Wednesday, June 16, 2010

My Dad, My Friend, My Coach

A couple of Sundays ago, when my family gathered for one our usual dinners, Mom, Sis and me were chatting it up over coffee in the dining room when a sudden burst in giggling turned our attention to the commotion inside.

“En garde!” “Hi-yaah!” “Stand back!” “No one can mess with Bobo and Babbette!”
It was my dad, a ripped paper bag on his head, Styrofoam sword in his hand, two grandchildren on his back, a third poking him in the eye with a paper towel battle-axe and a fourth laughing hysterically at the sight of it all from his car seat.

Apparently they were having a sword fight.

“Get off of Pop-Pop,” my sister and I shouted in our best disciplinary voices, pulling children by arms and legs off of our laughing father, knowing full well our attempts at straightening out this chaos would go nowhere. After all, at Pop-Pop and MaMa’s house, anything goes.

“He told us to beat him up,” Erin answered with Vivian and Nicky nodding in agreement. “He’s Bobo the monkey, Nicky’s Babbette and we’re the good guys.”

Great, now there’s monkeys involved.

“Just no real hitting or eye poking,” my sister and I warned, shaking our heads at dad, who was now smirking and preparing himself for round two as we left the room.
“And stop giving them candy and ice cream sodas!” I yelled in one last attempt to make it look like I had some sort of authority in front of my children. “It’s making them nuts.”

I suppose it’s a grandparent’s job to buy fake weapons from the dollar section at Target for their grandchildren to play with. And I suppose it’s protocol to load them up with sugar and cookies before setting them loose on each other in the living room. I just think it’s kind of funny that the Pop-Pop who wears a bag on his head and fences with my children was one of the toughest but most respected dads around.

“Does he make you call him Mr. Jones at home too?”

I was in the sixth grade and the question came from one of the boys in my class. Dad was the boy’s varsity baseball and JV basketball coach at my grammar school and his coaching tactics were less “let’s be friends and work on fundamentals” and more “shut up, listen, or drop and give me 20.”

At one point there was a rumor circulating about how I managed roughly 200 push-ups a day for not making my bed or taking out the garbage on time. Don’t get me wrong, the kids loved him, respected him and counted on him for all kinds of life advice and guidance. But he was like that teacher who you admired from afar: You liked their class, couldn’t wait to hear what they had to teach you, but were still scared crapless by the very sight of them.

“You’re acting like a bunch of 10-year-olds,” he was heard yelling in the gym one time to a group of fifth-graders on his Tyro team who were essentially just acting their age.

“But Mr. Jones, we are 10-years-old,” Matt Bivona answered back. I think that kid is still doing push-ups over on Lisbon Place.

Over the years, he coached it all: From pee-wee girls clinic (he had step down after the first practice because the pure octave of his voice made those little kids cry) to his ten-plus-year-reign in the fifth-grade boys b-ball spot. Baseball, basketball – it never ceased to amaze me how much he actually knew about every sport.

He taught 12-year-olds how to loop the perfect hook shot, showed that one chubby kid that it was OK to shoot a foul shot between your legs and had a special plaque made up at Rab’s to commemorate the time when that tiny little bench warmer shot a half-court buzzer beater in the fourth quarter that swooshed just in time to score a win over our biggest rivals - St. Roch’s.

The chubby kid? He went on to play for Farrell. The tiny guy? I can remember finding Dad crying in the living room when he saw his obituary in the Advance a few years ago. Motorcycle accident I think.

He never forgot any of those kids and they certainly never forgot him. I was in the bank not too long ago when some six-foot-tall man approached and asked in this frighteningly deep voice: “You Mr. Jones’ daughter, right?”

I was afraid to respond.

“Uh-huh,” I said.

“Tell him Chris says hi,” he said. “He was my sixth-grade baseball coach. I learned a lot from him.”

And so did I. Yes, he taught me how to throw a curve ball. Didn’t even think that was possible in softball, but he knew how. He showed me how to fix a toilet. How to screw sheet rock and tape a wall. And of course, he did the ritual dad stuff of running behind my two-wheeler until I went sailing down the street. But it was the other stuff that he didn’t even mean to teach us that I remember most.

Like when I had to dissect a Langston Hughes poem for Mrs. Levy’s freshman English class. He sat with me for hours talking about dreams deferred and raisins in the sun. I still have no idea what that poem means, but I learned a lot about how much Pop knew about poetry. And a lot about his own dreams too.

Or when I started dating in my older teenage years. Every guy who picked me up for a movie had to ring the bell. If they beeped, I didn’t go outside. And he always slipped a $20 bill in my pocket for cab fare home – just in case “Mr. Right” turned out to be all wrong.

In my 20s, when the pressures of work invaded my sanity and I questioned every move I made for an overly critical boss, he supported my skills with a simple statement. “You went with your gut, right?” I can remember him asking. “Then the decision was right. Don’t doubt yourself.”

And seven years ago, when my mother fell ill with a serious infection and came very close to things I cannot even think about, I woke up at 3 a.m. to the vision of the perfect man, husband and father.

“Go back to bed, Jess, she’s OK,” he said as he patted her forehead with a cool washcloth and wrapped himself around her shivering, fevered body. I don’t think he slept for three months when she was in and out of the hospital. And when she finally came home for good, he treated her like a queen.

If he had to, he could knock down an entire house down and rebuild it in a week. Give him a piece of wood and he can turn it into a bouquet of flowers. Have a question about politics, geography or how to splice a home run connection into your junction box (I have no idea what any of that means, I just put a bunch of words together), he can answer it.

But he’s my Dad. And he’s a Superman. (And a Super Pop-Pop, Super Coach, Super Poem Translator and a Super Fencer with a bag on his head.) And he always will be.

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