What Would Dad Do?; or, Four Fundamental Reel-Life Lessons from My Father

I love reel-life tough, taciturn cowboy heroes, in case you haven’t guessed. But don’t try to make this into a therapy session about my real-life father figure, who was a generous, slightly nerdy guy who loved music and reading, The Muppet Show (yes, it’s true, eek), and walks in the woods. He taught me just as much as any of those mucho macho heroes, if not more. 

My hero!

This is not my dad. But Ward Bond’s character was like a father to many on Wagon Train.

To wit, DAD’S LESSONS (which–hey I never knew!–are JUST LIKE the lessons of Silver-Screen Western Heroes)

1. Say what you mean and mean what you say. 

My dad was a man of few words, but mainly because he understood the power of not talking, which allowed him to actually listen to people and to observe complaining teenagers, Giacometti sculptures, or rocks (he was a geologist). He was well spoken and polite but was known to take action without much chitchat beforehand. He was a little shy, so when he actually talked, it meant he either really wanted to say something or felt he had to say it. So people listened.

Tom_Doniphon John Wayne

This is not my dad. But most dads wanted to be like the Duke.

2. Work hard. Be dependable. 

The time 6:20 p.m. lives in my bones. That’s the time he stepped off the commuter bus from work and ambled up our drive to the front door for dinner. I think he would’ve liked to be the cowhand with the geopick, drifting along the continental divide and checking out core samples and metamorphic rock, but he had a wife, four kids, a house, and he was determined for his kids to do as well as he had.

Cooper, Gary

This isn’t my dad either. But if you want a responsible father figure who will do what has to be done, no matter the cost, Will Kane is the bucko.

3. Aspire. And make it happen.

He didn’t have to go to college but he did, at MIT, after a stint in the Marines that paid his way. That is some steely resolve. Whatever you want to do, he seemed to say, do it. Take the bad with the good, and keep trying to make it better.


This is not my father. But it’s Randolph Scott!

4. Lighten up. Cheezus.
All this makes my dad seem a bit grim, like one of those pioneer fathers who make their kids shuck corn until their hands bleed. He was actually a bit goofy, fond of silly puns and odd juxtapositions of words and situations that revealed something startling and new, and were therefore, quite obviously to me then as well as now, funny. While I’m sure he drove my mom crazy–she was better at fixing sinks and building playhouses from scratch than he was–he also taught me it’s okay to let whimsy take over. It’s a lesson I’m still trying to “get” today, in my own driven pursuit  of this, that, and the other.

Nope, not my dad, although he shared a similar smile as Robert Horton’s, who played Flint McCollough in TV’s Wagon Train.

My father was/is my hero, although he couldn’t knock someone down with a blow to his fist (Dad? a skinny guy like him?) and he wasn’t a Moses-type charismatic leader (he led by quiet example, not by fire and brimstone).

He was my hero because he once wrestled with whether to be a priest or a scientist, a choice that brought home to me how much he revered the world–and how much it deserves to be revered. (He chose to study the rocks of the earth instead of the hierarchies of the angels, in part because my winsome mother flashed him a smile at the right time.) He’s probably why I’m drawn to the more introverted cowboy heroes, the James Stewarts and Randolph Scotts of the genre, whose soft-spoken demeanors also hid steely resolve.

I miss him every day–he would’ve loved Twitter and smartphones and the Hubble telescope’s photographs.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad, and happy heavenly fossil-hunting to you!

That's my dad!

That’s my dad!


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