Let’s Roll!

JDKFlagFrom my earliest memories, my father was a calm and wise presence, a man of principle and integrity. When I think of those qualities, he can’t help but be my archetype.

Dad knew what was right, and would put his shoulder to the wheel, without regard for whether it was “cool” or not. He operated on a larger stage, whether in his military or church careers, engaging with others in the causes he thought just. “He was a great man,” my son declared shortly after his passing. It was true.

He was also, at heart, a simple man. He had a lengthy resume with numerous professional accomplishments, but he chose, deliberately I think, not to be sophisticated. He was old-fashioned, romantic, and patriotic — cherishing his country, his childhood, my childhood, family pets, beloved memes, and various heroes, actual and fictional, old and new. He was also, during most of his life, a person of great inner joy. He always had a ready smile, and was prepared to shrug off life’s smallest and largest tragedies with a wry chuckle. He had a deeply kind and gentle nature, treating the world softly, even in his toughest battles.

Once I left home, he was a hands-off father. We never lived close. He rarely voiced an opinion on how I should run my life. Yet I never doubted his love for me. He stayed in constant touch by phone, and was always genuinely pleased to see me. In retrospect, I know how he could have easily been disappointed — my accomplishments were much narrower than his own. But he never was. He seemed to accept me fully, and to trust me fully, even though I left behind some of his own cherished beliefs and views. We were always connected at some deeper level.

We knew each other well, and we knew we could count on each other. When I look back now, I realize that connection had its roots in the adventures of my youth. He was my first companion in the great outdoors, continuing his own childhood adventures with Scouts. We hiked major sections of the Appalachian Trail together, spending many days and nights on our own in the woods. I owe him a great debt for introducing me to a fundamental inspiration in my own life — the natural world. There he taught me independence, persistence, reverence, and acceptance.

An enduring memory of him comes from the start of our many hikes together. We would arrive at the trail head, after much preparation, and hoist our packs onto our backs, ready for the miles ahead. Dad would always fasten his hip belt, grasp his walking stick firmly, look over at me with a kindly but determined gaze, and say “Let’s Roll!” It was his mantra, his advice, his philosophy, his battle cry — all rolled into one. And it is a suitable epitaph.

A few days after his passing, my wife and I flew home out of Dulles, taking off over the pastures of the rural county where he had spent many of his later years. Below us appeared Skyline Drive. It meandered over barren winter hills into Shenandoah National Park, which rose to greater heights and met with bands of white clouds flecked with sunlight in the distance. I thought of the dozens of “thrilling episodes” my father and I had passed in those ancient mountains years ago.

The plane passed on into Shenandoah Valley and the river meandered below us, an endless silver braid. We gained altitude. A filmy white gauze interceded between me and the scene below. Soon all I could see was sparkling layers of white cloud, and blue sky above.

“Let’s Roll!”