Dreams of Fatherhood

War Memorial by Gilbert Bayes, Aldeburgh Church, Suffolk

Dreams are a tricky business.

That’s why most of us ignore them. It’s simpler.

But I like to think of them like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates…
You never know what you are going to get.

Dreams can hold keys to secret stashes of insight into our lives. To our true nature. Our purpose. What to do with the challenges we face in our work and our love lives or as parents.

Take me for instance. For years I’ve had dream after dream of fighting my father. Sometimes we are on the same side. Sometimes not.
Sometimes we’re on the battlefield side by side. Sometimes we’re justing around a fire together. Or we’re celebrating a mutual victory.

Yet, more often, we’re at each other’s throats. Armed to the teeth. Father against son. I’ll see myself at the head of a battle column. Commanding an army to capture or slay my father. I can see him doing the same. I raise my sword, we thunder towards each other’s doom. Often that’s when I wake up.
Yes. In many of my dreams of my father. We are at bloody war.

It seems that fatherhood is also a tricky business.

These dreams always bring me back to my childhood. Theres a moment in Age of Empires II (a landmark strategy game of the ’90s) I think of in particular. It’s when the narrator on a campaign mission the Lion and the Demon introduces the illustrious King Richard the Lionheart as ‘a man who learned the art of war against fighting his father in France.’ Richard was raised by his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and she wanted him to be king. Eventually, she and her sons rebelled against Henry II. And thus, Richard’s road to Kingship was partly won through fighting against his father.

Whenever I have a dream like this, I always remember that line. And I can’t help but think to myself if we call him Richard the Lionheart… maybe, just maybe, it’s because he learned the art of war fighting against his father in France.

I remember playing that game when I was young. The original Afe of Empires was the first video game my father bought me. Before then, me and Pa didn’t often have quality time together. But once he bought our family that first PC computer and a disk copy of Age of Empires, we begun making memories I will never forget. I can still feel and recall vividly the sense of awe at discovering the beautiful and eerie megaliths you could capture, whose colours changed to yours or your enemies, depending on who held territorial control. Wandering across plains, past crocodiles and wild elephants to find the equally mysterious Artefacts, chests of unseen treasure which you could decamp back to the relative safety of your city walls.

The game gave access to an ancient and mysterious place and put in my hands the power to explore and master my own (albeit virtual) world.
To me, Dad was my (and still is) my strategic advisor. He was my master of strategy. My Phillip of Macedon and Archimedes rolled into one. He was always testing tactics and ways we could beat the inveterate A.I. Which to us, new to strategy games and the like, was an alluring puzzle and posed a great challenge.

Dad would urge me to create a perimeter of troops around my resources. Cheap ones if necessary, to serve as a mobile response unit to any enemies the A.I sent as raiding parties. We’d test different maps. Different tactics. Sometimes we’d build wonders and hold off the enemy until the victory counter was complete. Other times we’d decide on all-out military conquest and build a war machine in our pursuit of victory.

Fighting the A.I was fierce. I, about seven or eight years old at this point loved the thrill of real-time strategy. It offered me all the significance and excitement of playing at war and battle with my friends outside. But best of all, I got to share it with my Dad. I got to receive his guidance and glory in his attention. I worshipped my father. Though now I know how human he is, in a certain way, I still do.

And while I certainly messed up from time to time. And he’d get mad and scold me. It didn’t matter when we was playing Age of Empires. The very fact that he was there playing it with me, made his heavy hand a dim concern. And when we did well, I was given a lion cubs share of the praise. I was hungry for that praise. I didn’t get it elsewhere. Quickly, gaming became my favorite way of interacting with my father. He’d been semi-pro as a footballer. Captain of an under 18s team at just 16. His father was also semi-pro and won the league and cup for his team numerous times. He was, by all accounts, revered by his teammates. They continued to ask him to serve as a player-manager for several years. The best years of the club, many would say.

I had no particular talent for athletics, it seemed. And certainly not for football.

The victories and time we and my father shared on this game provided a surge of confidence and pride when I needed it most. My sister was originally far better at it than me. Being about seven years older. She could actually work out how to play it alone. I remember walking in on her playing it one day, just after Dad had brought it home. She’d a whole village up and some men. The first time I had tried to play the game, a few days earlier, I’d barely built a house by the time the A.I had sent a squad of clubmen to bash my villagers’ heads in and raise the village to the ground. As I desperately tried to make sense of what was happening, archers came along and finished me off. Thus ending any hope I had of a comeback.

Mum wasn’t always so keen on me having that game. I think that came down to a couple of things… First up, at seven or eight, I was becoming increasingly more physical and violent. It’s a process the vast majority of boys go through. And it starts way earlier than seven or eight. I was running around the streets and my friend’s gardens with wooden swords and axes we had made from timbers and nails from the age of four or five.

In fact, my sister had once come looking for me because I needed to come home for dinner, only to find me in my best friends back garden, blood streaming from a split lip and popped nose, wooden sword defiantly in hand. Still trying facing off against the brother of the same friend despite the beating.

We’d given him the axes, crude blocks of wood nailed together in the shape of a hatchet. And told him to throw as many as he could to stop us advancing on him with our wooden swords. We thought we were Jedi Knights and could block the singing projectiles on pure reflex and nerve alone. We never did charge. Just flailed about in the air with our wooden swords trying to stop the hard lumps of wood which were bruising and pulping our tender young faces.

We stood downhill of our foe, ready to face our ‘Throwing Axeman’. And he promptly obliged. Proceeding to dash the nailed timbers against our bodies and faces with and alacrity and accuracy which makes me question my memory. Still, the pain was real, and the gasps of my sister, her grabbing me by the arm and marching me home… That I all remember.

As do I remember being marched back with my father an hour or so later, to see him have a confrontation with Matt’s (my best friend) father and mother. The words ‘irresponsible’ and ‘stupid’ were used. Boiled red faces. Fists raised. It was an extremely uncomfortable scenario.

I always had a hard time getting Matt out to play after that. Often his parents would say he wasn’t home. Occasionally, I’d hear stray shouts from him fighting or playing with one of his brothers upstairs. Upon which, his father or mother would abruptly close the door. I’d have to wait for Jack then. Matt’s mum and dad always liked Jack. He and Matt played football together. It didn’t matter that Jack went on to lose himself in drugs and violence. Hell, I did too, for a while. Still, this little episode was one of the major contributions to my mother putting a stop to our glory days on Age of Empires.

The second thing was that, one night after Dad came home from… I think it was work, could have been the pub. Either way, Mum was out. At Church, I believe. Though it could have been AA. So we sat down to play Age of Empires. Hours past. We were in the midst of our greatest battle yet. Setting the map too large and adding multiple allied enemies on Hard.
Dad was issuing me instructions at a phenomenal pace. It was all I could do to keep up with him and track all the incoming enemies on the mini-map. Hours into the fight, something happened.

Mum came home.
And She wasn’t happy.
Words were exchanged.
Dad told mum to go to bed.

Which after a while, she did. She threw her hands up and went to bed. We played on. I mean, my Mum was right, really. It was a school night after all. But that didn’t matter to me. And I don’t think it mattered so much in the grand scheme of things. Me and Pa were on a serious mission. One which tested us both and our newfound partnership to the limit. War gallies were floating into our side of the archipelago. Across the deep blue teeming with fish. Bronze armored swordsmen sortied in through our lines of Axemen and high mud baked towers. Things were not going well.

At one point, backed into right the town center, the very heart of our digital empire, our chances looked bleak. We were fighting for our lives. Throwing everything we had at the two enemy armies which had penetrated our proximity. If the fury of battle, bedtime came and went. Dad didn’t seem to notice.

It looked over. Yet we fought on tooth and nail, exacting a price for every inch of ground until we grabbed a new technology, and began pumping out ballistae to swell our ranks and provide high damage artillery for our cavalry and newly upgraded Centurions. 12 o’Clock now.
The tide is turning. One enemy goes down. The teal coloured one. Three more to go. We continue fighting. Hours pass, but one by one, the A.I forces are crushed and submit to our military might. By 0430 in the morning, the final A.I is defeated.

Roma Victor!

It is done.
My Dad gives me a cuddle, carries me up to bed and tucks me. “You did good kiddo. My marvelous mechanical mouse!” It was one of the happiest moments of my life.

Needless to say, I didn’t go to school the next day.
And with that, Ma banned me from playing AoE (Age of Empires) for months. 

Pa was in the dog house too. 
But it didn’t matter to me. 
Fighting with my father was worth it.

Now, in later years after this, I fought my father many times. I believe, at some level, all fathers and sons fight. And that this combat is necessary. It doesn’t need to be cruel or destructive. It doesn’t need to even be violent. But it does need to offer the son the challenge of a father’s full-grown masculine strength. It likewise offers the older man a fresh sense of life. A child probes at one’s weaknesses. Teenagers especially are like Hunter-Seeker algorithms for parental and custodial weakness. They sniff it out. And if they catch the scent of blood, they (myself included) can be Machiavellian in their execution. Conscious of their actions or otherwise.

Fistfights with my father haven’t happened often. But they happened often enough. When the did eventually take place, he could be a ferocious foe. Powerful and tyrannical. And, for my part, could be utterly contemptuous of authority. Loathe to back down. Sometimes I even struck first. It made for a volatile mixture. My teenage years were a state of semi-open warfare between my father and I. Mostly psychological. Yet if it turned went that way, the victor was my father. Always. It would end as fast as it began. In a swift and decisive demonstration of his physical primacy.

Until one fateful day years into adulthood. But that’s a story for another day.

Why am I telling you this, you may be wondering? Well, because I need to get whatever in my head out of my head for a start. And more importantly, I believe there’s a wealth of wisdom in this darkness and muck. Some clarity and lessons on masculinity and the lives of fathers and sons.

You see, I believe it is necessary for fathers and sons to go to war with each other. How else can the father be sure that he has prepared his son for the undeniable and inexhaustible forces of malevolence which exist in the world? He may not even be aware that this is what he is doing, yet I choose to believe that it is a biological and spiritual impulse of the father to test and hone the son. Are there better ways to do this then wanton violence and tyranny?

I hold a passionate belief that the answer is yes.

We don’t need to look far. Take someone like Firas Zhabi for example. A man who teaches his sons martial arts and wrestles with them daily. This is the masculine and fatherly impulse to challenge and instruct, to improve and proof the son against the hazards of the world. Likewise, a man like Carlos Gracie, who built the JiuJitsu Empire that is Gracie JiuJitsu. He taught his sons (and daughters) how to carry on the family name through time on the matt and the mechanics of running a dojo.

This is the way of men. It’s something to be understood, celebrated and channeled. Because unless we dream of a world without men and fathers, men and fathers will dream of a world in which they are challenged, put the to test, and they will, rightly and properly wish to pass that same experience, toughness and wisdom on to their children. However inconvenient or seemingly barbaric it may be to our post-modern culture, it is a rite of passage. A force of nature that has shaped us for millennia. One that has given us all the capabilities we have today. For better or worse. It is an impulse of evolution.

It is the same impulse that leads one father to tell his son he must become a doctor, and then another to give his son a pint of beer before the legal age. The masculine and fatherly impulse to test and harden their sire into a man who is ready to take up the burden and be combatted by all the resistance and sins of the world. If he is a wise father, he will dream that his son will also be able to take on and overcome his own internal resistance and his more dangerous faults and impulse to err.

We all sin. The term originally means, ‘to miss the mark.’ Yet a father, conscious of his intention or not, is often in a pseudo or actual war with his son or sons. Not to exercise power and dominance. But in order to make them robust and strong. To have them encounter power and dominance so they too can exercise and navigate it. It is to keep them from erring. To straighten out their flight into truth.

I believe the wise father, the kingly father, dreams a vision of his sons as Lionhearted men. Full of integrity. Orientated towards the greater good as their goals. Battle-tested and true.

Forged and made ready for the world by their fathers strong and muscular love.

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