I grew up in a great home, the oldest of three Jones boys. My dad was a pastor, my mom a school teacher. We didn’t have much in the early years, but I never knew the difference. We had enough. Our needs were met. Our relationships were rich. We had each other.
My father’s life loomed large in our home and I looked up to him in more ways than one. I suppose that’s normal for a young boy to idolize his dad. I loved mom, of course, but dad…he was something. In my case, Pop represented the epitome of strength and boldness. He was the definition of what I thought it meant to be man. He was a leader who modeled integrity. He was a Christian who walked with God. He was the guy who showed me how to shoot a gun and use a pocket knife and clean a fish—you know, all the important stuff. And he impressed something very deep in me, that I’ve never forgotten. I’ll show you what I mean.
One year, when I was a teenager, we were invited as a family to attend a canoeing trip on the Russian River in California. We were so excited. We donned our helmets and paddling gear and set off down the sleepy stream. One canoe was too small of course, to fit all five of our tribe. I may be the oldest, but both my brothers have me beat in the height and weight department, so we split up. Being the oldest, I captained one vessel, while my dad skippered the other of this rickety craft. My mom, not a particularly strong swimmer, rode with me. But that was going to change.
We’d been given some instructions from the canoe company about which fork of the river to follow. Clearly, we missed something, because what we came upon next was nowhere on our map. As we rounded the bend, suddenly the serene landscape changed. The sense of quiet isolation on a gentle river went right out the door. We had paddled right into the wild whirlpool of a Nudist Colony.
Naked people were everywhere: on inner tubes, on lounge chairs, on picnic tables. (There’s something deeply disturbing about naked guys eating fried chicken, by the way.) They were playing volleyball. The were flinging Frisbees. And just in case you’d missed all that, colonist after colonist were somersaulting into the river from the forty-foot rope swing strategically positioned to broadcast the camp’s location. And every one of them were naked a picked birds.
My mother is a very modest person and she was instantly mortified. My dad immediately came to her aid. “Mom’s going to ride with me from here, boys” he directed. We paddled together quickly and my mother disembarked for Dad’s boat, just in time for our first meet and greet. Looking back, the sight of this teenage boy’s jaw hitting the canoe floor must have been pretty funny. I’d never seen anything like this before. And it wasn’t long before the first dude in his birthday suit came floating out to us.
“Hello!” he called to my dad. I know he was talking to my dad, because my mom had her face in her hands. “Hello! Just passing through,” my dad replied, as he attempted to paddle past the man and his air mattress. (Candidly, there’s no classy way for a naked guy to float on an inner tube.)
“Well, hey man,” said the floater, “How about if I swim over there and get in your boat? I can float with you guys for a while.”
My mother was horrified, and honestly a little panicky. Why would this strange man from this strange place want to do such a strange thing? Mix that with a dose of terror from the thought of being spilled into the river and having to swim for her life. Instantly, came my father’s reply.
“How about I part your hair with this boat paddle?” he threatened. “Nobody’s gonna be gettin’ in my boat today.” And with that we darted past the bewildered man, who looked like somebody had just prematurely blown out his birthday candles.
When we got back into calmer, less naked water I popped the question. “Dad, what was that guy thinking? And what would you have done if he would have tried to climb in the boat with you and mom?”
He paused for a moment as though gathering his thoughts for this salient teaching moment with his three sons. He said, “Boys, nothing in all my life is more important than your mother. And taking care of her is my number one job. I meant what I said to that guy. The possibility of him not only embarrassing Mom, but flipping us both right out in the river was very good. And I wasn’t going to let that happen.”
It wasn’t bravado. I had every confidence that guy would have been wearing a boat paddle where his ball cap should have gone. My dad went on to challenge us that when we had a family of our own, the responsibility would fall to us. The truth is, as fathers, we can’t always control what’s around the river bend. We can’t promise that a freak on a flotation device won’t come looking to invade our space. We certainly can’t control the fact that we live in a chaotic world, filled with people and behaviors that are going to sully our scenic waterway from time to time. What we can control is whether we let it get in the boat.
I thought my father was hilarious then, and I think it’s hilarious now. But beyond the humor of my mom getting splashed by that rope swing, lies the sober reminder of one dad to another. Always take up the standard to be bold on behalf of your family. If you don’t, who will? And the next time you see Crazy floating down the river toward you, get a good grip on that boat paddle. You may need to thump a knot on somebody’s head. That’s what a good dad is prepared to do.