My dad taught me a won­der­ful les­son— with help from an an­gry os­trich

The Herald (Rock Hill) - - Sports - BY SCOTT FOWLER [email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

My Dad loved sto­ries. Steve Fowler died last month, just be­fore the hol­i­days, and I haven’t felt much like writ­ing about it un­til now.

Dad was my first — and best — au­di­ence. He liked to tell sto­ries, but more than that, he liked to lis­ten to them. I prac­ticed my sto­ries on him for years, and he in­spired me to think I could tell them to more peo­ple one day.

He’s gone now, at age 81. It was quick.

Dad was di­ag­nosed with an in­cur­able lung dis­ease on Dec. 7. He died on Dec. 21, the win­ter sol­stice. It was, in a very lit­eral sense for me, the dark­est day of the year.

The sto­ries I want to tell you about him aren’t dark, though.

“I like sto­ries with happy end­ings,” Dad re­minded me some­times.

These do.

THE JOY OF UN­DI­VIDED AT­TEN­TION

When you talked to Dad, he gave you his un­di­vided at­ten­tion. No scrolling through a

cell­phone — he never owned one. No look­ing over your shoul­der to­ward a TV.

It was just you and Dad — with him usu­ally sit­ting in his La-Z-Boy, a cup of cof­fee within easy reach. He was ready to be de­lighted, to of­fer his kneeslap­ping, hand-clap­ping laugh at any op­por­tu­nity.

If you told him a good one, he would ex­claim, “Golly Ned!” This was his all-pur­pose ex­pres­sion of amaze­ment.

I’m not ob­jec­tive, of course, but Dad was bril­liant. He could quote Macbeth and make fur­ni­ture. He had a doc­tor­ate in sta­tis­tics and ul­ti­mately ran a re­search depart­ment for a com­pany in Spar­tan­burg.

He was also a man of sim­ple plea­sures — pocket knives, full moons, whistling, so­lar eclipses, res­cued dogs, Homer Simp­son, his own homemade chili and a stack of books from the Spar­tan­burg County Pub­lic Li­brary.

After he re­tired, he took a mid-af­ter­noon nap from about 3 to 5 p.m. nearly ev­ery day. When I was younger, I thought this was crazy. Now I wish I could get away with it.

Dad came from a small town in Texas called Clarksville. He was the first from that fam­ily to earn a col­lege de­gree — which he did after serv­ing three years in the U.S. Army. He was so naïve when he joined the Army that he didn’t even know you got paid when you were in it.

Dad wasn’t an ath­lete and didn’t care much about sports. Didn’t mat­ter. He was my hero, and I ad­mired most of all the way he made peo­ple

He taught me how to treat peo­ple — with pa­tience and kind­ness. He also taught me what a great mar­riage looks like. He and my Mom were mar­ried al­most 57 years and were ba­si­cally in­sep­a­ra­ble un­til he died.

Dad would go out of his way to make you happy, es­pe­cially if you were a child.

And that brings me to the feather col­lec­tion I had when I was lit­tle.

THE OS­TRICH FEATHER

Yes, go ahead and snicker if you like. But in el­e­men­tary school, I col­lected feath­ers.

I searched our back­yard dili­gently. I had feath­ers from blue jays and car­di­nals, mock­ing­birds and goldfinches.

Once when I was 6 years old and we lived in Texas, our fam­ily went to a zoo. While there, we stopped to look at the os­triches.

There was an enor­mous os­trich feather about 3 feet from the edge of the fence. It was beau­ti­ful.

The fence had holes in it at the very bot­tom, and those holes were barely big enough for a hu­man arm. The os­trich in ques­tion was about 30 feet away, not pay­ing a bit of at­ten­tion.

I knew my arm was way too short to reach the ob­ject of my de­sire.

“Dad,” I said, “could you get me that os­trich feather?”

He looked around, and then he smiled. “Sure,” he said.

Dad got com­pletely on the ground, be­cause that’s the only way he could stretch out far enough.

He lay down on his side, in the mud and dirt be­side that fence, reach­ing as far as he could, nearly brush­ing the feather with his fin­ger­tips, get­ting there ...

And then that os­trich re­al­ized some­thing was mess­ing with his ter­ri­tory.

Three hun­dred pounds of very an­gry bird turned in a hurry and came sprint­ing straight at my Dad’s of­fend­ing arm in­side the cage — and if you’ve ever seen an os­trich run, they’re re­ally fast.

The os­trich low­ered his head close to the ground. He bowed back his neck. I screamed.

And just then, Dad’s fin­ger­tips clutched the feather.

“Got it!” he yelled tri­umphantly. At the same time, he pulled back away from the fence as the os­trich rammed his beak ex­actly where Dad’s arm had been a sec­ond ear­lier.

Golly Ned, it was some­thing.

80 PIECES OF BUB­BLE GUM

Can I make two sug­ges­tions?

The first one is to please do some­thing won­der­fully ex­trav­a­gant in 2019 for what­ever young peo­ple are im­por­tant to you.

What­ever their equiv­a­lent of an os­trich feather is, please get down on the ground and grab it for them. That is what they are go­ing to re­mem­ber years from now.

An­other ex­am­ple of won­der­ful ex­trav­a­gance: In 1943, Dad’s own fa­ther, Frank Fowler, asked him a ques­tion.

My Dad was about 5 when his fa­ther asked, “Steve, would you like me to buy you some bub­ble gum?”

“Yes!” he said. World War II meant ex­treme short­ages on all sorts of things, in­clud­ing bub­ble gum. But Frank Fowler, who man­aged a gro­cery store in Texas, knew how to get some.

“How many pieces do you want?” he asked his son.

Dad thought for a mo­ment.

“Eighty!” he said. He told us many years later that 80 was the largest num­ber he could imag­ine.

So Frank Fowler or­dered 80 pieces.

When the gum came, Dad shared it with all the kids in his neigh­bor­hood.

And 75 years later, in the fi­nal weeks of his life, he re­mem­bered vividly how sweet that gum had tasted.

The sec­ond sug­ges­tion is sim­ply this: Lis­ten to your loved ones, com­pletely, with your un­di­vided at­ten­tion.

It won’t cost you a penny, but it will take some dis­ci­pline.

Put down your smart­phone. Turn off the TV.

Just lis­ten, and laugh, and love each other.

Be­cause, golly Ned, Dad would re­ally like that.

And I bet you would, too.

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