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Couch Potatoes Not Allowed

"Did you get your hour of outdoor exercise today?”

My father sternly repeated this inquisition as he looked from one child to the next. If we hadn’t gotten outdoors, we knew what came next. Out we went, no matter the weather. If a blizzard was raging, he would make reasonable concessions, but even then Dad wanted us to get some fresh air and move our bodies.

He was right to insist. We now know that daily exercise and fresh air has multiple health benefits including boosting immunity and enhancing mental well-being. I suspect, however, he had an ulterior motive; after a long day at the office, he wanted peace and quiet, not the noise of six obnoxious kids. Getting us out of the house benefited all parties.

My father was a general practitioner and surgeon in a rural county with too few physicians. Physicians were needed during the Korean War, but the draft board declined to send Dad because it would have imposed a hardship on his patients. He was needed more at home than overseas. He was very, very busy. I remember long periods of time when I would not see my father because he left before I got up and returned after I was asleep.

After Dad died, I was shown a dimension of his character I had not appreciated. The church was packed with friends and patients at his memorial service. Many wrote anecdotes in a journal left on a table for that purpose. One story especially touched my heart. Doc, as he was affectionately known, was making house calls when he saw one of his patients stacking wood. He had recently seen her at his office and diagnosed a bad case of flu. He stopped, sent her promptly to bed and finished the chore.

He treated neighbors as if they were family. One suffered a severe case of sun-stroke and sunburn on the job after moving sheets of white styrofoam all day in the hot sun. Dad wanted to hospitalize him, however, it would have imposed a financial hardship on the family. Instead, he did what few physicians would have done; he treated him at home, visiting at least twice a day until he was stable.

His profession was both physically and emotionally demanding. When I was a junior in high school, three of my school mates were in a horrific accident. One of them was decapitated. Another was terribly injured. My father was the county coroner at the time. Dad had doctored the affected families and was faced with telling the dead teen’s father of the gruesome details. He was subdued and edgy for a long while after.

Dad was exempted from service during WWII due to a broken back suffered in an auto accident. He excelled in mathematics and physics and was approached to work on a 'project' with a team of scientists. Though it was top secret, Dad figured out he was being recruited for the Manhattan Project. He declined, knowing the utter destruction a nuclear bomb would cause. He didn't want it on his conscience. Those who worked on the project suffered terrible remorse.

My father wore a tough exterior necessitated by the emotional toll of his profession, but inside he was a marshmallow. He had a deep respect for nature and loved to fish and hunt. Though he wasn’t always great at being a father, he often told me how proud he was of my siblings and me. He was especially proud of his grandchildren and enjoyed having them visit for a week during the summer.

Though I had a good relationship with my father, I didn’t really understand him until after he died. I think that’s typical; as children, we look to our parents for our every need. As teens, they become dictators who make demands of us, disappoint and irritate us. As adults, we begin to see them as individuals whom we may or may not like. When we become parents, it’s easier to understand them as flawed humans who, in most cases, tried to do their best.

I’m glad my father made sure I got fresh air and exercise. I passed the practice on to my children and observe it to this day. It is a part of his legacy that extends beyond the grave, even to his great grandchildren. It is an outward expression of a father’s enduring love.

My granddaughter getting an hour of outdoor exercise while building her first snowman.

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