My stepdad knew I wasn’t fond of him, but that never stopped him from having me pack his parachute. He was a skydiver, and for some reason, he trusted an 11-year-old to straighten, fluff and fold his square chute on the tarmac while he smoked joints with his buddies during “safety meetings.” I’m a father of two boys now and I look back in disbelief: There my younger self is straightening lines in a dusty airport hangar.
My step-dad was brash, rude, funny and often scary-as-hell. He was my primary father-figure for close to 13 years and I haven’t spoken to him in about 20. He wasn’t invited to my wedding. He was never a Facebook friend. I doubt he knows I have children. I’m frankly unsure how that bridge burned down, but I do know that the mustachioed lunatic I battled through the majority of my school-age years shaped me into the parent I’ve become–and not in entirely negative ways.
It’s not that hard to imagine why he came into my life. My mother was recently divorced. He was our upstairs neighbor. He’d lean over the rail looking like a carbon copy of Burt Reynolds and chat her up. He was fit, an avid cyclist who also worked on oil rigs. He had a great smile and a fine laugh and was always holding some marijuana. His skin was deep tan and his hair was worn in a loose 70s perm that inexplicably worked for him.
In some ways, I’m much like my stepfather. I also take an aggressive approach to party attire. For me, it’s a flag motif onesie on the 4th of July. For him, it was a red hat with plush wings and a t-shirt that read “Mustache Rides 25 Cents” in fuzzy, iron-on letters. Neither outfit was or is worn with irony. And I share my stepfather’s love of his generation’s music—my record collection is lousy with Fleetwood Mac and Quicksilver Messenger Service–crap movies, drinking, and going on ill-considered adventures.
But I’m not my stepfather. Sure I love boobs and sex but I don’t make a thing about it all the time. I keep a check on my toxic masculinity. It’s more irritating than blatantly poisonous. And while I love to have a good time, I’m not working for the weekends or blowing my mind every chance I get looking for an escape from the drudgery of work. Also, I’m less high strung and not as interested in personal fitness. I’ll never have a home gym or one of those rolly sit up wheel things that haunted our living room and was constantly in use by my stepfather.
I like to believe I’ve made an improvement on his parenting style, too. My stepfather did not shy away from turning red and giving me a thump when he was angry. He was quick to yell and quick to punish. He was a very strict man and it drove a wedge between us pretty early on. We screamed. We slammed doors.
I’ve swung wide from that path with my own boys, inspired largely by his bad example. I speak calmly to my children. We talk about why things are the way they are and the way our actions make people feel. I attempt to build the responsibility in them that was never built in me. I do not make angry threats. I don’t resort to distance or silence. I’m present in the exact way my stepfather wasn’t. The only intimacy I don’t offer is stories about my own childhood. I don’t talk about that with my kids. They may understand where I’m coming from, but they don’t understand where I came from. I’m not there yet. I’m not ready for that talk because it’s a complicated talk.
If I’m honest with myself, I can’t blame the guy for his parenting style. He was in the prime of his life and he suddenly had an elementary school aged kid to care for when all he wanted to do was smoke weed, hang out in a hot-tub, jump out of airplanes, and ride his touring bike. What did he know from being a dad? His relationship with his own father appeared brutally strained. He didn’t want the role. So he became a step-dad without putting the work in and remained mostly a guy that married my mom.
His parties were notorious. By middle school, I had seen more naked hippy ladies in our backyard hot tub than any of my peers could have dreamed. That was thanks to one of the “Jungle Rules” he rigidly enforced: “Skin to get in.” I also knew what a bong was because there was a psychedelic glass monster on our living room table. At one party my stepdad got into an argument with a friend about whose weed was better. He pulled me aside and had me sniff his friend’s pot while proclaiming in a loud voice for all at the party to hear, “You never want to buy this stuff!” He then produced his own dope and repeated the process. “This! This is the stuff you want to buy.” His friends laughed.
While that moment was a schtick, my stepfather never really treated me like a child. He talked frankly about sex and made lewd comments about women’s bodies in front of me as if I were a friend at a bar. Once, when I broke my arm, he made a splint from the Playboy he was reading and drove me to the ER. Through a library of pirated videos, he also introduced me to schlocky hypersexualized b-movies. His favorite? Hard Ticket to Hawaii, in which a Molokai cop is avenged via a razor-blade-edged frisbee and a toilet python is disposed of via high explosives.
While I’m going far more soft-core with my kids, I don’t talk to my boys as children either. I think this is my stepfather’s influence. He treated me, a tremendous part of the time, like an equal. He didn’t do it in a way that was age appropriate, sure, but I never felt as if I needed things to be done for me either. It pushed my independence and allowed me to feel I had a voice. Even if that voice was often raised against his raised voice. On the other hand, while I’m speaking frankly to my boys in a way that respects their intelligence, I’m also teaching them to respect women. I’m teaching them about consent and politeness. I know they can handle it.
As I grew older, the lack of real influence from my parents showed. I smoked and drank. I had sex way too early. I got into trouble. By the time I could live on my own, I had largely stopped communication with my family. As a dad, that sort of distance is my worst nightmare. The most important lesson my stepfather taught me goes like this: Raise kids who will want to talk to you even after they’ve left home.
I will do anything to make sure that happens.
The good and bad of my stepdad has given me a framework to hopefully make sure my boys remain close. I think of him now far more fondly than I did when packing his chutes and I do find much to emulate. As a father, I will be true to myself, regardless of how ridiculous it might look. I will trust my boys with my life and expose them to adventure. I will treat them with the respect I’d show an adult. But I will also protect their innocence. I will be warm with them and gentle. I will show them an authority that is steeped in an apparent love.
If I can swallow my pride and a little bit of fear, I might someday introduce them to the madman that helped make me the father I am. I don’t know what they’d make of him. I don’t know what he’d make of them.