Fathers and Sons, Righteous riffs

Wing Man

He’s always the initiator, as I’m reluctant to impose on the 20-year-old’s social calendar. 

Over Friday lunch he asks … “Drover’s tomorrow night?”

Me: You work? 

He: ‘Till seven. 

Me: (calculating drive-time) Might make us a little late. Proly crowded on a Saturday night. 

He: I could see if I could move my shift up an hour. Leave at six? 

Me: You can do that? 

He: I can ask. 

Me: I’m game. Just let me know. 

For the uninitiated, Drover’s is a most sacred place. 

The one constant on our family’s annual summer to-do list — its bona fides spoken of in unequivocal and reverent tones. 

Best Wings on the planet.

There is no debate. There is Drover’s. And there is everyone else.  

Consistently fried to crispy perfection. Every time. Never under- or overdone.  Sauces sublime.

 And part of a larger ritual born of, and bursting with, expectation. 

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Fathers and Sons, The Girls

Picture Day Redux – No Strings Attached

Mercifully (for me), this year, proceedings returned to their normal rhythms. Held at the respective studios. A two-day affair. Saturday = Waynesburg. Sunday = Washington. 

Last year quarantine forced the stay-at-home edition of Picture Day, whose gravity I was unable to escape. 

This year called for less desperate measures, leaving Karry and Emma to tag team this, their 12th edition of the annual amalgam of yelling, hair, make-up, costumes, and teenage angst. 

Preparations began weeks in advance. Came home one day to find Emma outside in the driveway with a pair of tap shoes and a can of neon pink spray paint. 

“Don’t ask,” was all she said. 

My Karry radar began ringing in my head. 

Me: You’re taking precautions, yes? 

She: I’m not making a mess if that’s what you’re asking. 

Emma has convinced herself that she rarely, if ever, makes messes. 

Her conviction is strong. She’d probably pass a lie detector. 

In truth — and I say this lovingly — she’s a disaster. 

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Fathers and Sons

Angels and the Outfield

He just brought it home one day after work and presented it to me. No set up. Not born of a previous request or conversation.

The Glove. 

Reggie Jackson model, waffle-pocket Rawlings. The Finest In the Field. 

Said he’d bought it from an acquaintance. Some guy he knew from the store. Paid $25 for it, used.  I remember him feeling shrewd about the deal.

It was huge. The finger holes were like catacombs. My 10-year-old digits barely reached.

And, oh, it was really used. The traditional method of breaking in a glove is to place a baseball in the pocket and tightly tie the glove closed with string so that you preserve a sweet spot for the ball. The Glove must’ve been given a Swedish Massage and then placed, empty, under the tire of a dump truck. Its pocket folded over its fingers like pages in a book. Its leather soft and pliant. It was so broken in I could clap with it. What padding it had was massaged into sweet surrender (presumably by the Swedes). But given that my fingers barely filled 25% of its real estate, padding wasn’t really relevant to the equation. 

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Fathers and Sons, Postcards

The world just went away there for a few minutes ….

April 3, 2020, 11:07 p.m.

A couple weeks ago Karry was violently cleaning out out the dining room, rooting through old drawers, filling garbage bags with stuff she didn’t want to think twice about. Of the two of us, she is, by far, the most qualified for the task. My wife is not the sentimental type. I, on the other hand, ensure that my wife will always have drawers to clean out. But in the midst of her editing, something gave her enough pause to seek me out downstairs. She tossed an envelope on my desk. “Yeah, you probably forgot about that one.”

On the outside of the envelope, my handwriting:

To: Peter

From: Dad

Christmas 2001

Inside, a letter. From me to my baby boy. Days before our first Christmas together.

Buried treasure.

I have no recollection of doing this.

Which is exactly why I did it.

I learned quickly during those eight months that time was no longer to be fucked with. From the moment Dr. Bulseco announced, “It’s a Boy,” we became unwitting passengers on a turbo steamroller, and would spend as much time under it as in the cab.

So, early on I made a point to mark time whenever I could steal a moment. Scribbles in a journal. Postcards from the road. Notes on a computer.

And evidently, letters to my baby.

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Fathers and Sons

The Quest for the Creek….

Note: found the below in an old journal, and it struck me as it did then … one of those moments that melts the world around you for a good, long moment … before it, itself melts. When we were kids we’d hold a snowball back and put it in the fridge to save it for summer time. Honoring that feeling by putting this old snowball right here ….

Saturday afternoon, after Peter snowblew the driveway, I shoveled the deck, and Em indulged neighbor kids who came for snow angels and “wheeeeeees” down the humble grade of our yard, the three of us donned our snowsuits, grabbed sleds and tube, and trudged through the woods behind our backyard.  Destination: the big hill that technically belongs to the American Legion but which we unofficially commandeer when there’s enough snow to test the wondrous law of gravity. 

We assessed the snow’s vintage —soft and puffy, in need of some packing. So, following Peter’s lead, we made investments with each run down the hill —and trudging walk back up —  kneading the snow like dough, a little longer, a little wider.

The tube, by far, was the conveyance of choice, offering the pure enchantment of spinning, friction-free descent. 

We spent a glorious hour outside, indulging in a good foot of soft powder and mid-20’s temperatures. There were tumbles, wipe outs, and even an inspired attempt to see if the blue sled would hold the three of us at once (um, it didn’t). 

But it was all mere prelude to the gifts of Sunday afternoon, when Peter and I returned for seconds. The intervening 24 hours had smoothed away the powder and added a thin crust of ice to the previous day’s paths. With our first couple runs, we glided farther, carving fresh prints into the untouched white. With each foray we pushed our ruts out a little farther still. 

After about 20 minutes I looked down from the top of the hill to where Peter had just tubed a new distance record and called out, “We should try for the creek”–pointing to the stream that separates the Legion’s field from the hill of houses on the other side. Even with his last run, we were probably a good 50-60 feet of untouched snow from the water.  

But now we had a quest.

And, where Sunday snow days are concerned, life goes much better with a quest. 

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Fathers and Sons

Ode to Joy….

June 4, 2016 

I have this indelible image in my head every time I think of the years (high school and through college) I was privileged to share a bandstand with my Dad when we were but two pieces (drums, first trumpet) of a 10-piece, big-band-style orchestra. Whenever Dad would take a ride solo, I’d steal a glance to my right, see him stand up from his chair a couple measures before, tip the mic up, draw the horn to his lips, bend his knees ever so slightly as he leaned back, close his eyes, and blow.

He always solo’d with his eyes closed, the music taking him somewhere else.

Unconsciously, I’d often close my eyes as well, and try to follow his horn like a compass to wherever it took him. He took great pride in never playing the same solo twice. Though they would rarely last more than a couple choruses, those solos were some of the best trips (of many) we ever took together.

Music has always had that bewitching effect on him (and me) … although it occasionally got him into trouble. He recalled one such instance for my sister Laurie and me when we visited with him on Christmas.

On their second date, Dad thought he would impress Maggie Johnson by taking her to see Les Brown (and his “Band of Renown”).

Best laid plans.

“She got so mad at me because she thought I was ignoring her,” he recalled. Technically speaking, he was totally ignoring her, such a slave his attention was to good music. Fortunately, she forgave him enough to entertain a third date, and the 60+ years of marriage that ensued.

With Dad confined mostly to his bed these days, it’s become more of a challenge to bring the kids with me for my weekly visits. Knowing how crazy the back-to-school schedule will be, Karry and I seized the opportunity Saturday to bring Emma with us to Uniontown.

I asked Em if she’d be up for taking her alto sax with her. I figured it would give her something to do (practice), and thought that Pap might appreciate it.

She’s only in her second year with the horn … but, much to our surprise, we don’t have to twist her arm to practice. She enjoys playing. Enjoys getting better. Seems to take a pride in it.

Dad was resting when we arrived, but a smile broke across his face when he saw Karry and Emma, two of his favorite faces. We weren’t but a few minutes into our visit when he asked Em, “Did you bring your sax?”

He’d never heard her play before.

I went downstairs to the basement and dug out his old music stand (it’s been only a few months since the 88-year-old put it away … for probably the last time), and Em pulled her horn from her case and set up in the next room since we didn’t know if she’d be too loud for him.

She started into some scales, and then some songs she’s been learning for her lessons.

Dad remarked what a good tone she had for a beginner (the brother knows from tone). We sat without speaking and just listened. She had played maybe a half dozen tunes … before she broke into Ode To Joy.

By the fifth note, Dad had closed his eyes, and another smile broke across his face. The music was again taking him someplace else. I closed my eyes too, and met him once again in that place.

After her last note, he opened his eyes, the smile still going strong, and said to the heavens … “This makes me feel good.”

His words were as much a gift to me as Emma’s notes were to him, and the lump in my throat I feel at the mere recollection of that moment bears testimony to those truths.

I find myself grateful for the lessons that still abound from the labored breaths of an 88-year-old sideman, who, though bedridden in failing health with a failing heart and a laundry list of maladies much too long to capture … still sifts the precious moments for joy yet and still.

Find myself grateful for music that can transcend the moment, the physical, the generations, and bring us that much closer together, and to the divine.

And find myself grateful that the old house on Mullen Street still has a few beautiful notes left in it.

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Fathers and Sons

The Things We Remember ….

February 8, 2016

I had the privilege of sharing a few words at Dad’s service on Saturday.

Told those who came that I knew exactly what Dad would say if he were physically able to be with us. 

I was pretty sure he’d have said exactly what he said to me about 8 or 9 years ago, under very different circumstances. 

(Some of you may have heard this story before. But, as some of you may also know, our Dad was not above getting great mileage from a good story – ha). 

He was scheduled for surgery … no, make that surgeries (plural) … on an aneurism in his stomach, and another one in his leg. It was scheduled for first thing in the morning in Pittsburgh, which, when you live in Uniontown, means that you have to get up in the middle of the night. And my sisters Missy and Kim, as they often did, shouldered the burden of getting Mom and Dad out the door and shuttling them to the hospital (no small task, given that Dad had to be early for everything, while our Mom, um, was not as meticulous about her punctuality). Laurie, as she always did, met them at the hospital and made sure they got checked in. 

By the time I got there, Dad was prepped, and was in a room waiting on the surgeon (who was delayed by some other emergency). Mom and the sisters were keeping him good company. After a while, Mom needed to go out for a cigarette (Gram always needed her smoke), and the sisters accompanied her, leaving the boys by themselves for a couple minutes. 

Think about what might be going through your mind if you were the 80-year-old lying in the hospital bed, after having to get up in the middle of the night, suffering that long drive down Route 51 thinking about your pending surgeries, forced into that hospital gown that barely covers your dignity, only to be asked to wait for goodness knows how long on the surgeon? What would be going through your mind? 

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Fathers and Sons, The Girls

In a Sentimental Mood….

(For Auld Lang Syne)

Jan 2, 2017

Found myself at Starbucks with Em yesterday afternoon, warming my hands around a small Dark Roast, and my ears around her delightful ersatz British accent as we advanced a few pages deeper into the Half-Blood Prince. 

Though the establishment’s jazz soundtrack was narratively incongruent to the scenes Em read to life … temporally speaking, it was completely in sync. 

I paused Em’s recitation to Shazam the interpreters of In a Sentimental Mood, which had momentarily thieved my attention (Duke and ‘Trane, um, for the record). 

The familiar melody caught my ear. Used to play it — also as an instrumental, though admittedly more ersatz than even Em’s accent — when Dad and I shared the stage as part of Sammy Bill’s band. All those nights playing Sam’s big book has left me a lot of musical bread crumbs that lead me back to those good times. 

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Fathers and Sons

Boys and Their Dogs ….

Tuesday morning, I’m on no sleep, somewhere in Minnesota, being led by an affable procurement person through casino-resort sized corridors of a corporate HQ of a healthcare company employing 300,000 people globally, running foggy content through my groggy head for the 90 minutes we have to convince a longshot audience we’re worthy of their business.

When my phone dings an incoming text.

This close to Showtime, my cardinal rule is to never check texts or email for fear of distraction, but I see it’s from … our college freshman.

“I’m on deck for presentation 2 this week.” (fingers crossed emoji)

The fog clears. A smile breaks, right before I break my cardinal rule and text back.

Me: “So I’m walking into a presentation, too. Testing the new suit. Do your best. Be yourself. Kick ass.”

He: “Ha. I’ve got my shirt and tie on.”

In the dying light of his last high school summer, we made a pilgrimage to pick him out a new suit for college. In a weak moment, I ended up getting one for myself. Actually, I bought the same exact suit (my wife was not with us, at the risk of stating the obvious). Figured it’ll make for an epic boys pic down the road.

On the morning we break out a few of the pieces for the first time, we’re texting each other encouragement.

I float a life preserver out ahead of us.

Me: “Maybe a Shorty’s run for lunch on Saturday?”

He: “I’ll count on it.”

Separated by 884.1 miles on a cold and gray November morning, father and son turn off their phones, say their customary prayers, don their game faces, and walk into their respective arenas, focused on the task at hand …

… and totally looking forward to Two with Everything.

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Saturday morning, I’m running errands and get a text shortly after 11. “What U up to?”

I do a double-take.

The last time I remember my son being up this early on a Saturday morning he had a full diaper.

I tell him I’ll be home by noon to help Mom with the groceries and then we can go.

West Chestnut is one of the few car-lined streets in downtown Washington on a Saturday morning. We find a parking spot past the shop and walk back down the hill. The Guy In The Window is there, tending a couple dozen dogs on the grill.

Full disclosure: I’d pay a fee to live stream The Guy In The Window — mesmerizingly speed-forking dogs from the grill into buns lining the length of his forearm, followed by one-fluid-motion fulfillment of the yelled-by-the-waitress commands of customers’ Go-Tos, executed in Jedi-like-spoon-snatching and dolloping combos of finely diced onions, slathered ketchup, mustard, chili, and relish in perfect measure and placement on top of Shorty’s-specially-commissioned-secret-recipe-Albert’s dogs and placement one-two-three-at-a-time on the diner’s signature small plates.

We reverently pause at the window before crossing the threshold to behold a scene unchanged and perfected by time. The old wooden booths that ring the wall to the left and north were full. Fine by us.

Me: Counter?

He: Absolutely.

We grab a couple stools at the far end, leaving one open to my left.

The waitress, descendant of the original owner, welcomes us, grabs our drink order. The menu behind the counter at Shorty’s is as essential as the watch pocket in Levi’s jeans – pure decoration. The only change in decades was when they switched from Coke to Pepsi a few years back – a decision for which my wife has never forgiven them.

Speaking of decisions, my son and I are faced with the biggest one we’ll make this Saturday: whether to split a Large Fry with Gravy or get our own smalls. We agree to share, and shake on ordering a second plate if one of us commands more than his fair share. The rest is a foregone conclusion: Two with Everything for me. For him: One with Everything, and one just ketchup and onions.

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Without making the covenant aloud, we’d been holding conversation all morning until our orders were placed.

We catch up on our presentations from earlier in the week (arse was kicked), Kentucky basketball (his lower case ‘r’ religion these days), NBA (LeBron’s Lakers are rollin’), and just stuff.

As we’re waiting for our order, a guy grabs the open stool to my left. A little rumpled. Gray scraggly beard. I pick up a beer scent. Not fresh, maybe night before. Initiates a familiar patter with the waitress, and the behind-the-scenes fry guy in the back. The reciprocal requisite chop-busting of a Regular. Asks about the Wash High score … they were down 14 at the half. I mention they’ve been slow-starting all season, and before I know it, the guy’s joining our lunch conversation, much to my delight, and my son’s chagrin.

Waitress sets down a hot roast beef in front of our neighbor. I tell him he’s the first person I’ve ever sat next to who’s ordered anything other than a hot dog. Unbeknownst to me, I invite a long soliloquy on the subject.

It’s fantastic, he says. The waitress passing by who’s not in the conversation but is unofficially in EVERY conversation, joins the conversation. “It’s really good. You should try it.”

“But,” the guy tells me, waiting for the waitress to pass before executing a perfect Lean In.

Full Disclosure: I’m an unapologetic sucker for a well-executed Lean In – when, in order to signal the presumptive sharing of a Key to the Universe – one checks one’s surroundings, leans one’s head towards one’s subject, and lowers one’s voice to beg his subject’s full attention before confiding. When one is sitting next to The Leaner at a lunch counter, it somehow carries exponentially more gravitas.

“… you gotta get it when it’s fresh.”

In the movie version of this scene, The Guy would grab my arm for emphasis and hold my gaze for a couple extra beats, before eating the rest of his meal in total silence. The IRL version goes on about 45 seconds too long.

See, the guy tells me, if it’s a slow week, and it sits for few days, the, um, ‘quality,’ suffers (in so many words). His cousin works in The Back (the behind-the-scenes Fry Guy), and lets him know when it’s fresh. “I text him before I come in – hot dog or beef? If he tells me ‘hot dog,’ I know the beef’s been in circulation for a few days.”

Me: So the day rotates is what you’re saying.

He: Exactly. You never know.

This is at once essential and completely useless information.

And why this One will never deviate from Two with Everything.

We return to our comestibles.

When our Large Fry with Gravy comes, Peter squirts a little ketchup on the rim. This is an affront to the guy to our left.

Guy: You can’t mix gravy with ketchup.

Me: I know. Separation of Church and State.

Guy: You know where that comes from?

I’m thinking we’re still talking about gravy and ketchup.

Me: I have no idea (since neither Karry nor I ketchup our gravy).

Guy goes on to elucidate, in meticulous Wikipedia-grade detail, Thomas Jefferson’s Wall of Separation Letter to the Danbury Baptist Church from 1802, in between bites of his (very fresh) roast beef sandwich.

I find this delicious.

This is why you sit at The Counter.

We polish off our LFWG, and I coax Peter into another round.

And this one comes out PERFECT … the fries a crisp golden brown. For the record, they are always good (the gravy forgives all sins), but sometimes during a lunch rush the Fry Guy plucks them from the fryer a little too soon to get them on the plate, which was the case with our first batch.  But this time … we just stare at the plate for a hot minute.

The waitress in every conversation breaks our moment of silence.

“You ever try ‘em with Red Hot?”

I’m rendered speechless by the suggestion, though my face involuntarily reacts as if she’s just proposed a mustache for the Mona Lisa.

“I know, right?” she says in response to my recoil. “That’s what I thought. But it’s really, really good.”

The second waitress Amens her colleague. “Do you like Red Hot? You should try it.”

Yes is the answer, but that’s not the point. Just like I love Sinatra and Tom Petty, I have no desire to experience them together.

Before I can raise shields, the first waitress gives me a tiny plate so I can separate church from state.

I oblige. They wait, expectant, for me to sample and affirm.

It’s fine. I try not to disappoint them, but a perfect plate of fries with gravy needs nothing but the blessing of some pepper.

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We nonetheless clean the plate, using the final few fries as gravy Zambonis. He drains his Orange Crush down to a dry slurp.

We drop our offering at the register, the tip back at the counter. He and I exchange a silent fist bump.

In this cold, gray, Saturday-morning-November moment, 884.1 miles in the making, summoned to the heart of a down downtown to sit as, and with, Regulars atop old stools to talk basketball and stuff over perfect plates of our Usuals, it’s hard not to count ourselves … Two with Everything.

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Fathers and Sons, The Road Ahead

One Mow Time …

 

I was preparing for The Big Day. Bracing myself for The Goodbye Hug. Steeling myself for The Turn and Go.

Turns out, it was the effing lawn equipment that hit me like a haymaker.

Pulled into the driveway after work on the Tuesday night, and there, arrayed in the back yard …  his motley collection of rescues, resurrections, and acquisitions … all fired up and running full throttle to drain their gas before he left for college the next morning.

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What may look to the untrained eye like a few weed whackers, mowers, trimmers and an air compressor,  registered to my emotional Jell-O as Summer’s F*cking Death Scene.

I began borrowing from the stacks of emotional resolve I’d stockpiled for the next morning.

Didn’t see him at first, until I looked over and there he was, one yard over, having pulled out our old Cub Cadet for his last Official Neighborhood Mow. Boy was all business. I met his gaze and nodded, and he returned the gesture, so solemn I had to turn away for the tear rolling down my cheek.

Hadn’t even made it into the house and I’m reaching for the total meltdown hotline, which put me in touch with its flashback division.

It connected me to a memory 15 years ago, the signal crisp as yesterday. Practically the same scene, ‘cept this time I’m mowing. It was the first time I looked over and there he was, a stout little three-year-old, a couple rows beside me. He’d pulled out the self-growling mower he’d gotten on his birthday and was putting all he had into matching my pace, his two steps to my one.

Boy was all business back then, too.

I looked over and nodded, and he returned the gesture, so solemn I had to turn away to hide my smile.

When we were done, I thanked him for his ‘help,’ and joked to Karry that I hoped he maintained his enthusiasm long enough to eventually relieve me of my duties.

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As soon as he grew tall enough for his upstretched hands to reach the top of the old Club Cadet, he began lobbying hard to take a turn. I remember Karry and I debating whether it was a good parenting decision or not, compromising on letting him tackle the flat rectangle where the flower bed starts in the back.

He put every thing he had into it – muscling a running start, locking his arms, and digging his feet into the ground until he willed it forward. When the boy sets his mind to something, he doesn’t let it go. From the first, he mowed straighter rows than me, which as Karry will tell you, isn’t saying very much.

By his second year in high school, he was handling a rotation of 3-4 neighborhood lawns, which earned him an invitation to help his aunt at her cattle farm. For his pre-driving self, that was the equivalent of making The Show. Once a teenage boy sees the world from atop a tractor, the world never looks the same.

He became as fascinated with the equipment as with the work. Soon he was poking around barns and sheds, discovering discards and broke-downs from summers past – an old mower here, an old weed whacker there. Took a shine to a years-abandoned riding mower. Drove his aunt nuts for about two weeks as he futzed with it, before reluctantly admitting what she’d known from the start: that it wasn’t worth saving. But with other stuff, he negotiated a deal with her that he could borrow whatever he could get running. We began noticing our two-car garage getting a bit crowded for the strays he’d bring home. The heart his Mom has for animals, he has for lawn gear.

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He stuffed this last high school summer full with work, fun, and yard work (a summer-work-fun trifecta). He and his buddies took on some landscaping gigs for relatives and neighbors. It gave him an excuse to root around his friends’ garages and sheds, salvaging equipment that had given up the ghost. He pulled a busted mower that had sat idle for years and brought it home to work on. Like the first time his tiny hands wrapped around the bar, he put everything he had into it. Every day that week, whenever I’d ask Karry where the boy was, the answer was, “The garage.” ‘Til I came home from work one night, and he was in the driveway blaring his music.  He skipped “Hello,” for “Watch this,” and with one pull, and a little smoke, the sonofabitch roared alive. He beamed the biggest smile walking me through what he’d found wrong and how he fixed it. I’m not sure I’d ever seen him so proud of an accomplishment. He couldn’t wait to return it to his friend and re-create the moment. When he did, they whooped and hollered so loud, the neighbors came over to make sure everything was all right.

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Eventually, I pulled myself together and made it into the house. After he finished at the neighbor’s and got cleaned up, we enjoyed a humble meal of his choosing — grilled hot dogs and onions, accompanied by foil-packed buttered potatoes, a respectful nod to scout camps’ past. We ate quietly, contentedly, on the back porch.

And much too soon for our tastes, the late summer sun dipped behind the houses across the street, calling us inside for cleanup and the final preparations for The Big Day.

As we carried dishes to the sink, the last of his weed whackers gave a final cough and ran dry in the dark back yard, yielding the evening’s soundtrack to the crickets … silencing a season 18 glorious summers in the making.

 

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