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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Some us may think we really know are parents, you know, as people. But the truth is that life before kids and life after kids can be very different. In honor of Father's Day, reporter Monique Parsons spent some time digging into her own father's past and made some surprising discoveries about who he was before he was a dad.

MONIQUE PARSONS, BYLINE: My dad was a mild-mannered guy. He never bragged; he hated sports; mom won the arguments. He was an avocado farmer near Santa Barbara, but dad was his number one job.

LOUIS PARSONS: I'm Louis Parsons. I'm Monique's father.

M. PARSONS: He read me bedtime stories, never missed a piano recital or a family dinner. And he played it safe: Dad's idea of adventure was driving his Ford Taurus to town without the wiper fluid filled to the top.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIRPLANE FLYING)

M. PARSONS: But dad watched the skies. He knew every plane that flew over. He'd been a pilot before I was born; built a little airport on the farm, in fact. Sometimes movie stars would land there on their way up to Santa Barbara. But for most of my childhood, cobwebs filled the hangars. I used the runway as a bike path.

L. PARSONS: Then I was 17 when I got my private pilot's license, which was the youngest you can do it; and then I was 18 when I got my commercial, which was the youngest you can do.

M. PARSONS: It was hard to picture him in a cockpit. I'd seen "Top Gun," I knew what great pilots looked like. But when he was in his 70s I got him talking.

L. PARSONS: I think I finally got my airline transport rating - you had to be 25 - and I was 25 when I got that.

M. PARSONS: Turns out he'd mastered the controls of dozens of planes, piloted a single-engine Bonanza across America at age 17, taught soldiers to fly helicopters, flew bombers converted into tankers to fight Southern California wildfires.

L. PARSONS: With the B25 we'd get down about 40 feet above the ground. And, yeah, oh sure.

M. PARSONS: How close to the fire would you get? I mean, that sounds like really dangerous work.

L. PARSONS: Well, yeah. You may be a wingspan, let's say, less than 100 feet from the flames.

M. PARSONS: This was my unassuming dad.

L. PARSONS: I have been scared crossing the street - and I'm not joking. I've been scared on roller coasters, I've been scared in elevators, but don't think I've ever been scared in an airplane.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIRPLANE FLYING)

M. PARSONS: Dad died not long ago. We hired a pilot to scatter his ashes over the farm.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Three, two, one, go.

M. PARSONS: I'll always remember that little plane coming over the mountain, with Dad inside.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIRPLANE FLYING)

M. PARSONS: I never saw my dad pilot a plane. But parenting can be a scary business too, and I think Louis Parsons approached fatherhood like the pilot he was, like he was making a tricky landing on a downhill runway with trees all around. He gave it all he had, and he was never afraid.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIRPLANE FLYING)

M. PARSONS: For NPR News, I'm Monique Parsons.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: This is NPR News.

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