June 23, 2018
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It works best if you follow the instructions

By Sarah Smiley

Not many things can scare my dad, a retired Navy F-14 pilot who once landed on an aircraft carrier in complete blackness, but if anyone should want to try, start by saying this: “I threw out the instruction manual.”

If that doesn’t work, say: “I didn’t keep the packing materials that my stereo came in.”

When I was little, Christmas mornings went something like this:

Me: “Dad, can you help me put the stickers on this Barbie mansion?”

Dad: “Do you have the instructions?”

Me: “Maybe. I don’t know. Probably not.”

Dad: “Well, how will we know where to put the stickers?”

Me: “By the blank shapes on the mansion?”

(Side note: Why not just put the stickers on the toy during the manufacturing process?)

I didn’t dare ask how to operate my new Easy Bake Oven if I didn’t already have the owner’s manual in hand, ready to show Dad.

You ask: But what if the instructions don’t make sense? Because, of course, this happens more times than many of us are willing to admit; the little arrows instructing you to turn a bolt one way or the other don’t seem perfectly clear, or the hash marks indicating the backside of a shelf overlap the letter indicating which self you need. Well, these things don’t happen to Dad. I hand him an instruction manual that might as well be written in Chinese, and two hours later, Dad has built the bookshelf or armoire, or whatever it might be.

I realize this is a gift and that I’m incredibly fortunate to have a dad who can fix or put together anything. But when you’re 10 years old and you have a new Barbie mansion, sometimes you just want to start playing with it.

Last week, while Dad and I worked on a new inflatable tube to pull the kids behind the boat, I remembered the torture — the impatience — of waiting for Dad’s help. Only now it’s worse because he’s older and can’t read without glasses. So I have to do it for him.

“Read me all the warnings on the side of the tube,” Dad said.

“All of them?” I asked. “There are like 20 of them.”

“Yes, read all of them.”

I read through the precautionary statements with the same quick, monotonous tone that someone might use while reading aloud the phone book. When I got to the end, Dad said, “Read that one again about needing a 50-foot rope.”

“But we already have a rope, Dad. It’s right here,” I said.

“Well then, we need to measure it.”

We searched the shed and the kitchen for Dad’s measuring tape (another forgotten memory, Dad never knows where he has left his tools), then we pulled the rope straight out on the dock and measured it.

“Exactly 50 feet,” I said. “It’s good to go.”

“What did the warnings say?” Dad asked. “Read that part to me again.”

At first I thought he was joking. But when I looked up, he was waiting patiently for me to read aloud.

“It says the rope has to be between 50 and 65 feet,” I said.

“And what did ours measure?”

“Seriously, Dad!”

Finally we were in the boat. Dad drove us away from the dock and out into the middle of the lake. Ford jumped into the water and crawled onto the tube. He gave Dad a thumbs-up.

What happened next shattered records everywhere for the world’s most safety-conscious tube ride. Ever.

Dad kept the boat at about 3-4 mph. Instead of clinging to the handles, Ford waved at neighbors as if he was in a parade. He continued to give Dad a thumbs-up.

“That means ‘go faster,’ Pop,” Owen said.

Dad didn’t go above 5 mph.

As soon as Dad had grown comfortable with the idea of pulling his oldest grandson behind a boat in an inflatable tube, he turned fully forward and smiled for the first time that day. The wind blew his increasingly silver hair. I thought, “Are we actually going fast now?”

That’s when I saw a sudden gust of wind catch the tube. It rose at least a foot above the water.

“Dad! Dad! Slow down,” I said, shocking even myself.

The tube was blowing off the back end of the boat. We could only see the bottom.

“Oh, he’s off,” I said. “We’ll have to go back and pick him up.”

But when the tube crashed down on the water, we saw that Ford was still on it. He was clutching the handles. His hair was blown back against his head. And he was smiling.

Ford gave Dad another thumbs-up.

I laughed to myself and thought, “Yeah, good luck, kid.”

By the serious look on Dad’s face and the way he dropped back the speed to almost nothing, I knew what would happen next. We were going back to the dock to read the instruction manual. Again.


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