I remember the creaking of the screened storm door opening, then closing quickly, the thin weathered door tiredly slamming shut against the door jamb. Following closely behind came the smell of sweat, it permeated the air, layered somewhere in the middle wafted that distinct metallic odor that comes home with you after working 12 hour days with steel machinery. I didn’t often see my father in his navy blue factory work wear, his fingers still stained with oil, tinged with hints of dried, crusted blood, the well-callused hands thick and swollen. Heavy. It always felt like I was stealing a secret when I caught a glimpse of my dad coming in through the back door on those days — those days when he was so eager to be home again that he didn’t have the time to transform himself seamlessly back to dad before we all had dinner together. As much as I greatly anticipated his return each day, I knew to respect that other side of his life. It was the side he never talked about and so I did not ask. As children, he wanted to keep that part of his life shielded from us. When that door closed behind him, it was as if he left that whole separate world behind him, even if it was only for just a comforting home-cooked meal, a chance to catch his breath, and a richly earned night of sleep, a time of quiet and peace before stepping back in between the factory walls the next morning, ready for the unrelenting clamor of industrialism to fire itself up again.
In between that grind was our little window. We knew the routine. After a replenishing dinner it was an ice cold beer, which he took at his evening throne, the soft brown leather recliner in the corner of the room that cushioned his landing from from the long hard day. It was during this time that I would approach my dad, tell him about school, but it wasn’t really school I cared to talk about. That’s what he wanted to know. That is why he did what he did all day long. For us. Every penny that did not go to paying the bills went to us kids, mostly for our future, so that one day we could have it much easier than he did.
I was just a boy then. I wasn’t focused on the future. My life was right there in front of me. And just as now, my passion was baseball. My dad and I are very different in so many ways. He is pragmatic, results-oriented, linear, matter-of-fact. As child, I was a dreamer, curious, rebellious, inventive. I imagine that may have made him worry quite a bit at times.
What we did have was baseball. That was our thing. Whenever there was a time I needed to connect with my dad, baseball was there to act as a conduit. As you may have already surmised, my father is not the storyteller I am (that comes from my mom’s side of the family), but I asked him to tell me stories anyway. He would tell me about the clutch-hitting Ron Santo, the ultra efficient duels of Ferguson Jenkins and Bob Gibson, the slick glove of Don Kessinger, sweet-swingin’ Billy Williams, the Milt Pappas game featuring the worst non-strike call in the history of baseball, and on and on. My father provided the facts and structure behind the stories and my imagination raced enthusiastically to fill in the blanks. I don’t think he knew at the time that he would inspire such a passionate baseball fan. I think for him baseball was an occasional escape from the mundane reality of his working class life. As a child, a dreamer, it wasn’t that simple for me. A much as I excelled in school and big plans were being made all around for my future, I only wanted to be a ballplayer. Because, why not? When you are a child, anything seems possible. My dad, as usual, was more focused on the practical side of things and for him it was just easier to compartmentalize it all. School was school. Work was work. Baseball was baseball. There was a time for each, but they did not co-exist in the same world for him.
And so over time, baseball and I went on our separate paths. It’s not that I stopped following the game. I still followed it closely and passionately…but now it was separate from the rest of my life. It was just the practical thing to do. It was the responsible thing to do. It is exactly what my dad would have done. There would always be room to carve in a separate space for both.
But for me things don’t work that way. I see everything big pictures. Everything is connected. In my world, there are no neatly dividing lines except the ones we ourselves choose to draw. That worked for my dad, but I never dreamed I’d be the one actually drawing those lines as I got older.
My dad and I drifted apart over the years as well. It was not some kind of major rift or anything. More like an achingly slow continental drift that happens gradually over the span of a generation. I sometimes felt I let him down and didn’t live up to the promise and potential he always knew I had. I did well enough in life, made an earnest living. I exchanged my dad’s blue collar lifestyle for a white one. I exchanged the drone of factory machines for the drone of corporate life in America. That certainly seemed like progress. That’s the way things should be moving, is it not?
Except it didn’t feel that way.
About 10 years ago, around his 70th birthday, my dad and I began to reconnect again. It started with a speech the family asked me to write about him for a surprise party they had planned for him.
It was meant as a tribute to my father and everything he has sacrificed for us over the years. But something else happened as I delivered that emotional speech in front of the large gathering of our family and friends. Those lines I had drawn for myself suddenly became blurred and I found my voice again.
Nobody heard that voice louder than my dad.
“You should be writing”, he would later say. “You have a gift that I could never really have and that don’t think I ever fully understood. I wish I could have realized it earlier.”
To hear this from my father meant the world to me. My mother is more my kindred spirit in terms of our artistic sensibilities, but to be able to reach my dad on this level of openness was different. My father had always been practical, always drawing lines and wearily closing doors to shut out the noise and keep his different worlds separate and distinct
I think about myself now as I do my job as a writer, spending long days at the park out in the open air and sun, out near the field, with few physical barriers separating me from the the game I have loved my whole life, even if that game is often a slightly altered version with loosely defined rules and no pre-defined limits. If anything the quirkiness of time and rule in these games makes it even more appealing to me. It’s peaceful, quiet, only occasionally interrupted by the sweet crack of the bat after a long home run.
And then as I walk home after the game, I suddenly realize how tired I am. I begin to feel how hot the Arizona sun beats down on me. As beads of sweat roll down my back and along the sides of my face, I become eager to get indoors and feel the respite of our cool, air-conditioned home. Then as I wearily reach to close the back door behind me, my sweaty hand slips on the door knob and I briefly catch a wisp of that familiar distinctive odor I remembered as a child.
Happy to be home at last, I sit down, crack open a beer, and begin to write…
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