countryside. One of my greatest memories occurred during one of those. Dad accidentally hit and killed a small dog. I remember sitting in the car with Mom as he picked up that dead Wiener Dog and carried it through the neighborhood looking for its owners so he could tell them he was sorry. No further words should be needed here as a testament to his caring, kindness, and strength of heart.
If in the end, I turn out half as kind, compassionate, and brave as Ellmore H. Matheson, I’m good.
The bitter memory of not being allowed to visit my dad in the hospital where he died sits aching in my head like an abscessed tooth. I was too young they said. I’m glad it’s not that way today. In that at least, our society has grown more compassionate.
Paramedics’ vain attempts to force my dad to ride the gurney downstairs after a cardiac episode was the last time I physically saw him alive. His repeated remonstrances still ring in my head. Every day that he was in the hospital, I looked forward to talking to him on the phone. I don’t recall what we talked about, but I know both of us fully expected him to come home; until the day, I returned home to a gray room and a tearful mom.
“Sit here Mikey,” she said patting the cushion next to her.
The day of his funeral is still clear as yesterday. I was 10-1/2 years old. No young son should have to bury his father. Unfortunately, for us in this violent, disease prone world, it happens much too often.
My unwillingness to view his body did not come from fear. I just refused to see my hero like that. He was Superman strong, and I knew without a doubt that he loved me. He had the answer to every question.
It has taken many years of life in the raw to learn that a hero like him could never actually die but lives on in every breath, decision and deed of my life.
Today he is just as strong if not stronger, and now forty-nine years down the road many of the seeds he planted in the first decade of my life are just now bearing their fruit. That’s a real hero and one that can never truly die.
Many years later, I was an adult stuck in a tailspin; my mom married another great man. It took me several years to recognize and reconcile him as a father to me. But I am glad that I did.
In discussing this thought with a good number of people, I found it hard to find more than a couple individuals (especially men) that had even one GOOD father in their life. I’ve had two and understand my tremendous great fortune.
While writing this piece my second father was battling cancer from which we all fully expected him to recover. He died just as I was finishing this piece.
Howard “Hank” Smoyer earned the right to be called my Dad. He was not an ‘also ran,’ but another real hero that will never die.
Dad had a love for history and Football. Football never rubbed off on me, but his love of history fueled mine. He shared his books with me most notably the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian. Historical novels about the English Royal Navy set in the Napoleonic era. There was twenty-one in all; he would me mail me one and I would mail it back when I finished. The postage cost as much as the book, but we both enjoyed the system. He was Irish-Catholic to the core and loved Notre Dame.
The minister who spoke at his funeral did not know him. Hank Smoyer was not a churchgoer, but knew his Bible and had a love for God.
The minister interviewed the children of whom there are seven between my Mom’s and his own, and came away with this picture:
At the funeral, he said he’d gotten a clear vision of Hank Smoyer and used this text:
Philippians 2:3 Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself.
There wasn’t a dry eye in the house because everyone knew the minister had nailed it. Dad was indeed selfless, sacrificial and concerned with others above himself. Even when people betrayed and stole from him, he never gave in to bitterness and never cut them off from his compassion.
Towards the end of his life, no one knew how truly sick he was because he continued to cook, shop and take care of the homestead and the people around him.
I am sure this is why he only lasted a couple of days at home on hospice care. He did not work well with being taken care of. He told me he had made his peace with God and to see first-hand his love for my Mom was inspiring. Theirs was a flaming hot romance to the end.
Mixed up in the midst of all my madness and trouble, God used two real men to sculpt my life, and they are carving away still.
True heroes can never really die.
MMay 29, 2017 Fort Bragg, California brings back memories of flying homemade kites with my dad in the early 60’s.