I’ll be the first person to tell you that I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer. What I mean is that I will probably never write a book with a title like, “The Ten Secrets to Parenting Success, or ” 100 Things to a Being a Better Dad.” However, a few years ago I started a summer tradition with my sons that was something I’d like to call a “wise move” on my part. I’d like to take credit for it but it actually started with a promise my dad made but was unable to fulfill and a promise I made to myself.
When I was a kid I was fascinated by the Civil War. I still am to a large extent. My dad knew that, of course, and he encouraged it. In fact, one time he came home with a civil war musket ball that he had purchased for me from a friend who was a collector. He also promised to take me to Gettysburg. We were planning to go sometime in the spring of my freshman year in high school but my dad died in November of that year.
It is hard for me to think of Gettysburg without remembering my dad – his love for me and his willingness to engage in something that I loved. So, at some point in my grief, I promised that when I had kids I would take them to Gettysburg. I lived that out a few years ago when I realized that Gettysburg was only a little over three hours from Charlottesville – thus was born the Man Trips.
Three years ago I took my older two sons up to see the battle field and to explore the new visitor center and museum. (My youngest son was four – and – as much as I loved spending time with him then – well – if you’ve ever spent much time with a four-year old on a car trip I don’t have to explain why he didn’t make the first man trip.) At that point my older sons had little interest or understanding of the war. I have to say they did have an appreciation for being from the south – they can’t help that – they’ve lived all their lives in the south (and a good bit in the deep south – you should read a love for the good parts of being southern – that’s a love for really good BBQ, bow ties, seersucker suits, dogs, the beach, and humidity).
We had a great time. I splurged a bit and got a personal guided tour. Our guide drove us around and filled us in about each part of the battle field. He would point out bullet holes in houses, houses that doubled as hospitals, and then tell us the stories of the fighting that engulfed that little town and the hills and fields surrounding it. I wasn’t sure that my sons were all that interested or paying attention.
It was great being with my sons but I realized, somewhere into the trip that I had stumbled onto the “something more” that my dad was trying to do by wanting to go with me to Gettysburg. In my mind as a kid it had everything to do with the place and the stuff. For my dad it had everything to do with connecting, investing, building into my life and our relationship. He was going to give up a huge chunk of time just to be with me and that says a lot to me even now.
So, every summer since the first man trip I’ve loaded up the car and taken all three of my sons off for a few days. Last year we went to Baltimore. We went to see an Orioles game (or Oreos as my youngest calls them), we ate great food that was not great for us and then drove to DC. In Washington we covered the mall – stopping at the National Museum of American History – and then made our way to the Lincoln Memorial. It was a great trip and my sons started asking about the next trip on the trip back home.
This year we went to Pittsburgh. I surprised my sons. They thought we were just going to watch the Pirates play. But I had a few tricks up my sleeve. In fact, I told them that I had to attend a lecture at St. Vincent College in Latrobe. I told them it would take a few hours but they might learn something. I was lying.
If you know anything about St. Vincent you’ll know that every summer since 1967 it has hosted the training camp for the Pittsburgh Steelers. They had a blast. The Steelers have all sorts of stuff for kids even a chance to put on the helmet, shoulder pads and jersey…oh how I began to dream when I saw them decked out in that gear…
We ate man food at Primanti Brothers. We ate more man food at the Pirates game. We had a blast at the Carnegie Science Center – complete with its own submarine (you gotta go there it’s amazing). But the highlight for me was our return trip to Gettysburg.
For reasons that should be clear – it was important for me to go back with all three of my sons. This time I didn’t need to get a tour guide. I had two in the car. I listened as my older two sons began to tell the story of Gettysburg to their younger brother. I was surprised by how much they remembered and all that they told him – even going so far as to talk about the placement of canons as well as specific places on the field – like the Devils Den and Little Round Top.
I’m not sure what impact these trips are going to have on my sons. I know what sort of impact they’ve had on me. I’m always wondering how to be a dad. I don’t have a lot of memories of my own dad that haven’t been obscured by time and grief. But I believe I am doing something good, something that will last, something that will mark our lives. I am more than willing to pull away from everything and give myself to these guys like this year after year.
On the way home from PA they started talking about what part of the trip was their favorite. For them it was all about the places and the stuff – the things they got to do and see (even the donuts from Peace, Love and Little Donuts). For me it was all about the something more – all about connecting, investing, building into their lives – and mine. That’s a wise move I learned from my dad.