erin ahnfeldt

Listening to Life

I’ve mentioned it before, but it’s worth mentioning again—my dad has Popeye forearms. They’re huge, like two watermelons were surgically implanted through his wrists and hit dead ends at his elbows.

And just like Popeye used those forearms to throw anchors, Dad’s forearms gave him the power to hit baseballs over center field fences. He did it all through high school, helping his Cheyenne Mountain Indians win the 1959 Colorado State Championship.

He’s always loved baseball, and one night that love landed him in a very public, awkward moment with his softball team at Showbiz Pizza.

Showbiz was a lot like Chuckie Cheese’s with robotic animals playing instruments on stage and a game room full of flashing lights and ringing bells. No sane adult would ever make reservations there for a quiet meal, but Showbiz sponsored my dad’s softball team, so they were happy to host the team’s banquet.

I was the oldest of three in my family, a 10-year-old kid wearing a sparkly Dukes of Hazard t-shirt, and when my little sister, Christy, begged to go play in the “color room”, I rolled my eyes.

“Who wants to go to that baby room?” I wondered. It was just a stupid room where the lights changed colors. Apparently, my dad was fine with it, so as my sister skipped her way, leading us to the room, my dad used those Popeye arms to drag my brother and I along.

It’s important to note here that as we walked to the color room, we passed the young, single guys on my dad’s team. They were whooping it up around Donkey Kong wearing their muscle shirts and their orange, Showbiz softball hats fitted on backwards.

My brother and I stared with our mouths hanging open. These guys were tough dudes, definitely on the younger side of the softball league age range. My dad had little kids following him around, and they had girlfriends leaning against them as they tried to beat the high score.

Once inside the color room, Dad chased my sister while the colors changed from blue to purple. He was belly laughing as Christy ran to get away, and my mom watched with a smile that said it all. My brother and I got so wrapped up in running from my dad that we forgot about being too cool. We laughed until we couldn’t breathe, and it wasn’t the magic of the room stirring up the fun. It was Dad.

“Okay,” my dad said, barely breathing. “I’m ready for some pizza.” He grabbed his hat from the floor, and we walked out of that room with bright smiles.

Just as we stepped into the game room, we noticed a crowd of those young single teammates circled around a machine. With mugs of beer in their hands, they were laughing with loud back-slapping laughs. My brother and I ran ahead. As we got closer, I could see the reason for the commotion. They were gathered around an arm-wrestling machine. The guys were challenging each other to beat the “middle weight” level. People shouted taunts as one of them wrestled this massive electric arm, and when the arm won again, everyone laughed.

Nobody was winning.

As my dad approached, all the guys and their girlfriends looked in his direction.

Someone whispered, “Watch this,” and they all snickered.

I was old enough to know that something didn’t feel right, and then I saw them switch the level from “middle weight” to “heavy weight”.

“Hey Arnie,” one of the big guys shouted, “you should give this a try.” He stepped back from the machine, opening a spot for my dad. I wanted to say something, but I was too scared. My blood boiled.

Dad just smiled, patting his challenger on the shoulder.

“How does this thing work?” he asked as he moved into position.

“Just put your elbow on the pad and grab that hand,” the guys said with a smile.

Everyone leaned forward. Someone pressed “Start”, and a bell rang twice. Ding! Ding! The arm started to hum, pushing with full force. Everyone started laughing, elbowing each other to watch the old man loose.

The veins in my dad’s Popeye arm swelled, his eyes got wide, and suddenly, the laughing stopped. Instead of moving forward, like everyone expected, that mechanical arm was struggling.

I looked at my brother, and he was already looking at me. We high-fived each other and laughed the giddy laugh of those kids in Goonies who finally found One-Eyed Willie’s loot. Everyone was in shock. The machine clicked and whirred, but Dad was focused, teeth clenched, staring at that arm, pushing back with all the power he could muster.

It was machine against man, and in a matter of seconds, Dad was winning. With everyone watching, he pushed that mechanical arm all the way down. The victory bell sounded, and the place exploded with cheers.

“That was fun,” my dad said in the midst of the applause. Walking through the crowd, he took my little sister by the hand, looked at my brother and I, and said, “Now how about some of that pizza?”

I’ll never forget the feeling I had following him back to the table. We felt like we were following some superhero, and that superhero loved us.

Power and tenderness—every good father has both. It’s the perfect combo for the perfect dad, like the pepperoni and cheese on the pizza we were eating, and they both were on display at Showbiz that night.

My dad was not only being every boy’s dream dad, but without even trying, he was forming a clear picture of God in my 10-year-old mind. The same God with the power to put the stars in place is “mindful” of us (Psalm 8). He wants us to call Him “Father”. With arms much bigger than Popeye’s, He can crush the ugly machines life throws at us, but He uses those same arms to draw us close. Power and tenderness—He has them both, and embracing Him as our Father will give us the freedom to be like kids again and find the color in a world that’s gone gray.

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