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NOLAN FINLEY

Finley: On Father’s Day, strong men still needed

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

My earliest memory of interacting with my father is of him using flash cards to teach me numbers. With me sitting on one side of the bedroom door and him on the other, he’d slip the cards through the crack at the bottom and await my answer. The closed door was necessary to keep his frustration with my stumbling from triggering a sharp rap on my head.

Finley

He was a good man, but not an easy one, and that door symbolized a barrier between us that never came down. But he did teach me how to work hard and take a hit without whining, and I’ve always appreciated that.

Paternal nurturing largely came from others, primarily my uncle, Odell Sells. As a boy I farmed with him on a tough piece of ground in the Kentucky hills. It was grueling work. But no matter how hot the day or strenuous the task ahead, I eagerly followed him into the fields.

Odell talked constantly, telling captivating stories of “marching up the boot” with Gen. Mark Clark during World War II. We worked until we dropped, but he always built in an incentive to keep me going — “If we get this hay in, we’ll go fishing.”

The play time was as important to him as it was to me. He was as easily distracted as a child, a man with a boy’s heart, and that’s what drew me to him. He taught me the importance of finding joy in every day, and that you don’t have to grow old just because the calendar says you have.

As a young man, I came under the tutelage of my late father-in-law, Donald Powers. He was a master carpenter, and from him I learned to build all sorts of things. But perhaps more important, he convinced me there was nothing you can’t do if you have the right tools and the courage and confidence to use them. That attitude got us into all sorts of absurd projects and had me many times muttering to myself, “Let’s just hire someone.”

A child of the Depression, he simply couldn’t do it. At that point in his life, it wasn’t about the money. It was the pride. He felt a man should be able to handle his own business. That’s why even now I find myself climbing a ladder with a bundle of shingles when it would be so much smarter — and safer — to write a check.

The Rev. Ralph Fischer was a different sort of craftsman: He fixed broken spirits. Pastor Fischer spoke in the voice of God. You couldn’t go to sleep when he was standing in the pulpit. He was a Lutheran scholar, and I admired that he built his faith on an intellectual foundation.

When my life was falling apart, I spent hours in his study as he patiently worked through my doubts and fears. There were no time limits and no judgment. He was a hugger — the first hugging man I’d ever encountered — and the intimacy was awkward for me at first. But his embrace came to represent the peace I craved.

You don’t lose the need for fatherly counsel as you grow older, at least I haven’t. For the last 20 years or so I’ve had the extreme good fortune of getting mine from John Dingell. The former congressman and I are the unlikeliest of friends, but fast friends we are, even though our politics are wholly incompatible.

That’s never mattered. We talk. We listen. And when the conversation appears headed toward conflict, we switch the subject to guns. John taught me to shoot a shotgun, and we’ve spent many pleasurable mornings wet and cold in a duck blind.

John is the most honorable man I’ve ever met. He’s as happy to choose friends who challenge him as those who affirm him. And he subscribes to the quaint notion that you can love someone even if you don’t love their political views.

These are all men of the Rudyard Kipling school, and have little in common with the hapless Modern Family version of the species. I feel lucky to have had their guidance through life, and am certain that even in today’s gender-blending culture, boys could benefit from the wisdom and example of such strong men.

Back to my dad: I was never sure how he felt about me until after he died, when I found in his closet a box of my articles he’d clipped and saved from The Detroit News. That said more to me than would have 1,000 perfunctorily uttered I love yous.

Nolan Finley’s book “A Little Red Hen: A Collection of Columns from Detroit’s Conservative Voice” is available from Amazon, iBooks and Barnes & Noble Nook.

nfinley@detroitnews.com