Between the lines: "A good night"
The old hunter green Chevy with wood paneling on the sides and rust on the bottom was chewing up the hills tonight. The typically reluctant station wagon roared with unusual confidence. Perhaps because of this Dad was pretty expansive on the ride home from the game. He had a little time to philosophize before the engine stalled and brought him back down to earth again.
It was too cold to roll down the window, which was his usual preliminary to the rambling musings he did in the car when things were going well and he wanted to talk. Instead he did something totally out of character. He turned the heat on.
"Let's see if we can get some heat going, Bare. My feet are frozen solid. Yours must be cold, too. Put the blanket over your legs if you need to." Dad rarely let his tender side show to his sons. He thought it might make us soft.
He wasn't usually all that solicitous about our health. He expected us not to get sick in the first place (doctor bills didn't fit into the family budget) and then he expected us not to complain if we were sick. ("Nobody wants to hear your bellyaching.") However, not only had his parish team won tonight, but they had also played well -- passing the basketball around, establishing good defensive position, taking rebounds and looking for the open man. I was basking in this unexpected display of fatherly warmth.
"That was teamwork you saw tonight, Bare. There's nothing more beautiful than teamwork. Most people dream of individual glory and getting their name in the paper as a hero, but the game is at its best when it's played together. Selfish athletes are never winners. You are really good when you can give yourself over to the spirit of the game and play it purely because it's beautiful and you want the other guy to be as good as you."
As far as Dad was concerned the world of sports was a microcosm of the universe. What happened on the basketball court also happened in life. I hung onto his every word. Since I was only in the third grade, I hadn't yet developed an alternate view of the world. My Catholic school education seemed to back up everything Dad said. The team said fervent "Hail Mary's" before every game. We certainly weren't shy about making the ultimate appeal with so much at stake. My father spoke from the mountain top and I sat next to him trying not to be blinded by the light.
The drive home wasn't much more than a mile. When Dad got to talking I always wished it was longer. There were those special nights when he was ready to crack open the doors of wisdom and reveal the secrets of life. This was so important to me because I wasn't learning much of anything in school. Nothing stuck in my head, and none of it interested me anyway. I was swirling through an amorphous void until I grabbed a basketball one day and found my name on it. I was also one of seven children. There was no such thing as individual attention in our big family unless you were on your deathbed. We didn't expect it, and I certainly hadn't done anything to earn it. Dad's words were the first glimmerings of meaning in life to a nine year old boy.
"What you have to understand, Bare, is that very few people really believe in anything at all. I don't mean religion. I mean they don't have something they are passionate about and live for. They just go along with the crowd because they don't know what else to do. When you really love something you give your heart to it."
Nobody in school ever talked to me this way. There I was treated as a dunce in the halls of academe. At moments like this my father was sharing with me everything he had learned and cared about. I couldn't believe I was lucky enough to keep company with him and get to listen to his inner thoughts. It made me feel special. When I listened to my father I was no longer a hopeless third-grader who couldn't do long division or identify the parts of speech. I carried his words like a torch into the night illuminating the hazy corners of my mind.
We travelled the same route almost every night. I saw the Cape Cod houses and the ranch homes with the split rail fences on the familiar streets. We went by the old brick public school where Mr. Rankin played his bagpipe in the basement. We crossed a small bridge over a running brook that meandered through the suburban yards. Then we climbed the steep hill to the top of Frenchtown Road overlooking the Merritt Parkway.
I wanted the car to go slowly. I wanted Dad's words to mingle with the night shadows and float towards the pale moon. I wanted him to keep talking to me and telling me what a man needs to know. I thought I might arm myself with his words and find some courage that I seemed to lack.
"Keep in mind, Bare, life isn't easy. There are many people who talk a good game but they have nothing inside. When a challenge comes they just fold up and lose their confidence." Here he would mention the name of a boy on the team (not to be repeated, of course) who didn't really believe in himself. "If I could only reach those boys, I could give them something valuable in life."
My father grew up semi-orphaned, so he wanted to help every boy he saw struggling along the way. He was a kind of Catcher in the Rye. His childhood disappointments were the source of his passion to do something good with his life, something he loved and believed in. And that turned out to be decades of coaching our parish teams. I remember he was just a young husband then with a housefull of kids and a clunker of a car. Like all dreamers, he struggled against the metaphysics of his own universe. He waged war all his life from the Pacific Theater of World War II to the dusty grammar school gyms of industrial Bridgeport. Somebody had to keep score in a world of constant victories and defeats.
I thought I understood Dad perfectly then. He was revealing something of himself to me and at the same time he was also teaching me. He knew that I was listening. There was a certain bond between us. "I can talk to you, Bare, because you hear what I'm saying. The others don't understand me."
Now, I'm sure he said this to all my brothers. He liked sharing confidences with his sons with each of us thinking we alone experienced the privilege of his trust. It's possible that he didn't really understand himself but yet revealed to each of us the amount he thought we could hold. All I know is that I felt I was in the presence of someone rare and true. Early on I was completely captivated by his piercing honesty that awakened the voice of the writer in me. From that point I wanted to use words the way Dad played basketball. Ultimately, it wasn't the game itself but the passion of his words that stayed with me.
"Life goes by in an eye blink, Bare. People want it to be easy, but it isn't. You don't get anything valuable that you haven't earned. And you can't earn anything that you don't love first." We were in our driveway now under the tall maple trees. I hated to hear Dad shut off the car. I opened the door and the cold wind took my breath away. The stars had nothing to say and the frozen brook kept mum about what it knew. It was a good night, and the porch light came on just as we stepped through a circle of darkness.