Happy Birthday, Dad

My Dad would have been 71 today.

Thinkin’ about you, old man…

-Love, your Champ.

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An Angel Watching Over Me

It’s 4th of July weekend again, and to me that means a lot of things. 

Of course, it means the birthday of the USA– which, in all honesty, is the least of my reasons to observe the day. 

It also means my friends and I make our yearly trek to Saugatuck, MI to go camping.

It also (sometimes) means observing the holiday with my family.

And, of course, it also means the anniversary of my dad’s death.

This is the second anniversary of his passing, and while I’m actually a lot less emotional about it than I was last year — it truly does get easier as time goes on — I decided to take at least one day off and spend some time with my mom.  So after work on Wednesday, I went home, packed for my camping trip, loaded up the car, and headed up to Kenosha.

It was dark by the time I hit the road — about 9:00PM.  The skies had looked threatening for most of the evening, but no rain had fallen yet in the Chicago area.  As I made my trip northward, however, I could see that was about to change.  Lightning was flashing up ahead, and I could see the clouds moving quickly toward the east. 

I’ve driven in rainstorms at night many times before, but I was prepared to be extra cautious this time around.  There is a lot of construction on the route to Kenosha, and the cramped quarters are bad enough even in good weather.  Typically, people drive with good sense in such conditions, but there is always some crazy fool who thinks otherwise. 

After I passed through the toll plaza onto the Illinois Tollway, the rain started to fall– first a fine mist, and then hard, huge drops.  Traffic slowed to about 35-40 MPH.  I was in the left hand lane, doing my best to concentrate on the road.

As I approached Six Flags Great America, the rain seemed to subside a bit.  Then in the right lane I saw an impatient vehicle pass quickly through the slower-moving crowd.  I couldn’t see if it was a truck, an SUV or a car; but whatever it was, the vehicle hit a huge puddle as it passed by.  The backlash went skyward, and I could see it quickly approaching me.  There was nowhere for me to go.  I started to pump my breaks to slow down as quickly as I could, but it was too late.  The splash hit me with a massive force and I lost control of the car. 

The car skidded to and fro, and I did my best to turn with the skid, all the while praying that I wouldn’t hit anyone, and nobody would hit me.  Finally the car came out of the skid and hit the median.  Because my car is a manual transmission, the engine cut out since I had probably taken my foot off the clutch. 

I was stopped cold in the left lane of Interstate 94 in a rainstorm. 

As soon as my car stopped moving, I saw another car swerve past me and spin around in front of me.  It was a mid-sized SUV.  I saw the car hit the median hard and bounce to a stop. 

My first instinct was to turn on my hazard lights.  I tried to get my wits about me.  I set the parking brake.  Wrong.  I put the car in neutral.  Right.  All the while I was glancing in my rearview mirror, chanting to myself, “Please don’t let anyone hit me…. Please don’t let anyone hit me… ” over and over again. 

Finally I got my car started again and found a safe path back into traffic.  The car ahead of me started moving forward with its hazard lights on, and I kept mine on as well.  We both drove to the Grand Avenue exit and pulled off to the side of the road. 

The driver got out and came up to my car.  “What happened back there?” she said, shaken.  “I saw the wall of water and then you were stopped in the road!”  I said, “Yeah, the water hit me and I lost control of my car.  I had just come to a stop when I saw you spin around in front of me.  Are you okay?”

“I’m okay,” she said, “but my car isn’t.”  We decided to pull into the nearest gas station to survey the damage. 

When I got out of my car and looked at it, I was shocked.  I expected a crushed fender, maybe a broken headlight, and a busted bumper.  There was hardly a scratch.  The only evidence I could see was a crack in the bumper.  That was it. 

I walked ahead to the other driver.  I could hear right away that her car was damaged, but when I saw it, it was definitely much worse.  It looked as if King Kong had grabbed the front grill and tore it away.  I couldn’t believe it was even running. 

We both went inside the shop and recounted our stories.  We both agreed that we saw the guy speed through the puddle, which washed us both out and caused us to lose control.  We exchanged information in case insurance adjusters needed to corroborate our stories, but we didn’t call the police.  Maybe that was a mistake, but we’ll see what happens.

As I finished my journey to my mom’s house (using back-roads instead of the Interstate), I realized there must have been an angel watching over me to help me get out of that situation alive.  It could have been so much worse. 

I’m not saying the angel was my Dad, but it’s kind of nice to think it could have been him.

Father's Day – The sound of my dad's voice

Another Father’s Day has arrived.  The second since my dad passed on.

I’ve given a lot of thought about how to honor the day on my blog.  It seems that I’ve told just about every possible story and shared countless pictures of him in the past two years.  If you’ve been a regular reader of my blog, you probably know him pretty well.  

But the one thing I hadn’t included was his voice.

You see, one of the wonderful things about being born when I was born is the advent of so much great technology.  Generations of people lost family members over the years, and subsequently lost the ability to hear their voices or even see their faces again.  As time went on, we had photographs, then home movies, and then even audio recordings.  

When I was born, my parents purchased a portable cassette recorder made by Realistic, the house brand at the time for Radio Shack.  It probably about 10 lbs. heavy and needed an external microphone to record. 

Shortly after we were born, they tried to catch our first words on the recorder; then as we grew up, my mom or my dad would set up the tape recorder and sit with us and have us recite our names, our address, our phone number, and then have us count or say the alphabet, and then sing some songs.

It is on these tapes where I can hear myself counting to ten at the bright young age of two.

It is on these tapes where one can witness my budding interest in music – singing songs like “Top of the World” by the Carpenters and “It’s Such A Good Feeling” from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood with confidence and pretty darn good tonality.  

But it’s also on these tapes where I am reminded of how loving and nurturing my parents were.  

Toward the end of my Dad’s life he became a very bitter and angry person.  These tapes bring me back to the Dad I really knew and remember the most.  They show how proud he was of me when I counted to 10 at almost 2 years old, then counted to 30 at the age of 4.  How he laughed when I said something silly (which was fairly often, especially when I was 4), but was stern when I wouldn’t give my sister her turn at the microphone, telling me that it’s only fair that she have her turn.  

Over the years, some of the tapes had broken, and some of our memories were lost forever.  But fortunately, most of them still survive to this day.  I took them into my possession a few years go and decided to digitally record them on my computer, preserving them forever.  I then burned them onto CDs for me, my mom and my sister.  

So on this Father’s Day, I want to share with you some of my memories.  You don’t have to listen to them if you don’t want to (they’re pretty long – about 20 minutes each), but if you do, you’ll have some sort of idea of what kind of a dad my Dad was.  He was a pretty great guy.  

Thank goodness I can still hear his voice today. 

Me with my Dad and Mom, November 20, 1972

After dinner, Mom and Dad ask me what I want for dessert, then ask me some questions, which I repeat back to them- sometimes repeatedly.  I also explain the contents of my Dad’s wallet, which has forever been a source of comedy and good memories for my family. (For years my nickname was “Wallet” because I always wanted to see my dad’s wallet and look at his credit cards.  Obviously a shopper was born.)  I also count to 10 – at 1 year and 11 months old. 

Me, my sister and my Dad, various dates, approx. 1974 and 1975

This tape has my sister and I sharing the microphone as best we can at various ages.  It seems like my sister is older and more talkative in some spots and younger and less talkative in others. I think my dad recorded over some stuff at some points, too – he was never much good at figuring out the tape recorder – but throughout he is there, coaching us to say things and sing songs. Toward the end, there is a segment with my Mom where she “interviews” us.  I was a pretty silly kid at this point.  To this day I still don’t know what “I am very it” and  “Everybody likes it to be here” mean.

Baseball, Boys and Dads

Today was opening day for the Chicago Cubs.

To most of you that’s not a big deal. In fact, I’m sure there are a good number of you who read that first line and said “Who cares?”

Well to this baseball fan, it’s a big deal. Because baseball means more than just nine guys running around a field hitting a ball with a wooden stick. It’s because, for the most part, boys and dads have a sort of innate relationship around baseball. Sometimes that relationship blossoms into a loving and wonderful coexistence; and sometimes it harbors a lifetime of regret and/or agony.

For me, the relationship between me, my Dad and baseball has almost always been a positive one. I remember playing catch with him in the backyard and going to the park to hit a few line drives (which were probably only bloopers but to me they were line drives.) I was never much good at playing the game, but I definitely recall the first few trips we made to Wrigley Field to watch the Cubs play.

One of my fondest memories is during our second visit to Wrigley Field. I was probably about 8 or so and my sister was 6. We were seated in the main grandstand area, to the right of home plate, just under the upper grandstand. They were pretty great seats. I had my program and my Cubs baseball cap, and my sister was sporting her trademark Cubs fisherman’s cap which was so cute on her little head. Mom and Dad were reviewing the lineup with us, getting us ready to start keeping score for the game.

I looked up and saw a mob of people forming from the Cubs dugout, walking up toward the stairs of the grandstand. In the mob I could see Jack Brickhouse, the legendary Cubs broadcaster. I knew he was probably just finishing the “Lead-Off Man” interview with one of the players and was heading up to the announcer’s booth in the Mezzanine. The only way to get there was through the crowd, so every time he made the trek, he would be besieged by autograph seekers.

I asked my dad for a pen, and he found one for me. In a flash, I grabbed my program and took off. I could hear my dad calling after me, “Ricky! Get back here! RICKY! You’ll never find your way back!” But I knew where I was going. I ran after the mob, and followed them down the stairs into the concourse. Just after turning to the right, I reached the the mob and tunneled my way between the legs of the taller fans. I got right up to Jack Brickhouse, smiled with my toothless smile, and said, “Mr. Brickhouse, can I have your autograph?”

Jack replied, “Sure, little fella!” and grabbed my program and signed it with my felt-tip pen. I looked at the signature, said “Wow! Thanks!” and dashed back to the seats.

When I got back, my dad was fuming and my mom was frantic. “We thought we’d never find you! How did you find your way back?” they cried.

I responded quite confidently, “I knew where I was going!” and not another word was spoken about it.

Throughout my dad’s and my life together, baseball remained as a constant in an otherwise symbiotic relationship. No matter what else was going on in our lives, we could always fall back upon what the Cubs were doing that year, or what bonehead moves the management made that would plunge the season into another fit of despair.

As I said before, I wasn’t much of a player. I did play on a Little-League type team in grade school, but I wasn’t all that good. I was always stuck in right field, and I spent more time picking dandelions than running after base hits. Dad, of course, was furious with me and couldn’t understand why I wasn’t a better player– but I assured him that it wasn’t because I didn’t like the game — I just didn’t enjoy playing it as much as I enjoyed watching it.

So that’s why, when the Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus started rehearsing the song “What You’d Call A Dream” from the little-known off-Broadway play called “Diamonds,” I was struck by how much meaning the game has in so many people’s lives. Whether you’re the greatest or worst player, or whether you ever made the game-winning hit or cost a team the game; there’s something special and meaningful about the relationship between fathers, sons and baseball that can never be broken.

So this Friday and Saturday, when I’m on stage, choking back tears during that song, I will remember the trips to Wrigley Field; the days playing catch in the summer sun; the baseball cards and team rosters, and his recollections of years past; the afternoons watching WGN and Jack Brickhouse– and later, Harry Caray– call the games; and the good times–and bad– that revolved around the game.

What You’d Call A Dream

There are two men out, and its in the ninth, and the score is four to three
There’s a man at first, and a man at bat, and the man at bat is me
And I’m sorta scared, and I’m sorta proud, and I’m stronger than I seem
And I take a swing, and my dad is there, and its what you’d call a dream

For the ball flies in the sun, and it sails off as I run
The crowd is roaring, cheering as I go, so are all the guys on the team
And I run for home, and we win the game, and its what you’d call a dream
And the sun shines like diamonds
The summer sun shines like diamonds
The summer sun, high in a baseball sky, shines like diamonds
And the sun shines like diamonds

There are two men out, and its in the ninth, and the score is four to three
There’s a man at first, and a man at bat, and the man at bat is me
And it’s what you’d call
A dream.

Spirits among us

Late in the afternoon on Saturday, my phone rang.  It was my mom.

“Rick,” she said, “I think my house is haunted.”

“What?!” I replied.  What do you mean?  What’s going on?”

“I think your father is here,” she replied.

Our house is a 1960’s ranch-style house.  It’s a modest, three-bedroom home with one bath.  The kitchen adjoins to the living room and my sister’s former room, which also opens to the main hallway.  Across the hallway is the bathroom, and to the left of those doors are my old room and my parents’ room. 

Toward the end of my dad’s life, his routine consisted of his morning shower, after which he would walk into my sister’s old room room and sit on an oversized black swiveling desk chair to put on his diabetic socks and whatever clothes he would wear for the day.  The chair was positioned in front of the closet doors and never moved.  It was always ready for him to sit and get ready in the morning, and if it moved he would reposition it to be in the same spot to be ready for the next day.  Dad was like that.  He liked everything just so– nothing out of order, everything in its place.

When dad died, my mom had the chair cleaned and turned it so it faced the closet.  Since she has so much trouble with her balance, she uses the high back of the chair to help her steady herself while she walks through the room.  She never walks through the living room to get to the kitchen — she only uses the bedroom. 

For months now the chair has been positioned this way, being moved only to either clean out the closet of my dad’s old clothes or to vacuum the floor.  Other times the chair held boxes and blankets and other stuff while we got ready for our rummage sale. 

But in the last few weeks, mom started to notice something very different.

After passing through the room and spending some time in the kitchen or the bathroom, she would return to the room to find the chair turned around and positioned into the room.  Just the way my dad would position it when he was alive.

At first, she thought she had maybe bumped it while passing through the room; but the more she thought about it, she knew there was no way she could have turned it that much and positioned it that perfectly– every single time.  The more it happened, the closer attention she would pay to how she moved it, where and when.  And the more she fixed the chair for her purpose, the more often it would be turned back around again.

Saturday, however, was the last straw.

“It happened three times today,” she said on the phone.  “The third time I turned it back, I sat at the computer across from that same chair and checked my email.  When I was done I turned around, and the damned chair was turned around again.”

“How could you not hear the chair moving?” I asked her. 

“My hearing is bad, Rick,” she replied.  “I couldn’t hear it if it moved anyway.  But you can bet if I saw it move, we’d have a much bigger problem on our hands!”

I thought about all of this for a second or two, and said to my mom, “You know what?  I think Dad is just trying to let you know he’s there.  He’s turning the chair around because he wants to see you.”

“But why now?” she asked.  “It’s been almost two years, and NOW he wants to come back?  What’s that about?”

“I don’t know,” I replied, “But are you really afraid of it?” 

“No,” she said.  “If anything I’m happy he’s here.”

“Well I am too,” I said.  “Heck, at least he’s not throwing things at you!  This is pretty tame if you ask me.”

We cried a bit, and then laughed about it.  We’re both a little spooked, but at the same time we’re comforted.  Dad always joked that he’d come back to haunt us after he’d gone, but you never really know what to believe about all that stuff anyway.  There could be any number of explanations for it, but unless something worse happens, the fact that he’s still there isn’t going to scare anyone away anytime soon.

After all, as he always said, it IS his house.  He should have every right to live in it.  Right?