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Dave Nichols: Connection to outdoors reinforces bond between parents and children

The author, right, with his pop enjoying a day of surf fishing on the Outer Banks of North Carolina in 1974.  (Family photo)
The author, right, with his pop enjoying a day of surf fishing on the Outer Banks of North Carolina in 1974. (Family photo)

My pop passed away in 2011 due to leukemia and a bit of his own stubbornness, so when Father’s Day rolls around each year it’s always a melancholy day. I suppose that’s not unique for anyone who has lost their father.

He was a parks and recreation guy and wore many hats in his career, but the last one he wore for nearly 30 years was the famous “Smokey Bear” hat with the National Park Service.

In his career with the NPS he was a park manager for several assignments throughout the Washington, D.C. area, including at Antietam National Battlefield in rural Maryland, where I went to high school in neighboring Boonsboro.

His last assignment was as chief of maintenance for the National Capital Region of the NPS, in charge of the grounds and buildings at the White House, National Mall, the monuments, and the parkways in and out of DC. Pretty good for a guy who dropped out of college and joined the Marines to get out of some gambling debts.

Anyway, I got my love of the outdoors and hunting from him. It was one of the few things we really shared. He golfed a little bit but wasn’t into team sports or rock music – the two things that fueled my teens and 20s.

But when we would go on camping trips with the Boy Scouts, or later when we were at hunting camp, we were best friends. Equals, or at least it felt like it.

The highlight of my childhood and adolescence was those couple of days every year that he’d take me up to deer camp with him.

It was the one place we saw eye to eye.

His responsibilities grew and his time became less his own as he rose through the park service, just as I was growing into adulthood and more independent with my time.

Those few days every year our paths crossed at deer camp became even more vital to our relationship. Man, I miss that.

A quick story about one of those scout trips. Our troop was participating in a big summer jamboree in Maryland which included a 25-mile hike, held in the evening and night due to extreme summer temperatures.

My pop, the assistant scoutmaster, did a great job making sure the dozen or so inexperienced and inattentive young teenagers were prepared with extra dry socks, baby powder and other preventive measures.

Being a mediocre scout, I tapped out after 12 miles and hitched a ride back to camp on the drop-out bus. But my pop trudged along with the rest of the diehards.

I reconvened with my pop at his tent in the morning, and it turned out he was so concerned with the scouts being prepared he wasn’t prepared himself, and the bottoms of both feet were nothing but one big blister.

Selfless to a fault.

My mom – whose idea of camping was a Marriott at the beach – had to drive two hours each way to get us, with a friend to drive my pop’s car back. He couldn’t put shoes on for a week, and he never lived it down.

Love of the outdoors is a strong motivating factor between parents and children. Communing with nature – be it hunting and fishing, or hiking and biking, or just a Father’s Day barbeque in the backyard – is a great way to reinforce the bonds that sometimes get obscured by the day-to-day challenges of everyday life.

I’m not a parent myself, so I can’t speak about the relationship from that end. But I know what mine meant to me, even if I didn’t always want to acknowledge it to him – or myself, for that matter. I wish I’d been better at communicating that to my pop before he got sick.

Anyway, happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there. It’s not always the easiest or most glamorous job you’ll ever have, but it is the most important one.

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