There is nowhere on earth more boring to an eight-year-old boy than a tax accountancy office. Yet if it was a spring Saturday morning, chances were I was holed up in a vacant office of a small CPA firm somewhere in the northern suburbs of Atlanta, probably watching the X-Men cartoon series on a handheld black-and-white Sony Watchman.
You see, my father was a CPA, and the spring months before the dreaded April 15 IRS tax filing deadline were by far his busiest time. My siblings were in college when I was in grade school, and my mother worked retail on the weekends to help pay my brother’s and sister’s tuition. That left my parents with one of two options in the spring when my dad had to work overtime: either leave a pre-pubescent boy, who desperately wanted to be Gambit, home alone for the better part of a Saturday, or send him off to the office with my father.
I didn’t complain too much outwardly, but internally, I was frustrated that I couldn’t enjoy the particularly pleasant weather. I wanted to be able to run around the neighborhood fighting bad guys, or strap on some skates and disregard the helmet my mother insisted I wear. I did not, under any circumstances, want to waste away in a five-person office where it seemed like my dad was always the only one there on the weekends, and the highlight of my day was to see how many sheets I could stuff in the paper shredder before it overheated. I did not, under any circumstances, want to be stuck in an office.
It wasn’t until I was working my first handful of crappy jobs in my mid-20s that it finally dawned on me: my father didn’t want to be in that stupid office either. Not on Monday, or Tuesday, and certainly not on Saturday. The thing is, my father is a bit of a badass. He grew up the fourth of five kids to hardscrabble tobacco farmers in rural Florida, put himself through college, and joined the Air Force as a young man during the Vietnam War instead of waiting to get drafted. He earned the rank of captain and flew combat missions over Southeast Asia for several years before discharging, receiving medals for courage and bravery in the process. He had friends who never made it home.
The US was a hostile place for returning veterans in the early 70s, and he found a horribly soft job market laden with vitriolic, anti-war hiring managers. Attempting to jumpstart his career as a civilian proved difficult, and only became harder when he married my mother and eventually became a father. Through a series of events, including earning a graduate degree from Georgia State University, Dad stumbled into accounting, trading a jet plane for an adding machine. He went to work and was able to cobble together enough money to support a family.
We were never what you would consider poor when I was a child, but if I had a dollar for every time I heard my father say he was struggling to get ahead, or that he was “up against it,” or that things would be different once he finally had “a couple of nickels to rub together,” he wouldn’t have needed any of those sayings. My mother worked during the day and sold homemade crafts to help with extras, but my dad was the traditional breadwinner, which meant he wasn’t around all that often.
He came home tired and often went to bed early. He was usually the first one up and would drop me off at elementary school on his way to work. Sometimes, I’d ask him how work was because I saw sitcom fathers such as Mike Seaver or Tim Taylor talk about their careers around the dinner table. Dad’s answer was always the same: “Work’s work.” He’d have a particular grimace on his face that I only now recognize as boredom. He was overworked, underpaid, and possibly worst of all for a man of his moxie and intelligence, under-stimulated.
Yet through it all, he never complained. A strong believer, he never challenged God for his lot in life and instead “went back to the salt mine” daily. As I grew older, there were times when I was disenchanted with my father and wished that he had played catch with me in the backyard, or taught me to tie a tie, or change the oil, or any number of manly rites of passage. But those acts of service weren’t how he showed his love. Instead, Dad was, and still is, the hardest worker I’ve ever known. He didn’t work out of some strange addiction or desire to succeed and climb the corporate ladder. He worked his tail off doing something he didn’t really like so his children would never be hungry. We never worried whether we’d have clothes that fit. Or whether the lights would stay on. Or whether we would be warm in the winter.
Dad was faithful to his family, his wife, and his God. You could set your watch by his dependability, and while other, lesser men would have shirked their responsibilities and allowed someone else to pick up the pieces of a broken home, my father never did. He taught me that true masculinity isn’t about the women you’ve been with, the title on your business card, or the car you drive. To be a man is to provide for your family and come home every day.
As time marched on, dad’s burden eased. My brother and sister made it through college. Dad was able to strike out on his own and achieve a greater deal of success. Expenses went down, and free time went up. He’s a grandfather five times over now, and he finally has the time to enjoy the little ones running about the house without having to carry the stress of supporting them. Few things make me happier than seeing my dad hold my son, who my wife and I named after him.
I don’t work for status, or for money. I work so that my wife and son never have to feel insecure. My old man taught me that, and if I do as well as he did, they’ll never have to worry. — AJ Bembry, 29, Cleveland, TN
The author with his son, Ellis.
The author’s father, LS, with his son, Ellis.