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Family photo
Jerry Johnston, back left, and his father J. Earl Johnston, with his brothers Val, front left, and David, right, and mother Joy, center.

It’s Father’s Day on Sunday, and I’ve been sifting my mind for early memories of my father.

I’ve settled on a moment from 1953, when I was 4. It’s night. It’s snowing. And I’m lying on the back seat of our old Studebaker while Dad edges it from Logan to Brigham City through Sardine Canyon.

Family photo
Young Jerry Johnston, right, with his younger brother, David.

Seatbelts and car seats were still decades away. So were divided highways, decent snow plows and tires that didn’t double as ice skates.

Dad is singing to himself. Mother holds my brother Dave and stares into the meteor-storm of flakes flying at the windshield.

I’m bug-snug in the back. I’m warm. I’m sleepy. I’m watching the headlights from passing cars twirl across the ceiling — my own light-and-shadow show. The only sounds are my father’s singing and the click of his foot on the floor-mounted dimmer switch.

I feel peaceful and secure.

My father is strong and courageous. He’s tough. If Lucifer himself showed up to cart me away, Dad would blacken both his eyes.

Many years later, I would discover it was all a front.

For 70 years, he shielded an inner-soul that was a lot like me.

Having grown up in the '20s on a Davis County farm with five brothers, Dad learned early that being artsy was a good way to get your clock cleaned. So — always the performer — he took on a demanding role: Mr. Tough Guy.

He played it well.

As a teacher, he’d wing chalk and erasers at distracted students. At home, he lobbed his big voice around like a shot put and disciplined us with sarcasm.

He would continue to play the heavy until I was in my late 40s, when my mother died. That's when Dad, for the first time, came out of character.

I’d always felt my father and I lived worlds apart. He was harsh, confident and easily provoked. I was his polar opposite. As a grade schooler, I wrote stories in peacock-blue ink and drew pictures of puppies. Only during Dad’s final years did I see how similar we really were.

There were hints along the way.

My father’s profound love of choral music should have been a clue, along with the fact he once painted our house apple green, then yellow, then blue.

When mom died, dad lost his personal fashion coordinator, so he had to wing it. I once ran into him at the store. He was wearing sunglasses, a broad-brimmed straw hat and a tropical shirt. It was mid-winter. He looked like Drew Carey on vacation in Kokomo.

My dad was not the steely man others saw.

He was a liberal arts guy awash in feelings.

In his final months, Dad showed me some love poems he’d written to mother. They weren't bad. And sometimes I’d catch him in tears watching a sentimental old movie. He spoke in metaphors and enjoyed a good hug.

I found myself thinking, “What a waste. We could have been good friends. We could have helped each other.”

But I no longer feel that way.

Slowly, I’m learning not to condemn.

Dad had his own row to hoe. He did the best he could. And who can say? If he hadn’t put on that “tough guy” disguise, he might have ended up even more troubled. I landed in a generation that, for the most part, allows people room to be themselves.

I was lucky. I would have failed miserably as a hardnose.

4 comments on this story

They say to understand all is to forgive all. The problem is we never understand all. Life is so brief we’re forced to teach our children lessons we never master ourselves.

More and more I see the folly in judging others. I still do it, but I see the folly in it. You can't judge somebody and love them at the same time.

My motto has become: Embrace everyone, including the fearful and the fear-mongers.

And this Father’s Day, that thought has brought me peace — pretty much the same peace felt by that little boy on that backseat of his father's car so many years ago.