My hero was also my first love, warts and all

The black-and-white photo shows a close-up of a little girl standing in her bare feet atop her father's leather loafers. No doubt her chubby fingers are clutching his strong hands while her frilly skirt sways back and forth to the music of their special dance.

A father's job is to be his son's first hero and his daughter's first love, the caption reads.

In my early years, my father filled both bills. Lucky girl. An early Dad memory surfaces. I'm helping him create the path to our brand-new home. Smooth Rosarita stones tickle my toes as Dad dangles me from his beefy forearms over the wet cement like a pint-sized human tamper.

"Just touch down on the rocks lightly with your feet, Tiger," he says.

The smell of Camel cigarettes and Olympia beer is also present. In fact, it's omnipresent. As soon as the sun hits the yardarm, Jim Beam will join the mix.

The combo will ultimately lead to his demise. But I'm only 4 right now. And my Dad is big, brave and indestructible.

He puts my bike together. He kisses my mom. He helps the neighbors.

A couple years later we're in the backyard. Dad's helping his favorite tomboy with batting practice. My raven-haired father's temples have a few silvery streaks. But his steel-blue eyes are alight and locked on my brown orbs.

"Watch the ball," Dad orders. "Don't take your eyes off the ball. Watch it come all the way to your bat."

Highball in hand, Dad pitches me a slow one — high and outside. Sweet spot. My 7-year-old ego soars as the bat makes contact with an earsplitting crack. The ball rockets back straight toward Dad and knocks the drink out of his hand.

For a moment, anger flashes. Time freezes. Then he flashes me that megawatt grin. And I exhale.

I am not afraid of my father or his temper. But I don't like it. Growing up in the '60s as an indulged "bonus" child, I am surrounded by love and full of ideals.

Dads are supposed to be perfect, like all the fathers I watch on television. I know my father is not perfect. Not by a long shot. But I don't know why. That scares me.

Is it him? Is it me? We don't talk about it. Ever.

By the time I'm a typical teen, I don't want to help Dad around the house or listen to his helpful advice. We battle over curfews and chores.

My girlfriends have crushes on Dad because he's still so handsome. My boyfriends are mostly afraid of him because he's very protective. And he still has that erratic temper — mostly depending on his alcohol consumption.

But each year we declare a truce on Jan. 1. It's my parents' anniversary. And Dad's a Tournament of Roses official. And I like to see him wear his white suit. I like cruising in the special car, and going to Disneyland with the visiting football teams as a teen hostess. We go to the Rose Bowl games as allies. We both hate USC — and secretly cheer for Big Ten teams.

As the years roll on, I bounce between feelings of pride and mortification. Mostly I'm sad for the ongoing toll on our connection. I miss my Dad. The one I want him to be.

There are moments where I reach out. Please, Dad.

He doesn't want to hear it. He doesn't want to stop drinking. The booze kills him before the cigarettes can claim him to cancer.

I am still sorting through what it means to have an alcoholic parent. Dad was not there many times when I needed him. But he was also there during some dark days in my life when I least expected him to stand strong.

Today — like every day — this sadder but wiser daughter still loves her father, feet of clay and all.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or email

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