The Dad Thing

When I was a kid, in the summer my family would rent a cabin for a week or two on a lake in upstate1 New York. The lake was small enough that motor boats weren't permitted, so it was a very quiet place. It was a good place to get away to.

A lot of the residents had boat docks, and a number had floats to swim to. These floats were anchored with pieces of slate from an abandoned quarry nearby. In the winter, the iced-over lake would sometimes break the cords from the float to the anchor, and the owner would have to get a new piece of slate.

The slate quarry had been abandoned for years. There was a deep pit with greenish water in the bottom, and a huge pile of unused slate pieces. The pile was almost a small hill. It towered above its surrounds; I'd guess it was thirty or more feet high. On the pile were pieces that made particularly good anchors, since they had holes drilled through them. I assume the holes had been used to insert sticks of dynamite when the quarry was working.

One time I tagged along with my father on a trip to get a new piece of slate for an anchor. He cautiously climbed up the base of a smaller pile and started looking for a good-sized piece with a hole. When I started up, he warned me away. The slate pile wasn't very stable; it would be easy to start a slide, which could be very dangerous. Okay, I thought; that made sense. I got down and waited for him to find a piece and bring it down.

I forgot about the incident for years, until I was much older. Thinking about it one day, I realized that it was a classic example of The Dad Thing: that aura of responsibility and competence that a father2 can exude. When my father warned me away, I assumed that he knew how to walk on a slate pile. He probably learned it from his father, or maybe in the Army. He's a dad; of course he knows esoteric skills like walking on slate piles.

Needless to say, upon reflection I was amused by how easily I believed my dad's warning. Of course he didn't have a skill in walking on slate piles! He just employed caution, which I probably wouldn't have. That the big secret of The Dad Thing: common sense, with a bit of not letting on that you don't know how to do something.


  1. "Upstate" New York means different things to different people. To New York City and Long Island dwellers, upstate means the entire rest of the state. To me, raised in southern New York west of the Hudson, it meant anything above Albany. The lake in question is on the New York-Vermont border, east of the southern tip of Lake Champlain. Everybody in New York, with the possible exception of the Plattsburghers and Potsdammed, agrees that this is upstate.

  2. Okay, mothers can have this quality too. My dad exhibited it more than my mom, though.

Last updated 3 June 2000
All contents ©1999-2002 Mark L. Irons