Don’t wait to make your son a great man — make him a great boy.
There is something about shared pain that can bring two people closer together. In this case the two people were my dad and I, and the pain was a canoe race.
My parents split up when I was young. I ended up moving to the city with my mom and my sister, so I didn’t get to see my dad nearly as often as I would have liked. Summer was great because my sister and I spent several weeks visiting him out in the middle of nowhere in central British Columbia where we would go fishing, horseback riding, hiking, camping and canoeing. The quantity of time we spent together may have been low, but the quality was always high.
Sometimes I question if the river race was one of those high-quality moments. My arms hurt just thinking about it.
I was fifteen and not an athlete, so actually using my muscles to engage in competition was a new experience. My dad and I had spent many an hour in the canoe, but not in fast-flowing water and never in a hurry. Entering the Cheslatta River Race was my idea, and an impromptu affair that was more of an excuse for a bunch of people to have a party than a real competition. The event was mostly populated by people in tubes and rafts, only some of whom bothered to use paddles. My dad and I, however, opted to be one of the four teams who wanted to go fast.
I sized up the other canoe racers. There was little doubt that first would be taken by the two men with the high-tech canoe that looked fast just sitting there on the beach. I was also certain that second belonged to my dad’s German friends, Klaus and Dieter, who were big, strong forestry workers. Granted, their boat looked to be older than dirt, and held together with duct tape, but I figured their logging-sculpted muscles could power a Buick down the river at a good pace.
The last of our competitors was another father-son team, and we seemed to be evenly matched in physical size and quality of watercraft.
“Looks like we’re battling for third,” Dad gave voice to my thoughts.
Soon after, the race got underway and I blew it.
I’m not sure what I did wrong, but my coordinative abilities reverted to that of a six-week-old puppy. We launched ourselves toward the first turn and I nearly capsized us. The canoe dipped perilously close to the waterline and we ended up with eight inches of water in the bottom of our boat.
“Beach it!” my dad called out from the rear. “Starboard side!”
We ran the canoe aground and leapt out to dump the water. “Sorry, Dad,” I said as we climbed back in. The other teams were all rapidly disappearing from view down the river.
“Don’t sweat it. We’ll catch them.”
I wasn’t feeling so optimistic, but I dug in with all my strength in the hopes that we wouldn’t be the last ones across the finish line. Fortunately, we had a long straight stretch after our near swim, and I was able to get a feel for how to handle the canoe in rough water before we came to the next turn. My dad called out instructions and encouragement from the rear. “Hard right! That’s it, dig in! We’re gaining on them.”
And we were. The other father-son team looked a lot closer.
The dwindling gap and my dad’s exhortations motivated me to paddle harder. My shoulders ached already, but after a while they went numb and operated more on autopilot.
About halfway into the race, we caught up to third place, coming around a sharp turn where I almost blew it again.
I was anxious to pass these guys, but my dad stopped me before I could cause another catastrophe. “Hang back,” he said. “We’ll pass them in the straight stretch.”
And so we did.
They didn’t let us pass without a fight, but my dad and I poured on the gas and we took over third place. I was determined to not lose it; we’d fought hard to make it that far and I had the sense that my arms could last the rest of the race. There was no question in my mind that my dad’s would.
I was happy.
Then I saw Klaus and Dieter not far beyond, and I felt another competitive surge of adrenaline. “Let’s catch them.”
My dad laughed in that way of his that couldn’t help but shake the canoe. “I’m game if you are.”
Klaus and Dieter may have been tough as nails, but so is my dad. It was a brutal battle of screaming shoulders and creaking vertebrae. We paddled hard to catch them, but when they saw us pull up alongside, their pride would not let us beat them. They had looks of hard determination, refusing to lose to a team that included a teenage city boy. For a few seconds we inched ahead and were in second place, but they renewed their efforts and matched us again.
We hit shore simultaneously to a cheering crowd, and the final torture began. To complete the race we had to carry the canoe over 200 feet off beach and cross the finish line. I jumped out, grabbed the front handle and started to run, but my dad knew better. We may have been able to match them in the water because of our better boat, but he realized we didn’t have a hope against them carrying it across land. “It’s okay,” he said. “We got third. We gave them a good run.”
Klaus and Dieter had taken off like two kids who had just heard the school bell ring on a Friday afternoon, and I could see that he was right. Still, I felt victorious because I never knew we could make it so close.
We jogged across the finish line and my dad and I shared a bear hug. Then he gave me a mischievous grin and said, “That was fun.”
And he was right. It was fun.
An hour later I was feeling sore and exhausted and working my way through my third hot dog when my dad came up to me. “You’ve got a big glob of mustard on your face,” he said.
I was about to tell him that I was too tired to care, when his eyes flicked off to my left. I took the hint and looked to see Marya, my teenage crush, walking toward us.
Unlike a mother who would have grabbed my chin and meticulously cleaned my face with a spit-moistened tissue, my dad was discreet. He cupped a handkerchief, did a quick wipe of the mustard then turned the movement into a shoulder clasp.
He spun me toward Marya, still gripping my aching shoulder, and said, “This boy paddled his heart out today.” Then he walked away.
Marya gave me a smile. “I saw you finish. You almost beat Klaus and Dieter.”
I could have said many different things at that point, or I could have suffered from a tongue-tied teenager attack, but I opted to give credit where it was due.
“My dad did most of the work.”
This story first appeared in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks Dad.
James S. Fell is an internationally syndicated fitness columnist for the Chicago Tribune and author of Lose it Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Help You Get Fit and Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind, published by Random House Canada. He also interviews celebrities about their fitness stories for the Los Angeles Times, and is head fitness columnist for AskMen.com and a regular contributor to Men’s Health.