By Annie Newcomer:
I love looking back to the innocent time in my life when I truly believed that my father was a superhero. My sister and I used to love snooping through my mother’s top dresser drawer. A mother of nine children in a four-bedroom home really never had a safe place to keep her treasures hidden from curious little girls. One day, when Mary Jo and I were fairly certain that the coast was clear, we committed ourselves to a session of sleuthing, and we came across the photo of our father taken at a casting call where he auditioned to play Tarzan. This was all the proof we needed to show that our father was, indeed, a true action hero.
I wrote this story about my father, a single episode of many, which is based on a true story from my childhood. To this day, I aspire to be like my parents. To land on my title, I played on the common idiom Like Father, Like Son.
Like Father, Like Daughter
"Get in the car," my father yelled at me, his voice at a fever pitch. Even in my dazed state I could hear each syllable of his command but remained frozen even on this hot summer day. The distressed young Black girl who had come screaming out of the backwoods behind the public swimming pool stood behind me, hiding in the shadow of my frame. As I looked to the side, I saw a pack of boys barreling down the hill in our direction.
My father had arrived to drive me home after my eight-hour lifeguard shift at the inner-city public swimming pool. The family car was packed with my younger siblings who were impatient and ready to mutiny as they unrolled the car windows and even tried to open the doors with their innocent little hands, hoping to set themselves free from the used 1960s station wagon that did not have air-conditioning. But my father, seeing only the incoming danger and not the girl behind me, remained completely focused on me and pitched his voice even higher as I stood immobile. Again he yelled at me, and his loud words struck me emotionally and hurt.
"Get in the car!"
Still, I held my ground, fortified by all the social teachings I had absorbed over the years from observing my parents. I locked eyes with my father. I sensed his fear that I could not ignore. But the girl’s trembling reminded me of a vulnerable baby bunny. I wrested with this duty to protect her simply because she had somehow chosen me to save her.
"Dad, she says they’re going to kill her."
Throughout my childhood, my father, who towered above everyone, used to walk the grounds of our neighborhood in the evenings, a ritual he developed and took seriously before he himself could unwind and go to bed, as though he understood that God had ordained him as the shepherd of our neighborhood, and all who lived in our modest subdivision were designated as his sheep.
Understand that when I said my father was a big man, I meant very big. He played college basketball. The neighborhood kids respectfully called him Bubba, after the fierce Michigan State and NFL star football player Bubba Smith. Nobody dared mess with Bubba. I learned while writing this piece that Bubba had longed to play football at the University of Texas but because of his skin color was denied any scholarship there.
My father was raised to care about the vulnerable. For example, I remember when Mr. Taney, an older gentleman in our neighborhood, called our home when the second-largest man in the area placed stakes up and down his lawn, infringing on his land. This action decreased Mr. Taney’s property line considerably. I remember watching my father put his coffee cup down, after my mother shared the substance of the distressed call, and head out the door. Not to be denied, I raced after him, in the shadow of his large presence. My father circled the stakes that had been pounded into the ground a couple minutes earlier, carefully assessing the situation. Then, as though he were the place kicker in a championship game dependent on his points, he swung his leg back and kicked that piece of wood that never stood a chance against my father’s powerful leg clear across the street. While this wasn’t a touchdown, it sure felt like the winning field goal. I might as well have been in the stadium watching Michigan State beat an opponent and cheering after an awesome defensive tackle. Good play, Bubba.
Then there was the time when the police finally located Billy Eckert, the young Native American boy who was often bullied at school, who had run away from home. Mr. Eckert asked my father to help him bring his son home. My father accompanied the distraught father on a journey that crossed state lines and took two days. They brought Billy home and found help to tend to his emotional needs.
These memories shaped me.
Sometimes in my childhood, when worries snuck into my bed covers unannounced and I was unable to sleep, I’d go downstairs where my dad would most likely be seated in his soft black-leather oversized chair with a book. Seeing my uneasy face, he’d put the book down and talk with me. Saying my name in a most gentle soft voice that was, of course, surprising to hear since he was, after all, a giant, he’d assure me, "You just need to remember that when you do the right thing, everything will turn out ok."
The pack of boys were closing in. I saw my dad standing by our car with my younger siblings hanging from the windows.
"Dad," I called out again, "she says they’re going to kill her."
Remembering my dad’s example and his encouragement to always do the right thing, I understood what needed to be done. I grabbed the girl's hand and told her to follow me, running fast but making sure she could keep up with me. My dad, now grasping the situation, moved in tandem with me. After pushing the little ones back safely into the car, he ushered us into the front seat before hopping in and zooming off, leaving the boys behind with contorted, angry faces.
I felt the trembling of the targeted teen next to me. We drove around for an hour or so before the frightened girl shared her name and directed us to where she lived. As she got out of the car to go into her home, my eyes locked with my dad’s again, glad we were on the same team.
Annie Newcomer teaches poetry classes at the University of Kansas Medical Center's Turning Point—a place for hope and healing for people suffering with chronic health problems. Her North Stars series shares interviews with poets and writers and Annie's own experiences through writing.