Hard and Soft


The sound of the Acme Thunderer whistle pierced the heavy evening air from a couple of blocks away.  The two boys playing “Stretch”, their version of Mumblety Peg, looked up momentarily and quickly went back to tossing the pocket knife at the ground near their opponent’s foot, trying to make him stretch his feet so far apart that he fell down.

“That was only once,”  the younger boy, always a master of the obvious, proclaimed as he moved his left foot over to rest next to the knife buried in the hard, dry dirt beside him.

“We’ve got a few minutes still,” replied the other, confident that he could win this game well before the next blast of the whistle split the air.

For a few moments, it appeared that he would do just that, but the next five minutes sped by before the boys knew it and the sound was repeated.

This time, there was a second blast which followed as quickly as the echoes from the initial burst of sound died down.  Two times!  The boys scrambled to retrieve their Case knives from the soil and wiped them on their pants legs as they shot out of the field where they had been playing and through the orange grove, headed for home.

They had barely a minute to get there! 

The first time the whistle had sounded was supposed to be a warning, letting them know that they should start home.  If they weren’t home within sixty seconds of the double blast, they were in big trouble.  From the sound of it, that had been their dad plying the little silver policeman’s whistle and he was a stickler for the deadline.

Out of breath, both of them shot through the screen door and into the living room with just a few seconds to spare.

Whew, made it!  

Everyone else was already home.  Seated around the living room, they looked a little impatient as the two youngsters burst into the house, but one of the older boys suggested, rather brusquely, that they sit down too.

“Daddy’s going to read to us,” he announced imperiously.

And, for the next twenty minutes, their ears heard nothing else but the sound of their father’s voice as he read to them of the wacky adventures of the Sugar Creek Gang and the blue cow.

It was a regular evening ritual for them, even though it was sometimes their mother who read.  Dad was more fun to listen to, as he changed his voice to read the spoken parts from the different characters and got excited right along with them as the blue cow broke through the fence and charged a couple of the boys at their fishing hole.

When the chapter was finished, he closed the book and started to put it away.  The kids seated around the living room clamored for another one, but he seemed inclined to refuse.  It wasn’t often that he could be convinced, but tonight was one of those times, because it only took a few moments of cajoling.

Finally, he said with a grin, “Okay, just one more chapter.  It’s not a school night anyway…”

Hard and soft.  Sergeant Major and doting daddy. Disciplinarian and loving mentor.  They were all descriptions of my father.

Only a disciplinarian could have come up with the idea of a whistle to call his children home at night.  He would neither have his children wandering the neighborhood after sundown, nor go in search of them himself, as many other parents did, calling their names impatiently into the darkness.

A suitable whistle was acquired and the rules were carefully explained.  Children were not to touch the noise-maker.  When a single blast from the whistle was heard, we were to start for home immediately.

If we did not get there soon enough, the double blast would follow.  There was one minute to be home after that and that deadline would be enforced, with dire consequences to follow for anyone who dared to be tardy.

But the same authoritarian man who thought up the unique method for summoning his offspring from their far-flung locations at curfew shared his love of reading and learning with us.  He would bend the bed time rules to allow us to finish a long chapter (or maybe two) we were engrossed in, and always was ready to help with a pronunciation or definition.

The same Daddy who split the air with the imperative sound of the whistle loved to let us take turns standing on his feet and hugging his waist as he walked through the house.  I know now that it was the same purpose that drove him to be all those things to us.

The role of a father is to be hard; hard enough to help wayward children grow up into able and caring adults.

The role of the father is also to be soft; soft enough to show concern and love, so that his children grow up knowing that they are protected and cared for.

For this erstwhile juvenile delinquent turned responsible father and now, doting grandfather, his efforts were successful.  His example helped me to achieve a modicum of success in carrying on the process myself.

Time will tell how successful my efforts have been and you’ll have to speak with others to get the full story there, but there can be no argument that our fathers help to bend and mold the fathers their sons will become.  Would that more fathers took their responsibilities as seriously and with as much thought.

As I write tonight, my mind is carried back to the evenings when I read to my own children.  I’m not sure if I achieved the success with making the characters come to life that he did, but those evenings are among some of my fondest memories.

With my kids, I felt the terror and joy of Aslan’s story, and the sadness as Charlotte the spider died, but relief as Wilbur escaped becoming bacon.  We laughed and cried throughout, mirroring those times many years before, when I had done the same with my siblings and parents.

And yes, there were also the Sergeant Major times, the moments when the disciplinarian showed his face and made his demands.  While not nearly as pleasant in memory, those times were just as important in the formation of the mature and responsible adults we are blessed to enjoy today.

I probably didn’t say it then, as my children were growing, since my mind was taken up with the enormity of the task, but today I breathe a prayer of thanks for a father who showed me how a father loves but also lays down the law, dotes but also demands discipline.

I have seen the end result of homes where it was all one way or the other.  Disaster would be a kind word to describe it.  Like most areas of endeavor in life, balance achieves the best outcome.

Hard and soft.  Two sides to one man.  I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Thanks Dad. 




“I talk and talk and talk, and I haven’t taught people in fifty years what my father taught me by example in one week.”
(Mario Cuomo~former Governor of New York)
“A righteous man, who walks in his integrity–How blessed are his sons after him.”
(Proverbs 20:7 NASB)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012 All Rights Reserved.

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