Between the Lines / "The train home"
Published 1:01 am, Wednesday, July 7, 2010
Train rides can be one way to measure the distances in your life. They are good for stories, too, because they have a beginning, a middle and an end. In my case it was the ending I was nervous about. I was 17 years old and returning home from Boston after a miserable experience at Cousy's basketball camp.
My father would be waiting for me at the Bridgeport station, and it would be tough to tell him because my success meant so much to him. Sports was the thing that bonded us and made me think I had in any way pleased him as a son. Yet I had come to realize I couldn't hold onto that dream any longer and still be myself. How could I begin to tell him what had happened up there? I didn't even understand it myself.
The train arrived at the sweltering station in the fading twilight. The August air was thick with humidity and my nose began to run again. I lugged the heavy duffle off the train, across the tracks and down the staircase. I saw my father standing on the sidewalk next to our car. There was something different about him. Our eyes met briefly, then he looked away. His usually expressive face was impassive. He told me he was glad to see me, but he wasn't smiling when he said it. He helped me lift my bag into the trunk and then we got into the car.
"How did it go, Bare?" I felt the eagerness in his question. For a moment I realized I could lie to him and he would never know the difference. But I also sensed that I would be lying to myself about something important. There are times in life when only the truth will do.
"Not good, Dad."
"What do you mean?"
I hesitated. How could I put into words an experience that I scarcely understood? I didn't really know what had happened to me at the basketball camp.
"I didn't get off to a good start and then I got sun poisoning on my legs. I had to sit out some days."
"Did you play at all?" Dad's voice was almost pleading. "Did you do anything good? Impress anyone?"
He looked straight into my eyes before he put the key into the ignition. I didn't have to say a word after he read the expression on my face.
"Don't tell me you quit on yourself, Bare? You didn't quit on me, did you?"
How do you answer a question like that? It was impossible for me to fathom the extent of my father's feeling about his son and sports. It meant everything to him, and it was simply more weight than I could carry.
"I didn't quit, Dad." My voice sounded defensive and puerile.
"You failed, Bare, it's that simple. You lost heart. I feared you would." Years later I would eventually come to understand that it was Dad himself who had a deep sense of failure. It wasn't due to anything he had done, but rather because his father had been a ne'er-do-well who deserted the family. But I was only 17 and his words hit me like a sledge hammer. He still hadn't started the car.
There was a long silence between us. In some ways that awkward silence continued for the rest of our lives. I don't mean that we never talked again, but we never talked about that. This dreadful night stood between us like an unfinished sentence. Maybe I write these words to finally finish that sentence.
"I needed to hear something good, Bare. I needed some good news." His voice was almost quavering. "Something bad happened when you were away. We didn't want to tell you and ruin your time at camp, but now I see it wouldn't have made any difference."
My heart was racing in anticipation of what Dad would say next.
"Your Uncle Bob drowned in Maine while you were in New Hampshire. We had the funeral last week."
So we both had difficult things to say to each other on this August night. Bob was our favorite uncle and my father's best friend. The terrible news made me catch my breath with the absolute unreality of it. I wished everything had been different and that I could have brought Dad glorious stories of my prowess before the admiring eyes of Bob Cousy. While I was off in my own world, I had unknowingly collided with a much bigger one. Death rose like a mountain before me.
I started to cry softly. No loud sobs, just a little sniffling. The car was dark except for a little blinking red light.
My father exhaled sharply and then said, "I'm sorry." That's all he said. And I wasn't sure what he meant by it. Was he sorry for me? Was he sorry for Uncle Bob? Was he sorry for himself?"
We drove home in silence most of the way. As we got closer, Dad told me to get cleaned up and then he would drive me over to Aunt Dolly's to pay my respects. I didn't want to do this, not tonight of all nights. I had nothing left inside me -- no sympathy for anyone, no light left in the day. But my father's sense of duty and loyalty to family was powerful. There would be no use telling him how I felt.
Our own usually noisy house was somber in the tragedy's aftermath. It seemed as if the dark August night was encroaching on the spirit of the family and there wasn't enough energy to dispel it. The crickets were chirping in the blackness but it sounded like a dirge. I talked briefly with my twin brother and he told me about the nightmarish week. I didn't mention anything to him about the conversation Dad and I had in the car. I would keep that to myself for a long, long time.
My father and I drove alone to Aunt Dolly's. As we came in the back door we could hear an unearthly keening coming from the living room. My grandmother stood next to my seated aunt rubbing her back and trying to console her. When they saw me, the two women both burst into tears. Completely unnerved, I mumbled a few words of sympathy. I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders and couldn't wait to get back home.
This was the last night of the summer of '67 for me and in many ways the last evening of my innocence. The next week I left home for college. In time I would put these sad memories behind me. Of course, I would experience other shocks in life, other disappointments and surprises. But none of them ever equalled the sheer strangeness of the summer of my high school graduation. And yet, after all these years, I realize I became my own person that summer and ready to fall in love.
Barry Wallace writes a weekly column for the Fairfield Citizen.