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Notes and Observations on Being Raised by Melvin Earl Smith

What follows is the transcript of a speech I gave at dad’s 70th birthday party on March 31, 2017, and is posted here as a (1-day belated) Father’s Day tribute. Important note: It's "Melvin Earl" on his birth certificate, or when I'm irritated with him. Anyone else will get the stink eye if they call him anything other than Bud.

1. Don’t even THINK of showing up lightly armed for a battle of wits. A few years back, there was a fellow named Justin Halpern who became an internet sensation when he started a Twitter feed entitled “Shit my dad says.” The sole content of these tweets were verbatim quotes from Halpern’s dad, who was 73 when the feed started. The dad–Sam–was a cynical old curmudgeon given to profane, extremely sarcastic, almost unfailingly (and often unintentionally) hilarious quips, observations and other musings, which Halpern would simply transcribe word-for-word. Sam is a retired physician whose career included a stint as a military doc in Vietnam. For a time I was a regular visitor to this site, and would as often as not chortle and snort at each new entry. This guy’s dad and my dad were clearly kindred spirits. My dad wasn’t a physician, but he did spend several decades dealing with the criminal scum of humanity both from the prosecution and defense side of the courtroom. Like Halpern’s dad, this career path forged a world-weary and hard-bitten humor that was . . . unique.

In dad’s case, there were too many examples of him exercising his singular wit upon me to list tonight unless you want to spend the entire evening on this one topic, which I don’t think you do. So I’ll limit my examples to two, but rest assured they are only two of hundreds, if not thousands. The common thread running through these two particular examples is that in each instance, I was rendered unable to retort.

The first occurred when I was going through my rebellious, neurotic, angst-riven, utterly nauseating and repulsive adolescent stage. I don’t remember the broader context of the conversation, but dad, as he often did around this period, was expressing his general disapproval of my manner of dress, hairstyle (I had hair then), comportment, demeanor, and of how all of these things reflected poorly on the family that raised me and, more importantly, him. In response I launched into a lengthy soliloquy about how important it was for me to be my own person, find my own way, express my individuality and so forth by dressing how I chose (like my friends) and cutting my hair as I preferred (ditto), listening to the same crappy music they did, and basically acting like a derelict creep. He listened as patiently as he could–although if it’s possible to roll ones eyes hard enough to permanently damage them, he probably came close–and the reply, when it finally came was roughly as follows: “Well whatever you think it is that makes you such a unique ‘individual’ came out of the end of my (here he used common nickname for “Richard”), so take your “individualism” and stick it where the sun don’t shine.” Except he used a far less family-friendly version of “where the sun don’t shine.”

The second example occurred years later, and only a few years back, when he and I were up on our ranch bombing around in my Jeep. Alcohol may or may not have been a factor in whatever it was we were doing, so I’ll just take the safe bet and say that it probably was. At one point, when I drifted a corner a bit too fast, dad suggested that perhaps I might want to slow down a bit and not drive like a total lunatic. My reply was something along the lines of, “I can’t believe YOU are telling ME to behave myself, when clearly I’m the more responsible of the two of us.” Here I should add as an aside that in most instances, this is perfectly true. In reply, without the least pause to gather his thoughts, dad immediately fired back, “You know, you’re absolutely right. The entire time you were growing up, every time I would find myself saying, ‘Dammit, who’s responsible for this,’ it almost always turned out to be you!”

2. You could NOT successfully lie to him, and were in deep, dark trouble if you attempted to. Not only had dad done or attempted to do everything I ever did or attempted to do when he was a kid, he represented criminal scumbags for a living. Professional liars tried to lie to him all day, every day. Ain’t no way his kids were ever going to pull it off. You couldn’t pull the wool over the old man’s eyes, at least not for long. You WOULD be found out. And while dad was never a particularly strict disciplinarian nor particularly prone to wrath, his wrath would be felt if you lied. Which is a good segue into Bullet Point No. 3.

3. He was unwavering on the important things, but didn’t dwell on the little stuff. Dad was–and is–fun. When people who haven’t seen him in a while ask me how he is, my answer is always the same: “He’s the same guy you saw last time–a 70-year-old kid!” That isn’t said with an eye roll or the least hint of disapprobation, but with sincere admiration and appreciation for his ability to remain young at heart. It’s a gift, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who recognizes it as such. Of the two of us, he’s the free spirit and I’m the grumpy old man.

He was fun as a dad too. He always made sure us kids got to experience and enjoy a broad variety of things. I had a fun and relatively unrestricted childhood. I was Huck Finn. I played on the river all day in the summer, had my own boat, and was (sort of, loosely) expected back by around dinner time–whenever that was. No cell phones, no ability to easily track me down. I didn’t wear helmets or seat belts, I climbed every tree in the neighborhood. I shot guns–a lot. I rode dirt bikes and ATVs–really, really fast. I broke lots of stuff, most of it his.

What I didn’t do was lie, cheat or steal, and I still don’t. The reason I don’t is that when I was growing up, these were the only “bad” things you could do. And to dad, all three were the same thing. I happen to agree with this. All three spring forth from the same basic moral defect. We didn’t get in trouble for much, but we ALWAYS got in trouble for the Big Three. It was a lesson I took to heart, then as now.

The only other thing dad took seriously was gun safety, and I certainly agree with that position as well. He was a cross between an SS sturmbannfuhrer and a Soviet commissar when it came to lying, cheating, stealing and gun safety. He was lax, permissive, understanding, and philosophical when it came to pretty much everything else. And my childhood and adolescence were all the better for it, particularly inasmuch as I survived these.

4. His love was–and is–truly unconditional. Put simply, there never was–and still isn’t–a screw-up of sufficient magnitude that any of us kids could commit or, for that matter, anyone he loves could commit, that would not be instantly forgiven. He’d drop whatever he was doing and go to bat for us any time, any place. Dad is easy going. He’s a “Type B” personality through and through. Right, that is, until you screw with someone he loves. Then it doesn’t matter how many bullets he has, he’s gonna use them all, be the earth scorched, the mountains leveled, and the seas boiled away.

So that, folks, is the man we’re celebrating tonight: The one and only!

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