Monday, March 28, 2011

The birthday boy

My dad Pat turned 64 today. I don't know that I've ever referred to him as "my old man" and now that he's getting dangerously close to having that phrase qualify as an accurate, dreaded description and not just a term of affection, I won't start now.

Dad taught me how to shoot a basketball, catch a football and field a grounder. He passed down his values, sense of humor and political beliefs. He's the second-biggest fan of my writing and the only reason he's not No. 1 is because my mom makes it impossible for anyone else to gain the top spot. Dad retired three years ago, at least in theory. He no longer drives 10 miles each day to Itron in Waseca. Instead he drives hundreds of miles a week, operating a van for a local bus company, ferrying kids to area schools. He always loved driving and he's loved retirement, but I'm not sure he's the biggest fan of driving during retirement.

He's stubborn, sometimes grouchy and always suffers from a "head full." He's a great dad and a better husband - he married my mom in 1968 and they're still together. I hope I'm as good of a spouse today, and some day I hope to be as good of a dad. He's also an awesome grandpa to my sister's five kids, though only one - my niece Brandi - has him wrapped around her finger.

Dad's 64. Seems hard to believe, since I can remember when he was my age - 35 (the Lakers won the title that year). But here are some thoughts that don't fit on a birthday card.

* Growing up, my dad idolized Eddie Mathews and Elgin Baylor. He loved the Milwaukee Braves and the Minneapolis Lakers. I'm sure he can still recite stats from the 1957 World Series, or at least the Braves' lineup. He cherished an autographed picture of Elgin. Minnesota lost the Lakers in 1960, Wisconsin said goodbye to the Braves five years later. He still sort of pulls for the Braves, the Atlanta version. I guess there are still some memories there of Mathews' left-handed swing, or maybe years of exposure to TBS finally broke him down.

But the Lakers? He stayed a fan through the torturous '60s, when Boston tormented Lakers players and fans, those in California and the ones left behind in Minnesota. Yet by the time I became a fully fledged Lakers fan - at the age of 5 - he had pulled away. And when the Celtics and Lakers renewed their rivalry in the 1980s, he cheered for the Celtics. A stunning reversal, which he never adequately explained. It might have had something to do with Kevin McHale's presence on the Celtics, the local boy-angle and all. Mostly, though, it gave him the chance to engage me in sports debates and arguments, which we've done from the moment I learned to talk, discussions that will continue until the day one of us stops talking forever.

A Lakers fan cheering the Celtics. Still baffling. And if Elgin knew about it? He'd ask for that autographed picture back.

* In 1995 and 1996 I spent the summer months playing on the Itron softball team, a ragtag group of has-beens and never-weres that lost much more than they won and looked bad doing both. But we had a blast.

Dad manned first base and I played shortstop. The first game I played with the crew, we upset one of the better teams in the Waseca league, a game that proved to be the highlight of the team's tenure. We made a nice combination in the field. At the plate, he actually outhit me. That's not as disgraceful as it sounds. Dad played softball for decades, I only started in '95. He always swung a good bat - for average, not power - and even at the age of 49 he routinely drilled shots into the outfield.

We only squabbled occasionally, usually because of the failures of a teammate. One time he complained after I threw it home to catch a runner, only to watch the ball bounce off the glove of our overmatched catcher. "Don't make that throw," he said, with a familiar edge in his voice, the voice I'd heard numerous times growing up, usually when talking about one of my turnovers or a missed free throw. I told him I'd keep making it, unless we were willing to surrender every time a runner rounded third base. But mostly we just had fun, no matter how lopsided the results on the field. I'd like to think that if we played together on a team now, I would be able to outhit him. But probably not. He had game.

* One trait I didn't pick up from dad: Guy's something of a neat freak, especially with his vehicles. You could eat off of the floor mats in his cars, if only he allowed you to have food in them. When he cleans his car inside and out, he looks like a man who's preparing for a first date or a trip around town with the president in the backseat. I always felt a little bad when he climbed into my car. Pick up the soda cans. Throw away the McDonald's bags. Hunt for a stray McNugget rotting under a seat. Vacuum - at least the front. His looks passed harsher judgment than his words.

* At a certain age, dad stopped playing me in one-on-one basketball. That age being whenever victory became impossible for him. I grew, he didn't, my jumper improved, his didn't, I gained a bit of quickness, he lost a bit more, and that was it. Yet long after those battles ended, he remained infuriatingly difficult to beat in H-O-R-S-E and free-throw competitions. He proved especially tough on his old homecourt, the farm he grew up on in southwestern Minnesota. Improbably, he'd hit hook shots and bank shots, straight-on bombs and sideline jumpers. The old basket attached to an older barn acted like a magnet for his shots, easing them through the battered net. My grandpa often watched these games, standing in his overalls off to the side, silently taking in the action. I think he was probably pulling for his grandkid, but I bet when I stalked off swearing and dad celebrated with a little cheer, he probably felt happy for his son. And now, when dad watches me battle my nephews, he's probably pulling for them, but I bet he's a little happy when his kid prevails.

* My mother-in-law Patricia only met my parents the weekend of our wedding. Being separated by an ocean cuts down on the family get-togethers. But during that lone meeting, she described my dad as a "quiet thunderstorm." You don't see him coming until it's too late. She said this after dad had consumed a few glasses of wine at our wedding reception. I'll say no more.

* Dad loves Dancing With the Stars. It's his new Milwaukee Braves. It's strange. I don't understand it, I barely accept it. Big fan. Strapped-into-his-seat-don't-dare-call-during-the-show type of fan. Gets upset about results. For all I know yells at the judges the same way he yells at basketball refs. And I thought his Celtics fandom was baffling.

* After I graduated from Saint John's in 1997, dad helped me land an interview to be a technical writer at Itron. The interview didn't go real well. I could write, but not technically.

"But I'm eager to learn."

I had answers, but not the ones they needed to hear.

"The best part of Microsoft Word? Well, Spellcheck is really handy."

I had the requisite desperation but probably didn't hide it well enough.

"I can start immediately! Today, in fact!"

I didn't get the job, which would have paid something like $38,000, a ransom for a recent college grad who majored in the vague arts of communication. Dad helped me get a foot in the door, but the people doing the hiring quickly - although politely - closed it. Regardless, I appreciated the opportunity. A few months later I landed a newspaper job and found a gig suited to my skills, if not my economic desires. I'm not sure how it would have worked if we shared a work building. If he complained about my throws to home plate on the softball field, what would he have said if he didn't like my description of the proper way to build an ERT? And would my response have been a fireable offense?

* Unless something's replaced it recently, I think Cool Hand Luke remains his favorite movie - and Luke himself his favorite character. That's cool. Better than listing Dancing With the Stars as your favorite show.

* For years we had a running joke in the family about dad's desire to write a letter to the editor. Whenever something upset him - whether on a national, state, local, neighborhood or household level - he threatened to write a letter to the editor. Which editor? Who knows? A paper's, presumably. We compared him to an odd man in our town named Fred who penned a letter-a-week to the little Janesville paper, thousand-word missives that touched on the Book of Genesis, wars, Jesus, death, crops, weather, Democrats, Republicans, vikings and Vikings, the Twins and kids these days.

But one day dad actually followed through. He wrote a letter to the editor and, more importantly, the paper published it. Like me, he learned the thrill of seeing your byline. He's since made other appearances, in newspapers like the Mankato Free Press and Minneapolis Star-Tribune. They're usually brief, simple shots that sting. I think he secretly hopes they'll bring out a response from someone on the other side of the issue. When he retired I worried about him spending his days writing manifestos to nonexistent editors at imaginary newspapers, but he's maintained a normal pace. And now, when he threatens to write a letter to the editor, we take him seriously.

* A few years ago I navigated my mom's junk room in the basement - I'm calling it mom's because dad sort of disavows it, even though a lot of the stuff in it is, in fact, his - and came across a box of love letters from way back when. Back to when my dad was out of high school and my mom still in it. He romanced and courted her, usually writing once a day.
Historians cherish long-lost letters and so do mourning children. But it
can definitely be a bit awkward reading letters from people who are still alive and well and sitting upstairs watching TV. Yet I didn't really feel weird. I won't go into the details - they weren't dirty, anyway; this was small-town America in the '60s, the Catholic Church probably censored the letters - other than to say dad didn't just win over mom with his goofy-yet-endearing looks. He had a way with words. Did he think some kid would rummage through the letters 40 years later? Probably not. But I think he believed he'd still be with that same girl four decades later.

* I've attended thousands of sporting events with dad. Little League baseball, town team baseball, T-ball, college, semi-pro, Major League Baseball, 7th grade basketball, 8th grade basketball...and onward, college basketball, pro basketball, junior college basketball, women's hoops and elementary kids basketball. All levels of football. We've consumed more bad popcorn than a hundred movie critics. He brought me along when I was a little kid and helped me learn how to count while looking at basketball scoreboards. When I was in school, he attended nearly every game I ever played, from first grade through college. Today he'll drive two hours to watch a grandkid play an hour-long game, then drive two more hours back home. In snow and ice.

If I was back in Minnesota today, I couldn't think of a better way to spend dad's birthday than attending a basketball game with him. We'd stop for a little dinner beforehand, get to the game, occupy our normal seats - either in the top row or near the court, depending on the arena - and then watch and talk hoops for two or three hours. On the drive back home we'd dissect the game and parts of the countless other ones we've seen over the years.

We'd get home, mom would have cooked up a little snack and we'd watch more sports on TV. At some point I'd wish him a happy birthday. He'd grumble about getting old, complain about his sore back.

But I'm 1,500 miles away, so I can only do one of those things.

Happy birthday, old m...Happy birthday, dad.


Dad said...

Thanks!!! That was great and now I'll wipe the tears from my eyes.

Louise Fury said...

This was so lovely -- It was the perfect way to tell him you love him.