Friday, June 17, 2011

My Four Fathers: Father # 3 - Charlie

By now, if you've followed this, you've read about my first two dads. The first one - Ed - I never knew. The second one - Bob - I wish I never knew. After Bob went away to prison my mom sold the farm to some very nice people. I'm happy to say that the same family owns it after all these years. They've taken such good care of it. In fact, they've improved upon it in every way. That means a lot to me. From time to time Erin and I drive there and visit. They are kind enough to allow us to look around. It takes me back to a bad time but a good place. It wasn't the farms fault what happened. If it wasn't for the safe haven of the farm to take me away from it all I don't know where I'd be today. But the farm was too much for my mom, my sister and I. So we moved to a tiny double-wide on the exact opposite side of Hillsboro even further out from town. I think we all needed that distance from everything that happened. I guess we were there for the better part of two years. They were good years. Me and the neighbor boy got on real well. I learned to ride a three wheeler, a four wheeler, and a dirt bike while living there. He and I raced all over the country side. And back behind the corn fields that separated our properties was a deep woods with a much bigger creek than what I had on the farm that ran through it. That's where I spent my time - fishing, swimming, and skipping rocks. In fact, while looking for rocks to skip we came upon a lot of arrowheads. So we went from skipping to collecting those. It was like looking for treasure. I could write more on those two years but I'll save that for another time. Our time was short there in Berrysville. Milford was to be our next destination. Back to the suburbs. This time Cincinnati instead of Dayton. To this day I'm still trying to figure out how to get back to the country.

My mom had put my sister and I in a Christian school. I was in fourth grade when this happened and I'm quite sure Miss Miles, Miss White, and Mrs. Prinzing will attest to the fact that I was not like most of the other kids. I was a troublemaker. I sought to fight anyone and everyone. And whoever I couldn't whip with my hands I whipped with my words. It wasn't because I was all that tough. I was just scared to death inside so I acted tough to compensate. When my mom moved us to Milford to be closer to the school she found work at a Bible printing ministry on the same campus - both associated with the same church. My mom couldn't handle me anymore. Whenever she tried to discipline me I would laugh at her. She told Mr. Bragg - the principal - that she needed help. She told him I needed a man to straighten me out. After a while he knew the story about how I had come up. I wasn't a typical Christian school kid. And I certainly wasn't a Christian. I cussed and fought and everything else. He had no choice but to paddle me - almost daily - and my mother encouraged him to do so. This was back when a kid could still be disciplined at school. Whenever I got sent to the office he would call my mom over to witness the discipline. I was struck by the man. He did his job (and well I might add), but he got no joy out of it. Three swats to the butt and a prayer on the verge of tears from Mr. Ed Bragg (accompanied by free-flowing tears from my mother) started a course correction deep inside of me. It would take years to see it all the way through. But I knew something for the first time - there are men who aren't bad and who care. I still got in trouble, but not as much. But Mr. Bragg wasn't the complete answer for me. Not by far. But he was one of many necessary people in my life. But not the most important. That's where Charlie comes in.

Mom worked at the office of this printing ministry. Charlie was the head pressman. He had been printing Bibles and sending them all over the world for years. He felt called to it. At the time I didn't understand it - being called to something. But I do now. But Charlie was a single man. He had three sons - one of which still lived with him. His name is Jamie. My mom and Charlie kind of hit it off from the start. Now this was briefly problematic for Jamie. Jamie and my sister, Tonya, are the same age. And they kind of ever so slightly liked each other - which is a bid deal in high school. But they both realized that mom and Charlie were getting serious so that ended that. Don't worry - there are no Jerry Springer episodes on this. It wasn't that big of a deal. Actually the whole thing was a big deal to me. I had no interest whatsoever in my mom being with another man. I had no interest in another dad. So quite unfairly - I wanted nothing to do with Charlie Valentine. So far he hadn't done anything wrong. It was just the way it was with me. Despite my best efforts, Charlie stuck around.

Charlie married my mom on August 11th, 1984. I was 10 years old. This happened in a private ceremony at the Baptist church we all attended at the time. It was just the pastor, my mom, Charlie, my sister, Jamie and maybe two or three others. There's a picture of us in front of the church afterward. My expression belies what was happening inside. I was awaiting the inevitable. He was bound to be a bad man. I just knew it. How could he not be?

Charlie was a quiet man. He spoke quietly. He laughed quietly. He had a subtle sense of humor. And he could do anything. Before he decided to serve God full-time as a Bible printer he had been a union man down south - a pipe-fitter. He worked jobs everywhere but God saved him and put him on the straight and narrow. God put the Word of God in his heart. He felt called to preach. But life circumstances changed that. A divorce happened that wasn't his fault. He believed that a divorced man was no longer blameless, therefore he believed he could not be a preacher. But then someone came to his church in South Carolina and told about the Bible printing ministry in Ohio and their need for skilled men to work the presses. Charlie answered the call. He took Jamie with him and no doubt in his life ministry of thirty plus years of printing scriptures he touched God knows how many people with the Word of God. Certainly more than he would have had he been a preacher. He was a faithful Sunday school teacher for decades. Everybody knew Charlie and loved him. Except me. I kept waiting to see the real Charlie. I watched his every move. I waited for him to yell at me. Curse me. Punch or kick me. One time we came home from Church. We had stopped at the grocery for some milk and other items on the way home. I carried the bag of groceries inside and I stumbled and fell walking into the kitchen. The bag busted open and everything fell to the floor. The milk jug burst and milk went everywhere. Instinctively I half curled up in a ball against the wall. Now the real Charlie would come out. He was bound to set it on me now! Look what I had done! I'll never forget the look on his face. It wasn't one of anger. It was one of compassion mixed with sadness. He quietly went and got some towels and told me he would take care of it. He said, "Lance, it's just spilled milk. We don't cry over spilled milk in this house." And he grinned at me. That was his way. Always making quiet, funny jokes. I went and grabbed a towel too and I helped clean up my mess - both of us on the floor side by side. That was a key moment for me. He was starting to win me over, but I still kept fighting it. I continued to say very little to him. I just kept watching him.

Charlie had a habit that many would do well to have. In fact, he still has it to this day. At night he would see us all to bed. He would just say goodnight to me at my door. I wouldn't let him get any closer, and he seemed to understand. I would, however, ask him to keep it cracked. I didn't like the dark. I always wanted to see what was going on around me in case something bad was coming. After we were all to bed he would go to the living room and turn on the light by the couch. I could see him through the crack in my door. And there he would sit every night and read his Bible. After he would read, he would turn the light out and then he would lay down on the floor face first and out loud but very softly he would pray. He was never in a hurry. And I heard every word. And I would listen to him pray for my mom, and my sister, and Jamie, and his two oldest sons Chuck and Randy (each with difficult lives), and then he would pray for me. I could hear the heartache in his voice. He wanted very much to be a dad to me and said so to God. He would pray for wisdom on how to do it. He would pray for the words on how to say it. He would pray for the patience to wait on me. But what he didn't know was that I was watching him. And he didn't need any of that at all. All I needed to do was to watch him - night in and night out - reading, praying for me. In my damaged heart and mind I began to realize that this is what a good man is. And not just a good man but a godly one. Now I didn't fully understand what godly meant back then, but I definitely knew something was different about Charlie Valentine. I knew I had a choice to make.

I remember the night like it was yesterday. My heart was racing. My throat was dry. I watched him sit down and start reading his Bible. I was nearly 11 years old when this happened. But that night I opened up my door and walked out to the couch and sat down next to Charlie. He didn't say anything. He just kept reading. He was waiting on me. I guess he figured I came out for a reason. After a time of silence sitting there with him I began to speak. I said, "Mr. Valentine, can I ask you something?" He said, "Sure, Lance. Ask me anything." I said, "Mr. Valentine, I was wondering if I could...if I could call you dad." He paused - long enough to almost make me dart back to my room wishing I'd kept my mouth shut. But after a few moments he said, "Well, Lance, you can call me dad on one condition." I said, "OK. What's that?" He said, "You can call me dad if I can call you son." I thought long and hard on that - probably longer than what he did. I said, "OK, Mr. Valentine. You can call me son." And he said, "Then, Lance, you can call me dad." And we shook hands on it. And I went back to bed. This time I shut the door all the way. And I've shut my door to go to bed every night sense then. Because I was no longer scared of the dark. I felt safe. I had a dad! And from that day on I've not only called him "dad", I call him "daddy." I'm 37 years old, but if he walked into the room right now where I'm writing this, I would say, "Hey, daddy." And he would hug my neck just as hard as I would hug his.

In all the years I've known him - 27 to be exact - he has never - not one time - called me a horrible name. He has never raised his voice to me. He has never raised a hand to me in abuse. He has been a dad in every sense of what a dad should be. And he is my hero. People are shocked to know he's not my real father. I talk like him. I walk like him. I grin like him. I laugh like him. I have inherited his corny jokes. I try to treat people the way he treats people. He's a gentleman and so very kind and loving to my mother. I try to be the same for my wife. I call my wife the same pet names he calls my mother. People think I'm from the south, but I was born north of the Mason-Dixon line. It's just that my daddy - Charles Valentine - is from Mississippi by way of South Carolina and I lived in North Carolina in my twenties for almost nine years. Plus there's the farm. So you get a mixed up Yankee in me. But I'm OK with that just as long as people think that Charlie is my dad. There's only one person in this whole world that I want to be like as a man and you now know more about that man.

A few years ago on Father's Day I went looking for a card to give him. I couldn't find one that said anything right. So I bought a blank one and thought on what I should say. I settled on this brief sentence, "Daddy, Jesus saved my soul, but you saved my life. I love you. Your son, Lance."

And that's the truth.

Happy Fathers' Day, Charlie - A.K.A. - Daddy.

From your son, Lance.

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