One morning when I was in Congress, I stopped by a day care center. As soon as the director escorted me into the playroom, six or seven little shavers shot across the room, flung themselves at me, and locked on like barnacles to a ship's hull.
Unable to move, I shot a look at the teachers, who unwrapped the boys from my legs. I played with the kids until it was time to head for my next stop. Before leaving, I paused in the hallway. The director answered my question before I could ask. Thumbing over her shoulder at the playroom window, she said, "Those boys have no dad. At the age of 4 or 5, as you can see, boys often crave contact with adult males."
Her words sliced my heart. I understood their craving. The boys were me! I was their very age when my dad deserted my family. The hole he left in my chest has stayed with me for life.
On this Father's Day, I've been thinking about those boys. I'd like to think they got a stepdad who taught them to swing a bat, or an uncle who explained how to dribble and shoot, or a big-hearted neighbor who showed how to play a fish. Or a same-sex family that did something — any of those things and more — to assuage "father hunger."
In the Ozzie-and-Harriet '50s, to feel severe "father hunger" was to feel the frigid breath of exclusion and inferiority, especially in a small town like Redmond, Ore. When my pal couldn't come out to play on Sunday because his family was celebrating Father's Day, I remember feeling quite like an outcast, mentally pressing my nose against his living room window, yearning to be inside, wrapped in the warmth of "normal" family bonds.
In my early athletic years, when the high school held its annual "Father-Son Dinner," my best friend's dad invited me at the last minute to join him and his son. As I searched the dinner tables, I could not find another fatherless kid. I felt like a waif on alms.
It's possible that some of the day care boys might have spent their youth like I did: timidly keeping one's nose down, not wanting to make a mistake that would prove one's "disability." Fortunately, I became an all-state basketball forward; peer acceptance followed. Yet, even after I ascended to a seat in Congress — even after I'd slayed most of my demons — I almost always appeared in public in a coat and tie. Looking back on it, I'm sure they were my body armor.
Fathers, when your family fetes you today, remember everything you can mean to a child. When Sue and I started our family, I said to myself, "Now, I'm going to show how fathering is supposed to be done." If the abiding love of my children is the test, then I succeeded.
I've had a lot of titles in an event-filled life, but those I'm proudest of are "father" and "husband." Every one of them had to be earned.
Happy Father's Day.
Former Ashland resident and Mail Tribune columnist Les AuCoin represented Oregon's 1st Congressional District from 1975 to 1993. He lives in Bozeman, Mont.