A Father’s Day Post

At my BooksmART event in Dallas last weekend, one of the things that struck me was how many dads attended with their kids. Despite the crowds and the heat, these dads were perfectly happy to wait in the blazing hot sun to let their children meet me and get their books signed. Everyone seemed to be in a great mood. I always love seeing dads come out with their kids for an event about reading, and it makes me appreciate how my own father started me on my path to becoming an author. I’ve done several posts in the past on Mother’s Day, but it seems appropriate this weekend to honor my dad, the first storyteller in my life.

The pictures above were unearthed from the oldest family album I have. It miraculously survived the fire that destroyed my mom’s house in the 1980s, and offers a glimpse of my earliest years.

My parents got married very young, and didn’t exactly plan on having a son so soon! The top photo shows my dad holding me in an Aggie baby outfit, since both my parents went to school at Texas A&M. What strikes me is how young my dad looks in this picture — even younger than my brother Brady is now, and they look so similar. I was thirty when my own first son was born. Even then it was hard. It gives me a lot of respect for how well my dad did with me when he was barely out of high school. I remember him being patient and caring with a good sense of humor. I doubt I could’ve done so well in my twenties. No — I’m sure I couldn’t have.

Below that is a picture of my dad introducing me to the Texas Gulf Coast. My dad loves the coast, and has retired to Port Aransas, which is probably where this picture was taken. Some of my earliest memories are of camping on the beach, designing a flag to fly over our tent as if we were founding a medieval castle. We’d feed the seagulls, build amazing sand castles, and eat sandwiches with sand in them (for the longest time, I thought that’s why they called them ‘sandwiches’). I’ll admit I never was one for the ocean when I was young, and even now it takes a certain amount of courage for me to approach a beach. Jellyfish and deep water terrified me. Gutting fish grossed me out. And the movie Jaws certainly didn’t help. But I still have many good memories of those times. Even the time my parents woke me up in the middle of the night and hastily broke camp to escape an incoming hurricane — in retrospect, the memory is exciting and vivid.

Third photo: Another water shot! I’m thinking that’s the Alamo Heights public pool in San Antonio, though I could be wrong. I know we went there many times. My dad was and is such an avid fan of the water, I suppose it’s no wonder I would grow up and write about Percy Jackson, son of the sea god!

 The next picture is actually dated: June 1, 1965, when I was almost one year old. My dad is taking me to the San Antonio Zoo, one of the best zoos in the country, where I spent a good chunk of my childhood. When I got a little older, my favorite part was the Mold-a-Rama machines, which made wax replicas of the animals as you watched. Amazingly, those machines are still working today, so I got to take my own sons there to start their own collections. In fact, I have shots of me with my sons, Haley and Patrick, that are almost identical to this photo of me with my dad.

The next shot — oh dear! How did that get in there? That’s my dad and my maternal grandmother giving me an outdoor bath. Yes, this is the sort of shot parents are always threatening to show your girlfriend when you grow up. Why am I taking a bath outside? Could be I was playing in the mud. Or possibly this was before we invented indoor plumbing. Nah . . . probably the mud.

The black and white shot: again, it’s amazing how much my dad looks like my younger brother, or vice versa. This is the earliest shot of me and my dad together, just after I was born in the Methodist Hospital in San Antonio. He looks remarkably calm, given that I did not show up on schedule. As the story goes, the doctor who was supposed to deliver me was about to go on vacation, and showed up at the operating room wearing his Hawaiian shirt. Again, echoes of Percy Jackson’s life! I was even delivered by Dr. Tommy Bahama.

Below that is a scene any father can relate to: total exhaustion. I’m not sure who looks more wiped out in that picture, me or my dad, but I also look very safe and comfortable. When I was a little older, I clearly remember crawling into bed between my parents and cuddling up to my dad, listening to his breathing until I fell asleep. He had a strong, reassuring presence.

Below that, me looking very surprised, like I’m thinking, “Holy Cow! That’s my dad!” My dad looks happy and relaxed, despite the fact he was juggling college at A&M and unexpected fatherhood.

Finally, a picture of me hitting the pavement to look for work. Yes, times were tough back then. No . . . actually I just love that shot. You have to dig the hat. Obviously I’d just learned to walk, and these were some of my first steps.

These give you a sense of me and my dad in our earliest years together, but one thing they don’t show is how often we read together. My dad read to me all the time. I still have the battered copy of Tales of the Western World, now long since out of print, from which my dad read me Native American myths and tall tales from the pioneers. These started my lifelong love of mythology. I also loved Doctor Seuss and P.D. Eastman’s Go, Dog, Go, which I made my dad tell me endless times. Hop On Pop, of course, was another favorite, especially since it gave me an excuse to act out jumping on my dad’s belly, which he took with good grace despite the fact that I was not a light child.

When I became a teacher years later, I would often extol the importance of reading to children at home. Having parents who read is critical, because modeling that behavior will show children that reading is an important and enjoyable part of family life. What I don’t often acknowledge is how much influence my dad had on my own development. He took the time to read. He loved stories, and he instilled that love in me.

He also made it clear that he valued creativity, and nurtured his own artistic side. When I was quite young, he took up pottery, learned to use the wheel, and befriended a local ceramicist who taught him how to build and use a kiln. I learned along with him, first at the art studios of the McNay Museum, then later at his friend’s extremely hippie encampment/art studio built from an upside-down radar dome in the woods near Universal City. I was never very good at the potter’s wheel, but I loved to make clay sculptures, and got to help make a ‘kiln god’ statue, a sort of good luck talisman for a new kiln that supposedly helped pots not get broken when fired. Talk about hands-on mythology!

I started making clay dinosaurs, too. When my father would sell his ceramics at weekend art shows, he’d let me come along and sell my dinosaurs. Amazingly, they sold. I remember one particular piece that came out of the kiln kind of melted. It looked like the dinosaur was having a heart attack. My dad said, “Well, bring it along. Maybe some sucker will buy it!”

Sure enough, a guy came to our booth and broke out laughing when he saw the deformed dinosaur. He brought out his money, and I turned to my dad proudly and announced, “You were right, Dad! Some sucker did buy it!” My dad turned bright red and kept his painful smile in place, shaking his head for me to shut up. The guy bought the statue anyway.

The point is: My dad was both a creative person and a storyteller. Like my mom, he was also a teacher, and worked in the San Antonio public schools for many years. Really, the foundation for who I would become was laid in those early years, watching and learning from my father. Without a strong role model like him, I doubt I would’ve ever become a writer.

So to my dad — thank you! I haven’t said that enough. And thanks to all those dads who take time to read to their kids, encourage their imagination and nurture their interests, even if it means standing in the hot sun for an hour to meet some author! You may not know just how great a gift you’re giving to your children, but believe me — the value of what you are doing is immense. Happy Father’s Day, everyone!

Rick Riordan