To understand my dad is to understand a Harley Davidson motorcycle. Not the new, souped-up kind with MP3 hookups, GPS, and all the other bells and whistles afforded the modern cyclist. My dad is neither flashy or overindulgent. Rather, James Benton resembles a classic bike: one put together by an old-school biker who fiddled and tinkered and customized his motorcycle in a way he, not the mainstream, saw fit. He is a mash-up of parts from different eras, held together firmly but somewhat randomly. When you pass him on the street, he’s the kind of guy you can’t quite pin down into one category. You have to study him for quite some time before you can begin to understand him. And even then, upon further prodding, you discover something new and unique. It may not make a ton of sense, but it’s intriguing nonetheless.
James Benton (he hates his middle name, and forbids me from sharing it publicly) was born on May 9, 1955. He was the youngest of six. His dad worked in a shoe factory. His mom grew up on an Indian reservation. By the time I met my grandparents, they were so old they were almost unknown to me. My grandpa gave me his empty Prince Albert tobacco cans as gifts (he rolled his own smokes). My grandma was usually quiet, but she slapped my hand once when I reached for a spoon without asking (which I found a little harsh). We would go to their house in town to get water once a week because our well had bad water for drinking. This forced a visit that may not have happened otherwise. It also thrust my dad back into relationship with his parents, whom he hadn’t always been close to. He grew up in a strict Pentecostal home. Love was certainly present, as was discipline. Distance defined it all. He was closest to my Aunt Dee, and admired her like most sons admired mothers.
Dad told me once that for as long as he can remember he felt like running. A product of his time, his late teenage years and early twenties (the early 1970s to the early 1980s) were marked with a lot of doing as he pleased. He made brief stops in the Job Corps and the U.S. Army. He struggled with being told what to do. He didn’t really fit any mold. He lived with siblings. He lived on the street. He lived in a van. He stayed with friends. My dad doesn’t talk a lot about those days. I think there are a lot of things he’d just as soon forget. I know there were nights he prayed to God he would simply make it to the next morning. The turning point came when he met my mother. Their initial friendship grew into a deep sense of love and commitment. My mother, widowed twice, refused to marry for fear he would die. They had two children, my sister and then me. They named my sister “Nicoya,” for new beginnings. They named me “Titus” so that if I chose a destructive path I could always find my name in the Bible, and perhaps there find hope and peace. My dad was 26. He had already lived two lives worth of stories. We lived in a small city, just north and east of St. Louis. My dad didn’t want us to grow up in the city, so he moved us to a huge farm in the middle of nowhere, Missouri.
My dad worked that farm for a businessman. He got paid very little and he worked very hard. My memories of that farm are fuzzy but pleasant. I remember when my dad broke his wrist getting bucked off of a horse. I remember old friends from the city coming to visit and sensing for the first time my dad putting distance between his old life and his new one. I remember going to the sale barn where my dad worked on some Saturdays, sorting horses and eating greasy cheeseburgers from the snack bar. I remember our old-fashioned washing machine and clothes flapping in the summer breeze. I remember racing my dad back to the house from the barn. He rarely let me win, but he always let me get close enough to maintain hope. I have always felt a step behind my dad, but it never damaged me. He was leading me, not humiliating me.
There are about three constants in my life that no matter how hard I try cannot be subtracted. One is the Lord. Another is small towns. And the third is my family. At the center of that family is my dad. Like an old rusty anchor he kept us all in place. Like a relic from days gone by, my dad is often overlooked and–when someone takes the chance to notice–often misunderstood. He wears boots, Levi’s, and t-shirts (w/ pockets, for his cigarettes, one of the few bad habits he’s yet to kick). As he’s grown older, he’s added eyeglasses. His hair is long, as long as my mother’s. It’s usually braided and dangles down his back. He looks like a biker. Or a farmer. Or a hippie. Or a big, mean indian. Or maybe all of those. He never took a lot of lip from me and he rarely takes it from anyone else. He has strong opinions, just like his disciplinarian parents. He’s stern, but rarely harsh. He is known for being a hard worker. After raising me, he has grown to enjoy sports: mainly Duke basketball and Cardinals baseball.
If it seems as though I’m struggling to describe him it’s because I am. It’s hard to do. How do you define a man who appears rugged and lean (though less lean as he ages) and strict? How do you define a man who you know was sacrificial and wise and giving? He is, like most of our dads, a complex person. My dad passed a lot of things down to me from his complex personality. Perhaps foremost is a difficulty sharing how I really feel. Only in recent years have I begun to tell my dad out loud that I love him. But that doesn’t quite say it. I have never met a man who was more beautifully complicated than my old man. His life has never been easy. His adult life has never been about him. He worked back-breaking jobs and scratched together a living. He never let our lack of money impede my growth. He never held me back, but thrust me forward in life. He whooped me, taught me, put me to work, nurtured my faith, kept me humble, and passed down irreplaceable wisdom: fear God. Tell the truth. Work hard. Put your family first. I sit like my dad, I walk like my dad, I drink my coffee like my dad, and I think a lot like my dad. At times that gets me in trouble, but usually it serves me quite well. I see the world like my dad. I understand God like my dad. I hope I can learn to sacrifice like my dad. To love like my dad. To learn like my dad. I kind of want to be my dad.
A couple years ago my mom and dad came for a visit. They rode their Harley from southern Missouri to where I live in southeast Texas. While here, they bounced over to San Antonio for a Harley rally. They went to my son’s t-ball game. They went to my daughter’s piano recital. They outran a severe storm to get back home just in the nick of time. If you’d of passed them on the highway, they would’ve appeared slightly odd. You would’ve known they had a story. You never would’ve been able to figure out the whole thing. But if you peer closer at their bike, you’d start to understand. It’s a newer bike, a Road King. But it’s got tons of non-factory stuff on it. His own take on foot pegs, tail lights that are found on older motorcycles. Duct tape covers the front seat. There’s MeeMaw and PawPaw painted on the saddle bags. Their helmets hold stickers describing their stance on politics, religion, being old, and helmet laws. A simple cross is very noticeable if you approach them from behind. My old man is one of a kind, just like his motorcycle. You may not understand my dad. But I’m starting to. And the more I do, the more I love him. Happy Father’s Day, dad.