Why My Dad Is a Badass

With painfully slow, uneven, unpracticed strokes, Dad reached the jetty where the boy clung to a concrete post, stranded.

Every summer, like clockwork, my parents would take my sister and me to Galveston Beach, about an hour down the coast from our home on the Texas Gulf shore. Like everything else when you are raised by Chinese-American immigrants, these joyful excursions came with a catch: Dad, in his infinite wisdom, insisted that my younger sister and I wear bright orange and yellow life jackets while swimming. You can imagine the embarrassment a ten-year-old feels wading knee-deep into the ocean with a life jacket strapped to her. Horror of horrors should a classmate espy me in my pathetic getup.

It’s not that Dad didn’t know we were great swimmers. He was the one who footed the bill for swimming lessons every year. But he also knew there were dangerous undertows around the beach’s jetties that could suck even the strongest swimmers down to their watery deaths. Fishing was particularly good around the jetties, and every year fishermen went under, never to be seen or heard from again.

Dad didn’t swim much during these trips. Instead, he’d remain on shore, always vigilant, always scanning the horizon for a shark fin or a bloom of jellyfish that might threaten his family’s way of life.

But one day stands out in my mind as an exception to that rule.

My sister and I were idling along the shoreline, kicking water at each other in our ridiculous life vests when Dad came barreling towards us.

“Give me your vests!” He shouted. We froze in terror. Dad was not the shouting type. He was more the stare-you-down-ice-you-out kind of father. Something was clearly going down.

Hastily, Dad ripped off my life jacket and strapped it around himself. He looked absurd in the child’s vest—even more so than I did with damn the thing strapped to me all day long. He then pulled off my little sister’s vest and held it out like a kickboard. Unceremoniously, Dad splashed into the ocean. He began to swim.

Later in his life, after he’d retired, Dad would become a grade-A swimmer, but at this point, we hadn’t seen Dad do anything particularly athletic, like, ever. The tiny life vests, combined with the tides, made his strokes awkward.

From shore, my sister, Mom, and I followed him with our eyes.

Dad was making his way to the nearby jetty where a young boy, no older than ten or so, stood clinging to a concrete post.

As he neared the jetty, Dad disappeared under the water for a second. The undertow had him in its grip. To our relief, he bobbed back up to the surface. Were it not for the vests, he may well have succumbed to the swirling, dark waters.

My dad, who immigrated to the states from Hong Kong in the seventies for graduate school, has never been particularly brave or heroic. Standing around 5’8” and weighing no more than 145 pounds (and that’s when wet), he wasn’t your typical Alpha-male either, especially not compared to the breed of dad most common to the meat-and-potatoes regions of Texas’s Gulf Coast. Indeed, one of Dad’s defining characteristics is anxiety. Whether this was residual feedback from a childhood of struggle and poverty or the product of having boarded a plane for the first time to fly to a country where he knew no one and barely spoke the language, I couldn’t say. Dad didn’t talk about himself or his fears. But in addition to the baseball bat that every father keeps under the bed in case he is called upon to bludgeon a home invader under cover of night, Dad also kept gas masks, an inordinate number of fire extinguishers, and air horns.

But now, here was my not particularly strong or brave Dad swimming right through the treacherous undertow like a crazy man.

With painfully slow, uneven, unpracticed strokes, he reached the jetty where the boy clung to his concrete post, stranded. Dad secured my little sister’s life jacket to the boy. With a father’s gentle care, he pried the boy from the jetty, and now, with the additional burden of the kid under his arm, Dad made the journey back through the swirling waters.

We watched in awe, mouths agape.

Back on shore, Dad returned the slip of a boy to his parents.

“What I tell you about the jetty, son?” the child’s father shouted.

The child’s mother turned to Dad. “He left his fishing pole out there,” she said. Apparently, while clinging to the jetty for dear life, the boy had let go of his pole. “Would you go back and get that pole for me?”

Dad’s jaw clenched in that way it does when he’s about to lose it.

“I just saved your son’s life,” he said in an even, cold tone. “And you want me to go back out for his fishing pole?”

To his credit, Dad did retrieve the pole. But as he drove us home that night, he fumed. “I can’t believe they told me to go back for the fishing pole. The fishing pole. Can’t believe it,” he muttered under his breath.

Eventually, Dad calmed down and settled back into his characteristic silence. We never spoke about the incident again. But after that day, there was no doubt in my mind: My dad is a badass.

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