“If you don’t, you’ll end up pumping gas for a living!”
If I had to pick one phrase that had the most impact on me as a young man, that would be it. Pumping gas represented the absolute rock bottom for a man, or so I was told by my father from the time I was old enough to understand it. It was used in times of great strife, such as bad report cards or detention slips for the many juvenile adventures of a well-spent youth.
“How do you expect to raise a family on the money you’ll make pumping gas?” This was the guidepost that was built during my adolescence, and would come to define my life as a man: How would I support a family? Of course, what is an easy answer at 16 often takes on greater complexity as we age, and by the time it became a reality I needed to face (two years later) I had been hard at work.
For many Gen X men, there existed two types of father figures; the hard working harried dad who just wanted to get through the day, and the newly single dad who was feeling his oats after his divorce. Having the former type, it was apparent that Conan was wrong. There could be little in life as good as paying your bills, seeing your credit grow, and raising the ideal children. Ours was not a legacy of conquest nor enormous gains—ours was a legacy of slow and steady. I, like many, learned that finishing the race was too important to try to accomplish things that could lead to winning the race.
The next 25 years were the golden age, the accomplishment of all his dreams as I followed his path perfectly. You’ve seen those commercials where father and son have that perfect moment? Yeah, it was like that, and I made each move as safely as possible to maximize my chances of finishing the race. Gladly I traded chances at more anything, in return for not failing at following the path—and, to my shame, I touted that same message to my son.
Until one day, the path was gone.
When the world changed, I was poised perfectly to fail spectacularly and, so torn up by what I was dealing with, I made the worst mistake a father can make: I hid it from my son…
How do you tell a man (which is what he is now, not sure how) that what you taught him, what he took as gospel, is wrong? If my perspective ever suffered it wasn’t because of my father, it was because of my stubborn belief in a way of life that was ending just as I began. The time for “just enough” is past, as is the concept of loyalty, and hiding my realization and the accompanying crash and burn from him was a mistake.
So I sat down with my son one day after he got home from work, just he and I, and I spilled my guts. Never had I felt so low, like such a failure as a father, as I did that day. My goal of raising a good man had been dashed by my own firm belief in a system that no longer existed. What would I change, given the chance? How would things be had I “grabbed the bull by the horns” as so many of my friends single fathers suggested?
My grown son, the very picture of an undeserved millennial reputation, answered the question for me.
“I’m glad that happened dad, you haven’t been happy in a long time.” Delivered with a grin and the glow of some power that I had somehow missed seeing in him until that moment. Maybe it had always existed, maybe it was born in that moment, but what I saw was the confidence of a man—one who takes care of his family.
I had never cried in front of my son, but that day I bawled my eyes out. For the relief of being free of that burden, for the bad decisions that went well and the good ones that didn’t, for those who fell beside me and those lost long ago. For all this I wept, smiling as he put an arm around my shoulder and referred me to his own guidepost—the message that I’d taught him as my father taught me, for better or for worse.
“Money is money. If we need it, we can always pump gas or something.”
So what would I change, what would make me more of the man I’d hoped to be?
I cannot imagine a thing.
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