I had to run away from home to come to know my father.
Sure, I knew he was a hard worker, a good Catholic, and gave us everything we needed, and some of what we wanted. But, I didn’t know him really, not in his heart—not yet.
I was seventeen and miserable, like many mid-teens trying to bust out of childhood into the world of adults.
Piling onto my teen-age angst, my parents dragged me across the country in the middle of my junior year of high school. I left my friends and the small Iowa town I grew up in for the “Biggest Little City” in the world—Reno, Nevada.
I was clueless to the fact that this move was hard on everyone, especially my parents, who dreaded pulling seven of us out of the schools that we had attended for years.
All I felt and understood was what was being done to me.
I stuck out in my new school. I was an Iowa farm boy, and these were cowboys and mountain lovers. I looked closer to fourteen than seventeen, and my classmates constantly kidded me about it.
One evening I went with some classmates to get fake ID’s made so we could by liquor, and the guy made them for everyone but me. He said “You got to be kidding me… no one would believe you’re fifteen, let alone eighteen”.
So went my junior year of high school.
That spring, my Dad took me shopping for a car. I had saved up $500.00 from working odd jobs around Reno, and I spotted a souped up ’57 Chevy—but Dad said it was too much car for me. What I heard was I was still a little kid.
So, I ended up buying a dull-grey Chevy with bench-seats from a little old lady. Just one more disappointment in what was turning into a very disappointing life. I’m seventeen, and feeling everything.
One afternoon while I was taking a nap, my sister gave me a tug and said “Bobby, Dad is out in the driveway and has something to show you.”
I rubbed my eyes and stumbled out into the driveway, and there was Dad, standing in front of my car—or was it?
He had it freshly painted it a deep metallic blue. It shimmered in the Reno afternoon sun. On closer inspection, dad had the interior re-upholstered. Gone was the cloth bench-seat. Instead, in its place were black leather bucket seats separated by a console and floor shift with a wooden knob.
He even installed the newest Pioneer eight-track player—with which I wore out Moody Blues “Days of Future Passed”, the Doors “Soft Parade”, Jethro Tull’s “Stand Up’, and Led Zeppelin’s I & II.
I now realized what a car I had—a ’63 SS Impala with a 327 V8—a car that drew shout-outs as I cruised the Reno streets. Now, I was a grown up.
Soon after, a high school buddy of mine came for the weekend. He had moved from Iowa to Boise, Idaho a year earlier. Having him around gave me a yearning for my other friends–a yearning I could not shake. I had this idea that all my troubles would be solved if I was back in Iowa, back with my friends, back in my hometown. So, the two of us hatched a plan.
I told my Dad we were going to Lake Tahoe to camp for the night. That would give us enough time to make it to Boise, grab my friends stuff, and head to Iowa. Excellent!
We hopped in my car, cranked up the stereo, and drove to Boise. When we got to his home and my friend told his Dad our plan—well, let’s just say my friend had a change of heart. I would have to go alone.
I called my Dad— “Dad, I’m in Boise, and I’m headed to Iowa for the summer—maybe longer”.
“Dad, did you hear me?”. “Yes, I did, and if you head that way, don’t ever look back!”
My heart sunk. I don’t know what I thought his reaction would be.
I never once reflected on how this would affect my mom or dad—if they would be shocked, scared for me, bitter, or feel rejected by their child. All I thought of was myself.
After a night’s sleep, I knew what I needed to do. I got in my car, and drove just as fast as the car would go back to Reno.
When I pulled into the driveway, my sisters were out front. They ran inside the house shouting “Mom. Dad. Bobby’s home.”
The next few moments were full of utter dread. How bitter and angry would Dad be? I have never seen him lose his temper, but this would be a good time .
When I walked in the door, he said “Well, hello!”. I said hello, then hurried back to my room to hide out.
To my great relief, Dad never came to my room. He would never bring it up. Ever. It was like it never happened—and my amazement and appreciation of this has grown with time and reflection as I became a father myself.
I will never know what role Mom played in this. I am sure they had a conversation, and it is likely she had an influence—I just don’t know.
What I do know is this. My idea of fatherhood changed that day.
And, something else changed. I have heard that for most of us, our concept of God is shaped to some extent by our experience with our father’s. That can be good, and it can be not so good.
Up until then, I thought of God as impersonal, and watching carefully every move I made and keeping score. This event changed that concept. I embraced a new concept of God– from my dad, and it has served me well.
In the Hermitage in St. Petersburg hangs one of the most renowned paintings of the renaissance, by the most renowned renaissance painter… The Prodigal Son, by Rembrandt.
The son left home before his time, and coming to his senses, he returned to face whatever outcome awaited.
The father, seeing his broken and exhausted son approaching from far off, ran to him, embraced him, would not hear his sons plaintive, and received him as the son he thought was forever lost.
The painting is a beautiful and poignant depiction of one of the best-known stories told by Jesus. You see the dejection, the brokenness, the helplessness of the son. And, in the face and hand placement of the father, you can see both the masculine strength and guidance of a father, and the more feminine nurture, comfort, and encouragement of a mother.
My God is full of mercy and forgiveness. My God sees in me the best, even though I rarely hit that mark. And, like my Dad, he will always be on my side.
I believe to this day that when Dad said “Don’t look back”, he meant for me to do just that—to look back to where protection, strength, wisdom, guidance, and love is. To return home, over and over again.
If you are struggling with your concept of God, let me introduce you to mine. Use it as long as you like.