Sometimes I walked the distance home from school: a couple blocks through the neighborhood, through town, taking daring shortcuts through back alleys, behind stores, then past the local park at the edge of town. The final trek found me balancing the rails along the lonesome railroad tracks that ran alongside Route 212 where bums were whispered to reside. My route ended up on the outskirts of town on the main highway.
We moved to the old Woodland homestead where my father grew up when I was ten years old. The large two-story home Grandpa Woodland built sat on the edge of Clark, South Dakota, the town my great-grandfather helped to populate in its early days. My grade school was now ten blocks away instead of two. Some days took longer than others for the daily trek, especially if the weather was nice—window shopping at the dress store, new comic books and a candy bar to choose at the five-and-ten. I didn’t think of time. I loved to daydream and stroll, pick dandelions, and smell lilacs along the way. Balancing the rails beside Highway 212 was my favorite part. I never thought it could be dangerous. The normal 30-minute walk could take a much as an hour if I dawdled. I was slight of build, smaller than other children my age and it worried my parents to let me walk home alone. I wasn’t aware, and I lolligagged all the way.
I was the surprise baby of five children, born to older parents when my siblings were teenagers. One brother, age 18, doted on me; my 16 and 13-year-old sisters spoiled me and treated me like their baby doll. By the time I was seven, my brother and sisters were married and moved away. I grew up being treated like an only child.
My Dad, already in his mid-60s, was very protective of his baby girl. He determined to drive me to school every morning and pick me up every afternoon. That was all right with me; I loved the special attention my Daddy gave me. If other students had a ride to school, it was their mom who drove them, not their dad. My pet spaniel-mix mutt always went along for the ride. In grade school, I enjoyed seeing Bingo yip excitedly every time he saw me exit the school building. I loved all the attention! When I entered high school, however, it became another story.
“I’m old enough to walk,” I argued, and thought to myself “or better yet, drive.” I was embarrassed by the old blue Dodge parked by the curb every day at 3:30 sharp. My loving, barking mutt made me ashamed. I got teased a lot because of my dad’s insistence on my safety.
Daddy’s girl! What a baby! and other names a teen doesn’t want to hear came from my schoolmates. I hated it, but Dad still insisted on picking me up from school – every day. I stayed later and later after school for music or clubs, but just like Old Faithful, the old blue Dodge parked outside the high school every day waiting to drive me home. Bingo hung out the window panting, whining, and watching for me, and then barked incessantly until I jumped in the car, tousled his fur and gave him his daily pat.
“I want you to be safe, honey,” Dad explained. “Besides, I like to give you rides. I like being with you. You’re my girl.”
The daily rides continued all four years of high school. I resented it but never said anything. Then, something changed during my senior year. Once in a great while, I was even allowed to drive the family car to school.
“I like being with you,” my Dad told me. “You’re my girl.” The words stuck in my head and the light finally dawned. I started to understand. This was Dad’s special gift. I was his surprise, his fifth born child. I was his baby girl. I was the only one left at home. All he wanted was to be my Chauffeur, my Guardian, my Protector. It made him feel special. But more than that, he got to spend quality time with his little girl. I finally realized, half-ashamed, it didn’t hurt me to grant him that pleasure. And I had to admit, I still liked his attention.
I realized I needed this time too; it wasn’t just for Dad. It was our time to share our day. It was great being with my father. He let me be myself and chat endlessly of my struggles, hopes, and dreams. He delighted in my joys, and offered solutions to my problems. He gave wise counsel that only a Dad can give.
The last few weeks of my senior year, I realized my afternoon date with Dad would soon be over. I loved him even more for his insistence on driving me to school all those years. I remembered the shared secrets, fun times, and serious talks. Every moment spent with him was wonderful. I determined to make those last weeks memorable.
I could be sure the old blue Dodge would be parked by the curb no matter what time I left school. My dog would be hanging out the window, and bark and whine until I got to the car. I knew, and I didn’t care. In fact, I looked forward to it. I grinned at Bingo’s antics, waved at my Dad, and picked up my pace. And if anyone dared say anything, I proudly replied, “It’s time for my afternoon date! I can’t be late!”
Esten Woodland, my dad, died suddenly from a heart attack two years after I graduated high school. Looking back, every moment spent with my father is even more cherished. I am so glad he insisted on our afternoon date.