Any father who has raised children knows this truth. There is no playbook for raising children that insures victory. No easy formula, no set rules—in short, no instructions written on the back of each baby to follow in the rearing of a productive, law abiding, stable human being. All too much we are aware that there are wonderful parents whose kid doesn’t turn out so wonderful. There are also not so wonderful parents who turn out wonderful kids.

And even when a father’s head presses the dying pillow, he still doesn’t know for sure. I’ve sent elderly people to prison whose parents have long passed from this world.If you have raised kids and they are good people not in prison, or dysfunctional, don’t slap yourself on the back. Thank the good Lord. Therefore, it would be presumptuous for any of us to lay claim to any special knowledge as to how to succeed in the most important job any man will ever have.

However, if I had a loaded gun put to my head and commanded to write my own personal guidelines for a father to follow in raising children, here is what I’d write:

1. Take your children to church. Many lament the hypocrisy of church members and preachers to rationalize not giving their children a religious upbringing. This is a cop out. Remember, father of the young, it’s not about you; it’s about them. The record is clear, church going children have a better shot at making it morally and spiritually than non-church going youngsters. And there is one lasting legacy assured to all parents who take their kids to church. No matter where they end up in the vast sea of theology, they will always know you cared.

2. Throw out the television. This is the edict that earned for me from my children the label “weirdo Dad.” Now with my children grown, every single one of them will tell you today it made a positive difference in their lives. “But there are some good things on TV,” is the standard retort I receive from others. And, of course, there are. Just as there is some pretty neat stuff out at the city dump if you care to go out and dig around in the rubbish.

3. Stay married to Mom. If you haven’t stayed married to Mom, at least treat the mother of your children the way you would want your mom to be treated. Whether you are still married to mom or not, how you and your children’s mom get along will still affect their welfare.

4. Make few rules. Curfews are, of course, a must for teenagers. Other than that, you might get by with the commandment, “Do what you’re told.” That should about cover it.

5. Enforce the rules no matter what.

6. Ask one question of your child each day. I don’t mean the old stale inquiry, “How was your day?” Something that requires your child to think, reflect, and verbalize. “What did you talk about in history today?” is a little better. This not only requires your child to communicate a little. A lot of times it gives you an idea of where your child has been all day mentally. If your child seems to be remote and adrift, send him or her to their room and require them to write down five things that they believe in. It will tell you more about your child than a thousand hours of counseling.

7. Say grace at meals. Every child in America should be thankful.

8. Share one meal each day. For most of us men, this will require some strict attention to rule number three. The mother of my children deserves a medal and a pension for her devotion to this cause.

9. Suffer in silence. This (outside of banning TV) may be the toughest rule to follow. This is especially true with school age children. There will be injustices and slights imposed upon your children by well meaning teachers, principals, and coaches from the first day they enter school. Unless they are major eruptions in your child’s life, never pass up an opportunity to keep your mouth shut. Children must learn early that life is not always just, fair, or enjoyable. The younger they learn to cope with this on their own, the better. If there are unfair teachers and coaches, there will be unfair employers and laws they will have to follow as grown men and women. And here’s a brutal truth. Most times when dealing with disagreements with school bosses, your child will be in the wrong. Don’t be an enabler. It bears bitter fruit later when it’s drugs and sex instead of playing time on the team or a bad grade in Algebra.

10. Teach by example. When all is said and done, “Values are caught, more than taught.” And be careful what you say. Don’t pass your prejudices along to your children. For instance, we would have all been better off if previous generations of parents in the south had carried their racist views unspoken to their graves.

So there you have it. You can now take the gun away from your head.
Being a father is the most important job any man will ever have. If you’re not a father, you are still a father figure to many youngsters in your community. All men will tell you that they have been strongly influences by other men other than their fathers.

So, Father’s Day should be a day when all men, whether they have children of their own or not, should rededicate themselves to being the very best they can be.
There is a picture on my wall at home of the great, late baseball announcer Jack Buck. It is inscribed to my children, but is an apt instruction to all men everywhere.
“Good, better, best. Forget all the rest. First be good. Then be better, but don’t quit till you’re the best.”

Happy Father’s Day!


June 18, 2010

We continue to see mediocre professional athletes sign contracts for millions of dollars a year. I have long lost the ability to fathom how any athlete is worth that kind of money. I’m not envious, but I’m always struck by the injustice of it.

How can we pay professional athletes that type of money to play a game, and those who teach and mold our future be paid such a paltry sum in comparison? Whether a major league baseball player has a banner next year, or whether he breaks every record in the books, it will have not one iota of impact on what kind of children we raise. It will not affect the quality of our public officials nor will it determine who will be performing surgery, repairing cars, or educating our young twenty years down the road.But teachers do.

Think about this. Our future depends upon our children. In our society today, who has children in their custody and control most of the time?
Not parents. The large percentage of the time when children are in the custody of their parents, they are not under their control. They are either glued to the television set, out running around with their friends, or asleep. The answer of course is teachers.

From the time that they begin as mere babies in preschool and over the next twelve to twenty years, young minds, personalities, and attitudes are daily molded by people who we pay less each year than Derek Jeter will make with one at bat.One could argue that one good thing about the low teachers’ salary is that we get very good people to teach our children who are not motivated by money. Most all of them could be doing better financially in other trades, occupations and professions. Fortunately for all of us, they recognize the grand purpose in their calling.That purpose is what makes life with living.

We can fight drugs, crime, violence and lawlessness on a grand and massive scale. Judges can send people to the penitentiary until they are brimming over with humanity. But no one has a great influence on the direction young people will take than those who are with them most of the time in their younger years.
Read a story about an errant kid gone straight, humble beginnings leading to grand and glorious heights, success out of the ashes of despair, and you will almost always find a teacher or a coach who is the main person who made a difference.

There is a saying, which I like, “You never know to whom you are speaking when you talk to a child.” It may be a future Stephen Spielburg, Billy Graham or Sandra Day O’Connor. Or it may simply be someone who does not reach the height of fame and fortune but goes to work everyday, pays taxes, is law abiding and makes a contribution.
It is reported that the ancient Greek teacher, Socrates, taught under a shade tree. Many teachers undoubtedly envy such simplicity. Today because of state, federal, and local regulations and guidelines, they are inundated with paperwork, deadlines, forms, and reports which have—at least in their eyes—very little to do with their classroom performance. Those who teach in special education these days deserve a Purple Heart and a pension.

Years ago there was a clear line of separation between what went on at home and what went on at school. That no longer exists. With the increasing number of dysfunctional families, substance abuse, divorce, and other types of social maladies occurring, they all spill over into the classroom. Teachers and the entire school system are looked to more and more as being people who must meet some of the larger social needs and not just the teaching of reading and arithmetic.

Henry Books Adams placed the role of the teacher in the long perspective when he wrote, “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell when his influence stops.” No one takes on the awesome task of teaching because of money. But it would say more of us as a society if we paid then more to acknowledge their true worth.

Sons of Thunder,

I was in Vietnam when that war came to an end in January 1973. What I’m about to report is the best I can recall and relate. After the cease-fire, I was at Camp Holloway in Pleiku. I received a call one day from either my commanding officer in Saigon, or down at Nha Trang-can’t remember which. These instructions were given to me. Proceed over to Camp 21 on the north side of town. There at the S-1 shop (personnel office) you are to document and verify the remains of dead American soldier. Now that the war had come to an end, the people at the Pentagon were already thinking ahead to the remains to go into the tomb of the unknown soldier for the Vietnam War at Arlington cemetery. I drove over in my jeep; got out and went into the dusty S-1 shop. My vague recollection is of this. Those compounds consisted of offices, which were dusty Quonset huts (half moon medal modulars) or open air, frame hooches with screens. I walked in and a private was sitting at a medal desk, probably layered with a thin red dust that came from the red clay of the Central Highlands of Vietnam. I remember his nonchalance when I asked to see the remains. He points me to the back room and showed me a cardboard box sitting on the floor. I opened it and examined its contents. I remember—and this really gets hazy over the years–seeing fragments of bone. Maybe part of a skull, femur bone, maybe some other pieces, but not much. In the box were also some personal effects including a jungle boot or two. I either filled out a form, signed and left, or called in the confirmation— I can’t remember which.

A Letter to My Five Sons

I didn’t make much of it, because I couldn’t really relate to it very much. In combat zones you don’t really concern yourself too much with anything that doesn’t appear to be relevant with that very moment—survival and getting home. Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for Vietnam? Whatever.

It was only years later, 1984, I believe that I became interested in this topic once again. President Reagan was speaking at the dedication ceremony at Arlington for the internment of the remains of the unknown soldier of Vietnam. I’ll be dern. I remember that trip over to Camp 21 and wondered if all that pomp and circumstance was being made over a few bone fragments and some parts of his uniform. But now, instead of a cardboard box in the back of an old dirty S-4 shop in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, these remains were going to be encased in granite and marble—watched over by around the clock sentinel marching smartly to the reverent admiration of gawking tourists.

Then the years rolled by to 1998 and I was reading a fascinating story in Time magazine. With the advancement of science and DNA, the remains of the unknown soldier of Vietnam in Arlington had become known. It was Air Force Lieutenant Michael Blassie, of St. Louis Missouri who had been shot down over jungles of Vietnam near An Loc in May of 1972. They had not been able to recover his remains for some time because of the heavy occupation of the area by the Viet Cong. I apparently got to know him about a year later. He was exhumed from Arlington and returned in a solemn ceremony so that he could be laid at rest at last by the tender and loving hands of his family in St. Louis.

Was it really Michael Blassie that I documented on that day in the S-1 shop in Vietnam?
I cannot swear to it, because I think they were trying to select the mortal remains from several different candidates for the honors. Makes no difference really. Whoever it was in that box died for his country. And to me he will always remain, the unknown soldier.

And I honor him.

Happy Memorial Day.