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My Father’s Stunning Failure To Achieve

A great memory from my last birthday was getting the chance to listen to and ask questions of my Dad for a few hours. I got to hear, in more detail than ever, the story of his life in the Army—from his enlistment (he volunteered during Vietnam, wasn’t drafted) as a private, to his honorable discharge a few years later as a lieutenant. I had to drag many of the facts out of him, because he’s more reluctant than most men to talk about himself. But after some persistent inquiry, he would tell it to me straight.

There are several scenes that fascinate me, tales of danger and distress (told always in my father’s subdued, under-glamorized way). There are lots of things I’d love to share. But I’ll get to a particular theme of the over-all story.

Dad enlisted and went to basic training. Sometime in the first months of his training, he was offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He was offered an appointment to West Point. While Dad underplayed this detail, barely mentioning it as he moved on, this was a real honor for an enlisted man. This would not only advance his career, pay, and prestige, but would actually have kept him out of the war. But he had volunteered during wartime. He wanted to be a combat veteran.

He also wanted to get married. He was engaged to my mother and at West Point you could not be married. That was a deal-breaker. He declined.

It astonished his superiors and baffled (and perhaps infuriated) some veterans in our family. He went instead to Officer Candidate School. He would go on to become an officer, go to war, and become a distinguished soldier. In Vietnam he served as a platoon leader in Delta Company and later as the XO (and briefly the acting Company Commander). He never lost a man though, before he arrived and after he left, this was not the case for those who commanded his platoon. His command was a rare interval of grace. He was considered unusually competent and lucky/blessed.

His men called him “Luke,” short for “Cool Hand Luke,” because of his easy calm in the middle of danger. When one of his men pointed his gun at the sergeant and it was reported to Lt. “Luke” Smith, he wasn’t exactly sure what to do. The kid was scared, he thought, so he walked up to the young soldier and held out his hands, silently demanding his gun. The soldier gave the gun up and Dad gave it to the sergeant and they carried on in the field, the rebellious soldier marching through the jungle with no weapon for a week. He never had any problems from that soldier again. The errant soldier could have been seriously punished, his record spoiled and his path marked. But Dad, though a believer in total depravity, has always been eager to see people at their best, to believe they will come around if given a chance. He has, it must be admitted, been wrong on that score many times. But his errors are usually on the side of grace.

When his tour was nearing its end, he was offered an opportunity to become a captain and have a job stateside if he would reenlist for only one year. Once again, there was an opportunity to increase his pay, his prestige, and enhance his career. Again, he declined.

There were lots of reasons. He had accomplished what he wanted to. He wanted to be a combat veteran in the Army, then he wanted to be home. They offered him a post in Kentucky, but it was not quite close enough to home. He wanted to go hunting, go to West Virginia football games, get a job, and teach Sunday School. He wanted to be a regular guy again.

He came home with a resume made for leadership. High school class president, captain of the football team, distinguished officer in wartime (having led hundreds of men in battle). He applied at the nickel plant and was offered a job in management. He had no desire to manage people. He’d done that. He wanted to not be in charge. He literally would rather be the guy sweeping the floors. He declined again, would not be a manager. He got the job he wanted.

He wouldn’t avoid leadership for long, and would be drafted into leadership again and again in life, as he always had been. He has never been one to seek it out, but it has always found him and thrust him forward.

But among the many things I took away from this opportunity to listen to my father, this theme was clear. He declined a lot of opportunity. He chose things that seemed less important, were less lucrative, and led to a quieter life (in a sense).

His life has been characterized by a genuine preference for reluctance, followed by simple confidence and high performance. In school, in football, in basic training and Officer Candidate School, in Vietnam, it was the same story. At the nickel plant he was a very reluctant president of the union (where he was told he was “just way too honest to be effective”) for a short period. He led as a missionary pastor in Africa, coming to a wounded church and being a bright spot in between two tragic failures. He started a Zulu church, taught and trained men. He is a pastor now. He’s been a good man, a good husband and father.

His life has not been wasted. God, for his own glory, has used Dad in –I say this with careful thought– thousands and thousands of lives for good. He has been, and continues to be, a herald of the Good News of Jesus. He is a quiet teacher full of grace.

He still loves simple things like gardening, yard work, West Virginia sports, studying, reading, and spending time with his family (including twenty grand kids). He still sweeps.

I guess my conclusion is simple. Many people, by many standards, would probably see my Dad as a kind of failure, as a person who failed to achieve all that could be achieved. He did not, in one sense, grab life by the horns. He never earned a college degree (though he was and is certainly smart enough to teach college–and actually has). He’s not the poster child for the american dream of achievement.

But he’s the best man I know. He’s been an exemplary father and has served people of many colors and languages on several continents. He is a beautiful man.

How many High Achiever stories have you read with the tragic footnote that the person lost their kids and ruined their families? Too many.

I’ll take my Dad. I’ll take him, receive him, for what he is and has been: a gift from a far better Father.

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