“Geez, Dan, you’re the only kid I’ve ever seen who can trip over his own two feet standing still!” Whitie said, laughing. This struck the other kids at the picnic—cousins and second cousins all—funny to the point of hilarity.
He—my dad, Whitie—must have seen the hurt look in my eyes as I scrambled to my feet and brushed myself off, because he said, “We’re not laughing at you Dan’el, we’re laughing with you. And everybody “laughed with me” some more. (If you were laughing, you were obviously one of the winners).
It was a family reunion and we were playing whiffle ball. Whitie was the only adult playing. The other kids had tried to talk their dads into playing too, but after a heavy picnic lunch—fried chicken, hotdogs and hamburgers, potato salad, deviled eggs, ham salad, beans and franks, huge bags of potato chips, heavenly hash, three bean salad, scalloped potatoes, macaroni and relish salad, Waldorf salad and an assortment of pies, cakes, cookies and brownies—on this hot July day, they got turned down flat. But to my surprise, my dad was the only one to say, “Yeah, what the hell, I’ll play,” before stubbing out his cigarette, downing a cup of coffee drawn from a gallon Thermos, and following the kids over to an open area of the park where we quickly laid out an ad hoc baseball diamond: “That bench over there’s first, that bush is second, that maple’s third and this here’s home plate.”
I hadn’t asked Whitie to play like the other kids had asked their dads. I figured the answer would surely be “no,” so why bother? But Whitie could be full of surprises depending on his drastic mood swings. When he decided to play, however, I couldn’t help thinking it wasn’t that he didn’t like playing a little ball, it was just that he didn’t like playing it with me, since he always seemed to have better things to do at home than toss a ball around with me or show me some of the boxing moves he knew so well, or put up a backboard and shoot some hoops with me.
Today, by some odd bastardization of the rules, Whitie ended up being permanent pitcher as well as a sort of coach-slash-umpire for both teams. I found it incredible to see him on the imaginary mound calling the pitches as he threw them: “Fast ball...Slow ball...Curve...Look out, now, here comes a knuckle ball...Grab a towel, kiddo, here comes a spitball...hahaha, swing an’ a miss...” I couldn’t recall a single time he’d done this with me at home. Reba Mae, my mother, was the one who’d taken charge of teaching me enough about baseball so I wouldn’t be too embarrassed to play some sand-lot ball with my cousins and a few friends. She was always a good sport, playing some pitch and catch with me and popping me some flies to catch (she’d played some softball as a girl and could bat incredibly well, but she didn’t have a mitt so I had to throw the ball back to her gently).
Peewee League had been a short-lived disaster that was forced on me and in which I mostly haunted the sidelines until I got bored and quit...which, I suppose, was the coach’s ultimate idea. Somebody had given me a mitt. I was a southpaw and it was a right-handed mitt (in other words a mitt that went on the left hand), so I was obliged to learn to throw with my right. This meant I seldom missed a catch but couldn’t throw for crap. When I played the outfield (which was most of the time...the further out the better, my team-mates felt), if I accidentally caught somebody out it was difficult to throw hard enough with my right arm to pull off a double play, so sometimes, after the catch, I’d quick shed my glove and give the ball a heave with my more powerful left. But for lack of practice a long pitch with my left hand always went wild. Long story short, I could throw with either hand...though not good enough for anyone to be impressed. And the same was pretty much true of batting. No one seemed interested in helping me develop my switch-hitting potential, least of all the volunteer coach who was usually hung over and smelling of booze for morning Peewee League practice and pretty much left the playing up to the kids who already knew how, telling the others to “have a seat on the bench for a while.”
On the drive home from the picnic, Whitie said, “That was pretty fun, wasn’t it Danny?”
“What was?” I asked, playing dumb though I knew exactly what he was talking about.
“Playing some ball,” he said. “You had a good time, didn’t you?”
I didn’t answer.
“Didn’t you, Dan?” he insisted.
“Not as much as you, obviously,” I said with sullen apathy.
He clucked his tongue with irritation and then very ostensibly ignored me for the rest of the trip home, chatting with my mother and sister and now and then saying, “Whacha doin’, ‘Clody’ boy?” to my little brother, Jim (‘Clody’ to Whitie), who was dozing on Reba Mae’s lap on the passenger side of the front seat, as if to let me know I’d offended him and was being intentionally left out of the conversation. I kept wanting to apologize, to say I had indeed had a good time, mostly because it was nice to do something fun with him for a change, and why couldn’t we do that more often? But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I was as angry and disappointed with him as he was with me. Kind of permanently angry, both of us. So why should I be the one to capitulate?
And that was pretty much the standoff that Whitie and I maintained as I was growing up. Baseball, that all-American link between father and son, blended into any kind of organized sport and became the barricade we erected between us for our impasse. When it first took shape, I can’t say exactly, but sometime between the time as a preschooler when I inherited Whitie’s love of boxing, sitting on his lap to watch the Friday Night Fights on our big black and white TV, and the time when I was old enough to play Little League baseball (and didn’t), that early rapport was lost and I decided not to do anything I knew he would want me to from then on. The feeling got to be kind of mutual.
He was passionate about organized team sports and had pretty much played them all in his youth and now watched them all on TV. But I viewed that as something he didn’t want to share with me in any hands-on way, so why should I feign interest? I saw other dads getting involved with their boys’ sports, encouraging them, pushing them to be as good as they could be, rooting for them at their games, correcting their techniques, buying them the best equipment, even coaching their teams. Whitie didn’t do any of that. It was as if he’d given up on me before I’d ever gotten started.
It wasn’t that Whitie didn’t want me to play. On the contrary, he would have liked for me to have been the “normal” sports-loving son most men want to be represented by. (Indeed, that was precisely the point of my rebellion). Rather, it was that, from the beginning, he let me know that he had no real expectations for me. In fact, he basically said I should just play for fun and try to do the best I could, because I was a guy and guys played sports, period. But he felt I’d probably “never be really, really good at sports.” So...okay, I figured, game over!
The guys on his side of the family were, he observed, of the quick, light, agile kind. Even his dad, who’d never played team sports, was a lightning-fast, highly capable and very dangerous fighter, though he never weighed more than a hundred and fifty pounds soaking wet. It was, then, a question of genes. Not better or worse, he consoled me, just the way things were. Some guys had it and some didn’t. Some were “naturals”. Others had to work at it. Still others would just never have what it took. The indication was that I formed part of the latter group.
I took after my mom’s side, Whitie often clarified, “Big, solid, German farmers...Strong, don’t get me wrong, but pretty slow and pretty clumsy. I mean, don’t take it the wrong way, Danny, but let’s face it, you are pretty awkward.” Then seeing the look on my face, he might add, “Well, but don’t worry, you might outgrow that, once you grow into your hands and feet.”
When he said things like that, I used to picture Grandpa Vern, my mother’s father. By no stretch of the imagination could I think of him as slow or clumsy—German and farmer though he was. In fact, words like “rugged”, “rawboned”, “lightning fast” and “lethal” sprang to mind when you spent any time with Grandpa Vern. I figured the fact that he’d never played organized sports had more to do with his having grown up out in the country and only having gone to school for three years, and in a one-room rural schoolhouse to boot, than with any lack of the required physical prowess.
In my own case, it wasn’t that I didn’t like physical activity, but that organized sports had become my nemesis. I had been consistently convinced by someone whose judgment I couldn’t help but trust—my father—that I would never be any good at them. It sounded like a sentence and felt like an illness, a disability diagnosed by an expert on the subject: Whitie. So at first, I avoided them out of embarrassment, and then grew to hate them and to consider them enemy territory.
Instead, I turned to the activities that my city-raised father abhorred: trekking along rivers and creeks, camping, bike hikes to parts unknown, fishing with my father’s father, hunting with my mother’s father and both those activities with friends later on. The great outdoors was fine with me as long as it didn’t involve diamonds, courts, pitches, courses or playing fields.
To be continued...