It’s hard to imagine having John Wayne as a father. The man we know only from movies like The Searchers, Rio Bravo, True Grit, and Sands of Iwo Jima always seemed larger than life, the ultimate American tough guy. As a dad, we can only picture him as, well, John Wayne, disciplining his kids—he had seven—with one of his classic movie one-liners, like “Anything goes wrong, anything at all… I’m gonna blow your head off.”

John Wayne

Ethan Wayne, the youngest of the movie cowboy’s brood, was just 17 when his dad died of stomach cancer in 1979. The actor and stuntman—he was named for his dad’s character in The Searchers—is Chairman of The John Wayne Cancer Foundation, which just launched a new campaign called “Show Your Grit.” For 25 days, between his dad’s birthday on May 26th to Father’s Day on June 19th, the Foundation is asking people to post photos online of friends or family who fought or are fighting cancer. Use the #showyourgrit hangtag and sponsors will make a donation to cancer research.

What was John Wayne really like as a father? Is there anything that modern dads—those of us who don’t wear cowboy hats to work—can learn from the Duke? The youngest Wayne shares his fondest, and sometimes craziest memories.

  1. Be Tougher Than You Feel

“There’s this picture of my father that I love. He’s on a horse, going full speed, with a whole herd running around him. I was 10 or 11 when the picture was taken, so he’s 65, maybe 66 years old. He looks so tough and confident and alive, and you’d never know he only had one lung and a bad knee and his body was falling apart on him. He never stopped being John Wayne, even when he was sick. Before that picture was taken, he probably had a morning of physical therapy, and he had to use a nebulizer to clear his lungs so he could breathe. But you’d never know that, looking at him. He did what he was expected to do, because he had kids who were depending on him to keep a roof over their heads, and film crews who needed him to stay employed. He worried more about other people than himself.”

  1. If You Have to Leave, Try Not to Creep Out Your Kids

“I was never okay when he left to go on location for a movie without us. I was very close to my father, so I hated not being with him. I’d ask him, ‘When are you coming back?’ And he’d say, ‘I’ll be back in September, God willing and the river don’t rise.’ That really freaked me out. I was like, ‘What the hell does that mean? The river don’t rise? What is that?’ It was horrible. I hated it. It’s bad enough that your dad is going to be gone for four months, but now you’re worried about the river not rising, whatever that was all about.”

  1. Make Sure They Know How to Use a Broom

“One of my chores in the morning was to sweep up all these seeds that fell off the rubber tree in our yard. It was a giant tree and I hated it. I remember being 9 years old, and just doing a terrible job of sweeping all of these seeds away, and Dad got really frustrated with me. He’d spend hours with me just teaching me the right way to use a broom. He had a very specific technique. Which is kind of crazy, if you think about it. My biggest memory of Dad isn’t him teaching me how to ride a horse. It was him teaching me how to sweep correctly. Hours and hours we spent with that broom.”

  1. Never Forget to Be Grateful

“He had so much gratitude for the public and for his fans. I remember once, we were at the house in Newport Beach, which was right next to the water, and it was late at night and he heard something down by the dock. Now, my dad had a lot of guns, and they were all loaded, all the time. There were guns next to the bed, out in the open, everywhere. My brothers and I, we knew never to touch them. He grabbed one of his guns and a flashlight and went down to the dock, and there were these two big guys, and Dad growled at them, ‘Who the hell are you? What do you want?’ And they tell him that they’re Marines on shore leave, and they knew he lived there, so after a couple of drinks they decided to row out and see if he was home, but now they’d lost their nerve and they were sorry, they’d be on their way. And Dad was like, ‘Well, get up here and have a drink with me!’ He brought them into the house and talked with them till at least 1am. I remember at the time thinking, ‘This is weird. Why are these people in my house?’ But that’s how my dad was. He was welcoming and grateful to everybody.”

  1. A Little Danger Might Make Your Kids Smarter

“When you grow up on movie sets, you have to be aware of a lot of things so you won’t get hurt. You need to know where the explosives are being detonated, and where the horses are running to, and which horses are safe and which ones aren’t. It makes you smarter, I think. Environment has a lot to do with how prepared your kids are for the world. There’s a guy in my office with kids, and he recently bought an old mini-van. He told me that the first time he drove them in it, the kids were waiting for the door to open. They’d never seen a car door you had to open with your hands. Well, when I was 7 or 8, I was on the set of True Grit in Colorado. There was a snake pit, and I remember Dad saying, ‘Don’t go in the snake pit.’ That was all he told us. That big pit full of snakes over there? Don’t fall into that. Otherwise, we were free to disappear and explore.”

  1. Have Fun, But Maybe Not “Throw You Kid Between Boats” Fun

“We spent a lot of time on Wild Goose, which was Dad’s boat. I’d say a third of the year, we were on that boat. It was 136 feet long, a minesweeper used during World War II. Not fancy, but very comfortable. He bought it from a guy named Max Wyman, who would come out with us on his own boat, which was about 90 feet. We’d cruise together up and down British Columbia and Alaska in the summer, and Mexico in the winter. Max had this French woman with him who made delicious crepes. So one day—I’m maybe 8 at the time—my dad said, ‘What do you want for breakfast?’ And I was like, ‘Can I get her pancakes?’ He thought about it and said, ‘Sure.’ He called over to Max, they brought the boats close together—we’re still cruising on the open ocean—and he picks me up by the back of my pants and the back of my jacket, and throws me to the crew on the other boat. It’s maybe a 10-foot gap between boats. I know this sounds horribly negligent and dangerous. But my dad, he was always in control, and he always knew what he was doing. But that said, I do remember, as I’m flying between boats, thinking to myself, ‘Why the hell did I ask for pancakes?’”

  1. Give Them Respect For the Simple Things

“When we took the boat out to Alaska, one of the jobs for the kids was to get ice for the adults’ drinks. So they’d send us off on these rowboats with fire axes to chop off a few chunks from one of the icebergs floating nearby. It was tough. The thing about icebergs is, they’re heavy underneath. And if you get a good one, they’re pretty slick, and as you’re hacking away at it, they’ll roll over and another part of the berg pops up. But if you get a good piece of glacier ice, you can keep it in the freezer and use it over and over. It seemed like a big pain in the butt, but I guess glacier ice melts slowly, so it’s good for a cocktail. It won’t water it down too quickly. It’s a lot of effort to go through for ice, but when we brought it back, we felt like heroes.”

  1. Never Let Them Know That You’re Kind of a Big Deal

“Life was pretty normal for us. There were no bodyguards, Dad answered the door, we went to the market, that sort of thing. The only time I realized that Dad was different, that our lives were somehow not the same as our neighbors, I was visiting my friend who lived a few houses down. His mom was a dental hygienist. I was at a sleepover with him, and his mom asked us to go get the mail. I was like, ‘Oh shit, I hate getting mail.’ In my house, getting the mail meant you had to drag huge boxes and bags from the street. It was the worst thing. But we went out to his mailbox, and there were like three envelopes in there. That was sincerely puzzling to me. I was like, ‘That’s it? That’s all the mail you get?’ We had three guys at our house whose entire jobs were just helping my dad answer his mail. To this day, we still have a vault full of mail that’s never been answered, from when my father was too sick to read any of it. But my dad treated it like part of his job. It was never like, ‘I’m important. People idolize me.’ He always acted like he was just a regular guy.”

  1. If You’re Gonna Drive a Suburban Dad Car, Make Sure It’s Pimped Out

“He only drove Pontiac station wagons. He never wanted anything special. But even with a station wagon, they could be tough for him to get into. He had a long torso—he was a big guy—and he didn’t like to take off his cowboy hat. So George Barris, the guy who made the Munster Mobile and the Batmobile, helped him out with some extra headroom. He redesigned Dad’s ‘75 Pontiac Grand Safari with an elevated roof, so he could get into it without stooping or lurching over uncomfortably. It had all the space he needed. My dad loved it. He could drive his station wagon and not feel conspicuous, and he never had to take off his cowboy hat.”

  1. Let Them Know You’ll Never Let Go

“Every time we’d get on the boat, he’d pick me up and put me down on the railing. This is when we were out on the ocean, and I’d look down and see the waves crashing against the boat, and I’d seize up a little. But he’d hold my hand and say, ‘Lean back, I’m not going to let you go.’ I didn’t want to do it sometimes, because I was terrified of falling in. But I trusted him, so I’d lean back and relax, dangling over the ocean, with him holding me in my arms, and I knew everything was going to be okay.”

(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the June 2016 issue of Men’s Health.)