I had a crazy path to be the person I am today. Like most people, I had some things going for me and other things which held me back. The factor that held me back the most was not having my father as a mentor. Not having my dad to guide me was complicated by the fact that I was a very shy kid. I feel so strongly about not having him in my life as a positive influence, that I wrote a book about the importance of dads.
Another result of my dad’s absence was a lack of money and frequent moving from school to school. I hated changing schools so often. It was tough making friends when you are afraid to approach anyone and knowing it wouldn’t be long before you would move again--one step ahead of creditors. So what does a kid do who is shy and needs some guidance?
I spent a lot of my time listening to St. Louis Cardinal baseball on the radio. The invention of the transistor radio was, for me, like an iPhone is for a kid today. A radio without a cord attached! Baseball was my pastime in the summer. I also fantasized about being a pilot. I really wanted to fly airplanes. That was the thing I had going for me, a goal!
When I was around six to eight years old, I would draw dials on a piece of cardboard and tape it on a wall. I grabbed a kitchen chair and a broom handle for control stick, all of which together served as a cockpit. I would pull my stick back and tilt my head back as if climbing through the clouds. I would push my stick to the left and simultaneously lean my head to the left. I couldn’t imagine how pilots flew upside down so I would stand on my bed, lean over, and look through my legs to test my ability, looking at the photos of airplanes that adorned my walls.
This dream, or fantasy, of aviation gave me a direction to aim for, but I had no idea how to get there and I never thought to ask anyone. It seemed for quite some time that our family’s survival took priority over dreams. Not literal survival, like what happens in too much of the world, but survival in the American sense. One parent with little education and six kids is a challenge!
Years later, as I matured, my dream remained. I still did not have a mentor or cheerleader to push me forward, nor did I shout my intentions, because I didn’t want anyone to think I was a day dreamer or feel sorry for me if I didn’t make it. I quietly did the only thing I could do to keep my dream alive. I kept my nose clean and studied in school. Certainly an education would be a help to move forward, I thought, even if it wasn’t as a pilot.
As it turned out, my grades and my family’s lack of money allowed me to get a scholarship to college. What a huge break in my life! My fantasy was now upgraded to a real dream. But it was not an easy road. My good grades in high school were from constant studying. Had I really been smart I would have learned how to study more efficiently. I had spent so many hours studying in high school that I had no extra study hours left to compete with students who had all been in the top ten percent of their high school classes.
As a commuter student at a university where most resided, I didn’t have quick access to friends who were smarter than me with whom to study. I was too shy to get to know people and had very few friends—my fault totally! But with all that, I managed to struggle enough to get my degree in electrical engineering with a mediocre grand point average.
Not forgetting my dream, I had joined Air Force ROTC while in college. Now that I had my degree, I could get a commission as an officer and an opportunity to apply to pilot training. At this point in my story, I want to remind you that I am working toward a lesson. I went from lost to a hopeful dream which gave me some drive. My drive paid off and now I was in full competition with peers who were just as capable as me and, in my mind, much more confident. From the outside, it looked like I was clicking right along, but on the inside I was still the shy kid who felt uncomfortable in social situations.
I did get selected for undergraduate pilot training. I couldn’t believe it was happening! But a short celebration became tempered by anxiety and changed again to doubt. I still suffered from a lack of confidence which I partially blame on my personality, and partially blame on never having a real mentor--someone who would encourage me and tell me why I was just as worthy as anyone else to be where I was.
As it turned out, my pilot training class was mostly Air Force Academy graduates. These young men had already been in the military for four years. It was my first time away from home! Again the crippling lack of confidence of competing with these very tested young men put me in a stupor of non-aggressiveness. I wasn’t challenged by the competition like I might be today. Instead, I was ready to find a place to hide because it was obvious to me that I was not up to the competition--but really I was. The first half of flight training ended and I was at or near the bottom in class ranking. Having survived this far, I gained a bit of confidence and did much better in the second half. I got my wings! It was the happiest I had ever been.
The story doesn’t end there, nor did my confidence problem. I flew B-52 bombers for five years after receiving my wings and left the Air Force. Something I regretted for quite some time. I left because I wasn’t thriving. I scuttled my lifelong dream and career because I could not get away from my feeling of not being good enough or fitting in comfortably. How ridiculous it seems now but it was so real then.
Soon after leaving the Air Force, my confidence issue started to turn around. What did it for me may seem trivial to some people, but it was a suggestion by a friend to read self-help books. These books taught me to look at life in a different way. I read stories of others who, when they could see things differently, were enlightened. Had I felt about myself as a child as I do now, I know I would have graduated with a higher grade point average, done much better in pilot training, and become a real leader in the US Air Force, with much less anguish.
I joined the Air National Guard after I had left the Air Force, but I could not find a flying position. However, after learning how to deal with people and my insecurities from reading these self-help books, I became more attuned to my abilities. In time, I attained the rank of full colonel and retired as the Vice Commander of my unit. I also had the confidence and determination to write a book about the importance of fathers in children’s lives, having not had that experience in my early years. I had never been a ‘writer’ and knew writing did not come naturally. The ‘old me’ would not have attempted such a venture thinking it would never be read or readable. But I did write it because I now had confidence in what I wanted to do.
It is not easy to admit to my insecurities and I haven’t been that lost person for a long time now. However, I am representing others who may look like they got through a father-absent life unscathed, but didn't in reality. Of course, not every kid is impacted by the lack of a male role model in the same way I was. Some are not as naturally shy and lacking in confidence. But on the other hand, some don’t have a dream to drive them or the perseverance I had to keep going regardless of how painful it is. No matter, every boy and girl is cheated when their father does not step up to be a guide and inspiration to them.
Some fathers are not as active as others in their children's lives, but just the fact that a dad shows an interest gives a kid the idea they matter and someone cares. Kids work harder when they want to please someone and kids most want to please their parents until they are old enough to feel the confidence to want to please someone else or attain a goal. What if my dad was around? Might I have been more successful with my dad guiding and cheering me on? I really will never know. But I do know that I would have welcomed the interest, the company and the advice. Using my love of airplanes as an analogy:
- A father can propel like a prop,
- he can provide lift like wings,
- he can provide guidance like a compass,
- he can cushion a landing like an undercarriage.
And what if I didn't love airplanes? What if I didn't have a dream/goal to pull me through? Where would I be today?
Be aware of the critical responsibility and role you have in your children’s lives. Your involvement will give them confidence, skills, and desire to succeed. They will no doubt become more successful with less struggle and anguish with your help and guidance as a caring parent. Be there for them!
My book on the importance of dads is entitled: “The Power of Dadhood: Be the Father Your Child Needs”