Tag Archives: Memoirs

Doesn’t Seem Like Twenty Years

“It was twenty years ago today
Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play
They’ve been going in and out of style
But they’re guaranteed to raise a smile
So may I introduce to you…”
—Lennon and McCartney


It was twenty years ago yesterday, Mom, that you departed this world for a safer, happier, healthier place, and my world became much colder. The last shred of my boyhood innocence was gone.

kitchen-sink-bath

A Happy Mother

So much has happened over those twenty years—some good, some not so good. But I still remember the night you went away as if it happened last Sunday and not a Sunday two decades removed.

You passed easily, deservedly so. No death’s rattle for you: you simply took one last breath, and never let it out.

I grieved your loss from me then, but was happy for you that your suffering was at last at an end. Nearly a score of years battling Parkinson’s disease, a relentless foe, a battle you could not win. But in my eyes you were valiant until the very end.

I’ve kept you alive in my fiction and non-fiction, perhaps seeking a reason for your affliction, an answer to your own question: “Why me?” Perhaps one day I’ll find it. Maybe, having become a writer, I already have.

It’s been said that our lives are made up of a series of rooms. If that’s so then I was blessed to share a room with you for a time far too short.

I miss you, Mom, and I will until my memory abandons me or I take my own final breath. I hope you’ll be waiting for me—your little boy.

Until then, to “she who bears the sweetest name, and adds a luster to the same; long life to her, for there’s no other who takes the place of my dear mother.”

destined-to-become-my-mother

Sweet Sixteen: Destined to Become My Mother

 

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Home is Where You Lay Your Head at Night

Circumstances today led me to a town to which I hadn’t been in nearly thirty years.

Lapeer is a tiny municipality in the lower portion of Michigan’s thumb. Think a northern Mayberry, RFD. During the final two years of my first marriage I drove each morning from Pontiac, about thirty miles south of Lapeer, to do the morning show at the AM radio station in Lapeer.

The station, call letters WDEY, was run by a guy named David Sommerville, a forty-something high-strung guy who suffered from Crohn’s disease. Bought a cat as a sort of station mascot that I loved to torment after the overnight DJ left and before the receptionist (Diane) and sales staff (one woman named Donna) arrived. Don’t ask me how I remember all that. All I know is I remember it, although I can’t recall what I had for lunch last Thursday.

My mission this day was to see if one really could go home again.

I had little trouble locating the historic district downtown. A beautiful church—more than a century old—was right where I’d left it; as was the post office, although a new one had since opened down the street. The old one is now a historical landmark.

Immaculate Conception

Immaculate Conception Church

A few blocks straight ahead, on the left, the facades of the buildings looked similar to what I recalled, but somehow different. The five and dime under which the radio station sat atop, was no longer a five and dime, and although the shortwave radio antenna still sat on the roof of the building, no evidence of the radio station existed.

Downtown Lapeer

Historic Downtown Lapeer

Other landmarks I recalled from my days as the morning show host—E.G. Nicks for example, a bar and grille for which I’d done plenty of ads, was still there. But Lapeer Tire had become Belle Tire. The car dealership was still there, but I couldn’t recall the name it had been, only that it wasn’t what it is today.

From Lapeer I took Michigan Highway 24 south to Pontiac—the route I took daily when I worked the morning gig at WDEY. My show started at six and I liked to arrive at least twenty minutes early to get a coffee and prepare for my show.

I recall one morning drive north on this mostly two-lane highway, with occasional stretches of four lanes through Lake Orion (where there is a Ford plant) and Oxford. It was dark and a motorist behind me was hot to get me driving faster than the five miles per hour over the limit I was driving. Traffic coming southbound was brisk—UAW employees on their way to the morning shift at the Ford plant.

This guy was right on my bumper, weaving from side to side in our lane, flashing his high beams at me in an effort to get me to go faster. Of course I only slowed which, for some reason, seemed to incense this motorist.

Noticing some debris ahead in our lane, I managed to drive over it without hitting it. Not so the guy I had in tow. A few seconds later he pulled off onto the shoulder of the road with what I guessed was a flat tire. I laughed my ass off at that, and devoted more than a few minutes discussing it on the air. It never occurred to me that the guy might listen to my show.

On a whim, as I neared Pontiac, I decided to drive by where I once lived with my then wife, a tiny mobile home park on M-59 and Elizabeth Lake Road in Waterford. It was so tiny they couldn’t accommodate double-wide homes. I had visions that it had been razed at some point over the years to make room for a strip mall or a McDonald’s. I wondered if I would be disappointed to find another part of my life erased forever. Imagine my surprise when I found the park still existed.

I pulled into the driveway wondering if the old home might still be there, but I couldn’t recall the street name. As luck had it, the first street to which I came was Marge, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. A name I’d used in my very first novel written nearly twenty-five years ago, “Large Marge” was a security guard who played a bit but humorous part in January’s Paradigm.

I wheeled my car to the right—the only way I could turn. There, not thirty feet from the intersection, a dark gray home.

No, I thought. That can’t be it.

Then I noticed the address, painted on a rock next to the driveway: “16”. A second ton of bricks hit me: Sixteen Marge was the address on my license for the short time I lived there, before my first wife and I parted company.

I slowed to a stop in front of the place; it had bay windows on the end of the house facing the street. Our home had bay windows like that. I used to sit at my kitchen table on Sunday morning sipping my coffee and staring out that bay window at the house across the street, contemplating my marriage and my unhappiness.

This aged home fit well in this old park, better than it had more than thirty years ago when it was delivered, brand spanking new with that new mobile home smell. I left the park for home through the only other entrance wondering how many families had lived there over the years since I moved out.

As I drove home to Dearborn, nearly twenty miles further south, my thoughts drifted to all the homes in which I’ve lived over the years. Excluding the house in which I grew up, I’ve lived in six, and only one, the current home, was a brick and mortar house. The others were a mobile home and apartments.

All of which left me to conclude that one’s efforts to go home can never quite get you there—except the one in which you currently lay your head. My current home, which I share with my wife, Colleen, is the best.

GCW1001

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Bottom of the Ninth, Two Outs

This first appeared online at Cezzane’s Carrot, in 2006.

September 1968: The Yankees are in town for a weekend series, it’s late in the game and the Tigers are comfortably ahead with Denny McLain on the mound. The Tigers are destined to win the World Series next month. McLain will win 31 games, a Major League record, but Mickey Lolich will win the Series MVP award.

Old Tiger Stadium in Detroit, before they tore her down

Old Tiger Stadium in Detroit, before they tore her down

I’m eleven years old and sitting alongside my dad behind first base at old Tiger Stadium—at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull in Detroit—when Mickey Mantle steps up to the plate.

Beyond the twilight of his career, he’s in that crepuscular place reserved for athletes who have overstayed their welcome in a game in which, at some point, experience no longer counts. He’s lost his timing, along with much of his grace, and he routinely swings wildly and misses pitches that, a few years earlier, he would have sent into orbit.

McLain looks in to Jim Price for the sign. He shakes off the first, as well as the second. Then he leans back, steps off the rubber, and holds up the ball for Mantle to see, seeming to ask Mickey where he’d like the pitch. The crowd, which has grown complacent with the home team’s lead, senses something is up. Mantle gamely swings his bat—arcing gracefully through his wheelhouse—to indicate where McLain should leave the ball for him. McLain nods, goes into his wind-up… and bloops the ball right where Mickey wants it, and Mickey fouls off the pitch.

McLain looks at Mantle as if to ask, “What do you want from me?”

McLain lobs the next pitch in the same place and Mantle launches the ball into the right-field bleachers. The crowd erupts.

Mantle has certainly hit longer and more important home runs, but the crowd perhaps has seen the writing on the wall, although they may not yet have read the text: this is Mantle’s final appearance at Tiger Stadium, and the home run will count as the next-to-last round-tripper in his, if not long, then illustrious career. Mantle will retire from baseball the following spring.

I’m retired myself now, Mantle has been long dead, succumbing to a bad liver nearly three years before my dad died, in 1998, and the Tigers have been playing in Comerica Park for thirty years, having abandoned Tiger Stadium at the end of the 1999 season. Several times over the years, the City of Detroit nearly tore down this landmark where the likes of Cobb, Gehringer, and Kaline all played, before finally renovating the old structure to allow minor league baseball to be played on its hallowed ground.

I’m standing on the pitcher’s mound at Tiger Stadium; it’s taken me seventy-four years to make this dream come true. I’m not clad in traditional baseball garb, nor am I grasping a baseball by its seams. I glance down at the plastic bag in my right hand. As the early June light wanes, my mind flashes back to 1998, to just a few days after Dad passed away, to a ringing telephone.

“Michael, it’s your sister.”

“What’s up?”

“I was over to the VA yesterday to fill out the paperwork for Dad’s death benefit. Did you know that as a veteran, he’s eligible for burial at Fort Custer National Cemetery near Battle Creek?”

“That’s not in line with his last wishes.”

She seemed not to have heard me. “He spent half his life in the Marine Corps; they’ll have a ceremony with a twenty-one-gun salute, and I think he’d be really thrilled to be buried there.”

“Will they take Mom, too?” I asked. Mom preceded Dad by eleven months. Having an aversion to being stared at in a coffin, she insisted on cremation. Dad, diagnosed with terminal cancer a few weeks before Mom passed away, also expressed a desire for cremation, telling my sister and me to expense the cost out of the estate after his death and purchase a niche in the mausoleum at St. Hedwig Cemetery. While we waited for Dad to pass, I kept Mom’s remains, in an urn, at my place.

“Well, yes, they’ll take Mom, too, but honestly, I can’t in good conscience inter her at a military facility. I don’t think she’d want that.” She seemed certain she knew what Mom and Dad both wanted, despite the fact that, to my knowledge, Mom never expressed a wish to be laid apart from her husband, and Dad overtly expressed his last wish to be interred with his wife.

“So what will you do with her remains?” I asked.

“I’m having her interred with Grandma and Grandpa at White Chapel.”

“I see.” What I saw was my sister making a yearly sojourn to White Chapel to visit Mom and our grandparents, and afterward, girlfriends in tow, making a day of it having lunch and shopping at Somerset Mall.

I wondered why she wanted me to accede to this change of venue. As executor, she was free to do as she pleased; then it hit me: If anyone in the family questioned her decision to part Mom and Dad, she could say, “My brother and I decided…”

“What do you, say?” she said. “Dad spent half his life as a Marine—”

“First,” I said, “Dad spent eight years in the Marines and was married forty-three years to Mom. Eight years is but a tenth of his life; forty-three years, by my reckoning, is more than half.”

Silence.

“Second, he expressed his wishes to be laid to rest at St. Hedwig along with Mom.” I was angry, but I wasn’t sure why.

“Well,” said the voice in my ear, “I’d hoped to have your consent in this, but as executor, I really don’t need it.”

“No, I suppose you don’t.” I hung up.

For the remainder of the day, I wrestled over what to do. Did it matter any longer to Dad, or Mom, where they were laid to rest? They certainly must be beyond caring, and hopefully, in death, they had reconciled their many differences.

In my youth, when I needed him most, Dad had been absent, and so we hadn’t been close my whole life, until that final year, after Mom had gone, when he needed me most. Was I really championing Dad’s last wishes, or merely arguing against my sister, tired of her having her own way? What did it matter to my sister, who was close to neither of our parents? Perhaps she chose to blame Dad for our mother’s illness. Eighteen years battling Parkinson’s. Had it been genetic or brought on by depression, the result of her husband’s oppression and a failure to achieve any of her own dreams?

The next morning I awoke with a start, as well as a solution. My sister had her own aversion—she couldn’t stand the thought of having the remains of our parents in her home. I had held onto Mom’s urn until Dad passed away, then picked up his urn from the funeral home and kept them both at my place. After his memorial service, my sister would take custody, interring Mom at White Chapel, Dad at Fort Custer.

The solution was simple: I opened both urns and combined their contents in a much larger bag, then returned to each urn half the contents of the bag.

The plastic bag in my right hand as I stand atop the pitcher’s mound contains a small portion of both my mother’s and father’s remains, which I kept in a small nondescript container after I sent their urns off with my sister more than thirty years ago. I never told her, and she went to her grave a few years ago, happy that she’d succeeded in granting Mom the divorce she never received while alive. Now, with my own days growing short, I wonder if I did right—both assuring that Mom and Dad rest together, albeit at two different cemeteries, and not telling my sister what I’d done.

Dad loved Mom, of that I’m certain. He showed it as best he could, taking care of her during her long illness; but perhaps he feared love, or the risk associated with it. Through his example, I, too, learned to fear intimacy. An excuse, for lessons learned can be unlearned. We make our choices, are responsible for our own happiness.

“I’m sorry, Dad,” I whisper into the growing darkness at Tiger Stadium, “for laying so much blame on you for so long.”

During his final year of life, I asked him if he had any regrets. He laughed cynically and said, “Many. Every man does.” He said it as if he took comfort in being part of the crowd, which was strange. A devotee of Gary Cooper and John Wayne, Dad had always prided himself as a loner. I couldn’t know then anymore than I do now whether I was one of his regrets—through my birth, that I didn’t follow in his footsteps by joining the Marine Corps, or that he failed in being more nurturing to me when I was a boy.

The sun dips behind the grandstands that line the third-base line, and I feel a chill, more the result of poor circulation than an atypical late spring evening. I set the plastic bag down on the pitcher’s rubber, reach into my breast pocket for an Onyx Vintage ’97—I purchased a box back in ’99 and kept just this one, waiting for a special occasion. I guess this moment qualifies.

I inhale the fragrance of the wrapper, hold it a moment, exhale, clip its end, light it, and take a long, satisfying drag. I let the smoke warm the back of my palate, and a moment later I exhaust it with a long sigh. I discovered the pleasure of cigar smoking two years too late. I’m convinced that this custom is something Dad and I could’ve enjoyed together. I envision us sharing a smoke on a Saturday afternoon over a couple of glasses of bourbon or scotch as we listen to Ernie Harwell call a Tigers game.

Baseball was my first love. As a kid, I dreamed of roaming right field, as Al Kaline had during his illustrious career, making spectacular catches to the delight of the cheering home crowd, of hitting the ball all over the field, of setting records, and of winning the World Series.

But it never happened. None of it.

I never discovered if I had the arm to play right field, or if I’d be able to hit Major League pitching. Both Mom and Dad had discouraged me, fearing I’d get hurt, advising me that Major League Baseball was for only a privileged few, and that I was sure to fail. Despite Dad’s adage that there is no failure in failing, only failure in failing to try, I learned to avoid risk. Today I’m a more tightly wound imbroglio of indecision than I ever was in youth.

I look over to the grandstand behind the first-base dugout. Somewhere in that sea of blue are the two seats from which Dad and I watched, nearly sixty-three years ago, Denny McLain serve up the pitch that Mickey Mantle deposited into the right-field seats. I pick up the plastic bag and whisper, “Did you remember that day, Dad? I wanted to ask you, during those final few days at hospice, whether you remembered, but I feared that you’d forgotten what was for me such a memorable event.”

I’m startled by the sound of Dad’s snort, no doubt heard through the passage of time, for it certainly had not come from the plastic bag.

“He should be fined, maybe even suspended,” Dad tells the eleven-year-old boy I once was.

“Why?” I ask with all the innocence of youth.

“He’s paid to get Yankees out,” he tells me angrily; in my youthful naiveté I’m not certain his anger isn’t directed at me for asking such a silly question. “He’s paid to get opposing players out, not serve up pitches for them to drive out of the park.”

I realized, years later, after Mantle died, that Dad had known more about Mantle’s off-the-field behavior and drinking habits than I did when I was eleven, and that perhaps played a part in his reaction that long-ago afternoon.

I sigh and look toward home plate, where the likes of Lance Parish, Bill Freehan, and Mickey Cochrane once caught baseballs for Jack Morris, Denny McLain, and Elden Auker (the latter long before I was born).

I slowly turn to look toward third base, where Hall-of-Famer George Kell once played, setting a Major League record, in 1950, for fewest errors committed by a third baseman in a season, which stood for twenty-four years; to left field, where Willie Horton played, uniting a city torn apart by race riots in 1967; to shortstop, where Alan Trammell paired with Lou Whitaker as one of the premier keystone combinations for more than fifteen years, highlighted by a 1984 World Championship and that incredible 35-5 start; beyond second base toward center field, where Cobb, the most famous Tiger and the greatest ballplayer of all time, once roamed (I read a biography that described him as relentless, sliding into any base, spikes up, and climbing into the stands behind the dugout to brawl with fans, retiring to manage for a time before fading away, dying friendless, having turned even his own children against him); to right field where Kaline, my boyhood idol, played for twenty years; finally, to first base, where, in 1934 on Yom Kippur, Hammerin’ Hank Greenburg chose not to play, prompting Edgar Guest to write in the Detroit Free Press:

We shall miss him on the field
and we shall miss him at the bat
But he’s true to his religion
and I honor him for that!

First base, where Stormin’ Norman Cash played. A member of those World Series Champions of ’68, Cash would die tragically several years after retiring, falling off a pier in northern Michigan while drunk, to drown.

It’s nearly dark; no lights will be turned on for this night game. I take a long, last drag on my Onyx Vintage, wondering how it could’ve burned down so quickly, and cast it away.

I look around this grand old place that even in silence boasts of so much history—from the first game played in 1912, just five days after the sinking of the Titanic, to Babe Ruth’s seven-hundredth round tripper on July 13, 1934; to Reggie Jackson’s rooftop shot to right field during the 1971 All-Star Game, and others that left the park altogether; to six World Series Championships…

I step onto the rubber and, facing center field, turn the plastic bag upside down to empty its contents onto the back third of the mound.

I recall another ballgame Dad and I attended, this one in 1976, in which Mark Fidrych pitched. Fidrych was affectionately dubbed The Bird for his Big Bird-like hair and mound antics, which included talking to the baseball between pitches and getting down on his hands and knees to manicure the dirt between innings. I smile at the memory and, with effort and a grunt—a sound I often playfully chastised Dad for making when getting up from his La-Z-Boy (he took my sport with grace, no doubt fully aware of what lay in store for me)—get down on my hands and knees to blend the ashes with the dirt.

A few moments later, I struggle, gasping, to my feet, greeted by the familiar dizziness that comes to one taking meds to control high blood pressure.

Regrets. I have my fair share of them: lost loves, missed opportunities, and unfulfilled dreams. But this isn’t one of them. Not today. And not thirty years ago. Tiger Stadium is Tiger Stadium, no matter that Major League Baseball is no longer played here. Somehow it seems fitting that I lay to rest the remains of Mom and Dad here: Dad for passing on to me, if not his love, then his love for the game; and Mom for understanding, if too late, the importance of dreams.

I slow-turn my way around the pitcher’s mound one last time, taking in the majesty of this grand old ballpark—“Tiger Stadium,” I hear Ernie Harwell say in his unforgettable southern drawl. I wave to an imaginary crowd, imagine them cheering my performance tonight, then step off the mound and hobble toward the dugout.

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Classic Dad

Dad wasn’t always a “classic dad” to me. A retired marine drill instructor, he was often hard on me and not very nurturing. As a young man, I had my differences with Dad; but we were always able to set them aside to share a shot of bourbon and a beer while we listened to or watched a ballgame. It wasn’t until the final year of his life, after he’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer, that we finally connected. We nurtured each other during that final year, and the student I always was became the teacher in ways I wouldn’t have dreamed possible, and I helped him find healing and peace as he, with eloquence, prepared for death.

Although he didn’t share much of his battle experiences—he fought on Okinawa, where some of the bloodiest fighting took place—he unloaded some of his pain and regrets he’d carried all his life, and I understood a little better why he was the way he was.

Today I have fond memories of Dad teaching me to drive a stick shift, to shave, and to tie a Windsor knot.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I miss you and carry you with me every day. I hope I continue to make you proud, even as I’m sure I disappoint you from time to time.

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Tigers Sweep Yanks in ALCS

The brooms were out at Comerica Park yesterday as the 2012 Detroit Tigers swept the New York Yankees out of town in the American League Championship Series. Detroit faces the winner of the St. Louis-San Francisco NLCS, to be determined tonight or over the next few days.

Yankee players were humbled, their bats silenced by Detroit pitching that game up six runs in four games. The Yanks, by the way, scored the second most runs in MLB during the regular season. Yankee fans, on the other hand, were humiliated and left scratching their heads—three times in the last six years their team has been eliminated from the postseason by the Tigers.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi was left to wonder aloud, during his post-game interview, what they had to do to improve next season, including himself, to ensure this doesn’t happen again. It was almost as if he couldn’t bring himself to credit Detroit for playing a helluva series, for wanting it more.

Max Scherzer pitched no-hit baseball into the sixth inning—the only Yankee to reach base up until then was by way of error. Phil Coke was stellar, again, in relief, as Jose Valverde, after his performance in game two in New York in which he blew the save and was saved from further embarrassment by the Detroit bats coming alive to win the game in the twelfth inning, once again rode the splinters.

Delmon Young, who was booed much of the season for his inconsistency, got hot at the right time and won series MVP in becoming the first man in MLB to get the game winning hit in all four games.

Even though triple crown winner Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder were relatively quiet (but not silent), other players stepped it up: Jhonny Peralta hit two big flies yesterday. Austin Jackson did his part with both bat and glove, as did Quinton Berry and Omar Infante. Offense is usually difficult to come by in the postseason, but Detroit got it done yesterday in a big way: four big flies, 16 hits and eight runs.

A series for the ages when you look at the numbers: the New York Yankees, as a team, were held to just above a .150 batting average. They looked to be boys playing against men. Quite simply, the Yanks stank. Swisher sat against Verlander. Cano didn’t get his first hit in the series until game three. Axle-Rod was pinch hit for and rode the bench, signing a baseball from the dugout for a young woman and getting a phone number in return.

Colleen and I attended Tuesday night’s game, the first at Comerica Park for the ALCS. It was damp and chilly, and there was a threat of rain; but the atmosphere was electric. Justin Verlander was pitching for the good guys, and when JV pitches, good things often result.

You’ve heard the expression “Must see TV,” in reference to your favorite prime time drama? In Detroit, during the baseball season, we do it a little differently. When Verlander takes the mound, Comerica Park sells out to SRO crowds. Fewer lawns are mowed than on any other day of the week, and people stop at their favorite watering hole on their way home from work to watch JV work his magic with a baseball. It’s called “Must see JV.”

When Verlander pitches, there’s always the possibility of seeing something great. He’s already pitched two no-hitters in his young career, and the last few years he’s been at the top of the league in innings pitched and most strikeouts. Last year he won League MVP and the Cy Young.

But he has been human in the postseason, simply because he is his own worst enemy. During the regular season he pitches to hitters’ weaknesses, watches them to see what they’re looking for; but in the postseason he tends to amp it up, wants to get hitters out with what he wants to throw—usually that 100 mph fastball he features—instead of setting up hitters and letting his defense play behind him.

Which Verlander would show up for game 3? Colleen and I were about to find out.

After Detroiter Jeff Daniels sang the National Anthem—accompanying himself on acoustic guitar—a not so memorable rendition but a vast improvement over Jose Feliciano’s interpretation at game 5 of the 1968 World Series at venerable Tiger Stadium, Verlander took the mound to a thundering ovation. We wanted to let him know he wasn’t alone out there, that we were behind him 100%.

Opposing hitters know the importance of hitting a pitcher early, before he settles in, and it’s no different with Verlander. He sometimes gets hit around in the first inning; but Tuesday night he was awesome, taking but ten pitches to retire the side, and Colleen and I hoped it was a precursor for a complete game performance.

Verlander was perfect through three innings and allowed only one run on three hits over 8 1/3 innings. The Yankees were forced to go to their bullpen in the fourth when Phil Hughes exited with a stiff back, but not before he gave up a solo homerun to Delmon Young. Detroit would add another in the fifth frame.

Colleen and I had a grand time, sipping beers, eating a hotdog and keeping each other warm as the temperature dropped to under 50 for a few minutes before heating up again to 51 for the last couple innings, even as a drizzle began to fall, and stopped only to start up again.

The crowd was boisterous but not mean—no Detroit fan is ever mean when the Tigers are ahead, despite what Tom Monahan once said about Tigers fans. A brief political disagreement broke out between two fans—one a row in front of us and the other across the aisle—but I put a stop to it before it got too heated, calling out, “Leave your politics at home, this is a ballgame!” and received a short cheer. Baseball and politics don’t mix.

Late in the game, after a Yankee hitter fouled off a Verlander heater, I called down to the Yankees’ dugout—yeah, like Joe Girardi could hear me—”Hey, Joe, maybe you want to call for an instant replay review on that one!” That earned me a fist bump from the young man seated in front of us. He, too, recalled Girardi’s comments in the aftermath of game two concerning the missed call at second base, when Infante, clearly out, was called safe. In his post-game comments, Girardi suggested MLB implement instant replay. But a couple years ago, when the Twins were burned in the ALDS against the Yankees by a bogus call, Girardi was quoted, “I like the way it is now.” The grass is browner on the other side, eh, Joe?

Eduardo Nunez led off the Yankee ninth with a solo homerun—the first run given up by a Detroit starting pitcher in 37 2/3 innings. Leyland came out to ask Verlander if he could get one more out. Verlander told him, “Yeah.” And I imagined Leyland’s reply: “Well then why did you make me come all the way out here to ask?”

Leyland later said, “Normally, I guess you don’t take Secretariat out in the final furlong, but that was pretty much it for him.”

Box score on Verlander: 132 pitches, one run, three hits. Yeah, must see JV.

One out later, Detroit manger, Jim Leyland, brought in Phil Coke to get the final two outs and the Tigers were within one game of clinching their eleventh appearance in the Fall Classic.

A high-five, a hug and a kiss from Colleen, a second fist bump from the guy in front of us, and Colleen and I were on our way home, thinking sweep and wondering who Detroit would meet in the World Series.

Early prediction: Detroit-St. Louis, with Detroit winning in five games.

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What We Bargain For

Earlier this week I bought a pewter whiskey flask. I didn’t really need one (who really does?), but I’ve long wanted one, so when I saw one I liked at my favorite tobacconist I laid down my coin and left with it.

Today I took it to the mall to have it engraved with my initials so that when I go out with it I can announce to the world that it is indeed mine. Not that anyone really knows who I am. I left it for an hour at Things Remembered, got a coffee at the Starbucks kiosk and did a little window shopping, eventually parking my backside on a sofa in the mall to rest my dogs and people watch.

I’ve always been naturally inquisitive; shortly before my father passed away he told me that as a tot I could’ve been the poster child for a “But Why?” campaign. As a writer, I’ve parlayed that inquisitiveness with a talent for observation.

It wasn’t long before an interesting couple strolled past me. The woman may have been in her late twenties, her mate (with a thinning pate) in his early thirties. The woman pushed a stroller with an infant and had two toddlers to her right, while her husband held the hand of a fourth toddler. What first struck me was that he trailed his stroller pushing wife by three steps. Then I was struck by how tired this couple looked, although the woman bore a mien of contentment. By contrast, her husband looked, at best, overwhelmed, at worst, trapped by the responsibility of this brood, all under the age of six.

I wondered, amused for a moment, that the woman might’ve been fertile to a flaw—that she might become pregnant at the very thought of communing with her husband in love’s ultimate act. Then I wondered if either or both of them had gotten what they’d bargained for when they’d exchanged “I dos” at the altar. All of which left me to consider whether I’d gotten everything for which I’d ever bargained in my life.

At fifty-three, I have much for which to be thankful: good health, a job in a struggling economy, heat, hot water, food on my table, a roof over my head, and enough money to occasionally buy something frivolous. One of my novels was also recently published and I’m expecting to receive my first royalty shortly. I’m happily immersed in another novel (my fifth), and I never seem at a loss for something about which to write, whether a novel, short fiction, an op-ed piece, sports or a memoir.

On the downside, I’m divorced, have no children, have had my heart broken more than once, and have inflicted upon a woman the same. Two lessons I’ve learned the result of these past relationships: one, that whatever lessons I learned from my own broken heart don’t apply to the next relationship; and two, that it feels no better being the dumper than it does being the dumpee. In other words, it feels no better to wrong another than it does being wronged.

So now I sit here, alone on a Saturday night smoking a good cigar and sipping Japanese whiskey—I’ll try anything once and this is one whiskey I’ll try only once—typing these words. As a writer, I’m constantly, as Robert Lamm wrote in 25 or 6 to 4, searching for something to say. Lamm’s lyrics are often misunderstood as being about drug use when in fact they are about a songwriter’s frustrations. They are lyrics to which I certainly can relate. But I’m also searching for other things: love and acceptance, the meaning of life, peace of mind, and spiritual awareness. I’m wise enough to understand that finding love risks another broken heart; while learning the meaning of life and achieving peace of mind and discovering spiritual awareness may come at the cost of my hunger for arranging words on a white screen.

I left the mall with my newly engraved whiskey flask wondering if I’d gotten what I’d bargained for in my life. I know one woman who would say I’ve gotten what I deserve. Certainly I’ve earned what I have—both the good as well as the not so good. But do any of us ever get that for which we bargain or deserve? The truth is good things happen to bad people just as bad things happen to good people. Why should I be any different?

Life is a journey, not a destination; although at my life’s end I hope for a gentle goodbye and that my regrets won’t outweigh the good I’ve left behind.

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Graves Duty

This originally appeared in the fall 2005 issue of River Walk Journal.

 ℘

“I’ve learned that regardless of your relationship with your parents, you’ll miss them when they’re gone from your life.” —Maya Angelou

I visit my dad twice a year. On this particular early May morning the sky is cloudless, the air crisp; the grass is bejeweled with dew. Leaning against the side of my truck, I clip the end of an Onyx Vintage ’97 and light it, taking a long, satisfying drag. I let the smoke warm the back of my palate, and a moment later I exhaust it with a long sigh. I discovered the pleasure of cigar smoking two years too late. I’ve convinced myself that this custom is something my dad and I could’ve enjoyed together.

I don’t need to come here, to Fort Custer National Cemetery, to visit Dad. Most people forgo visiting their loved ones in the cemetery two years after relegating them to their final resting place. My dad has been gone from me for a little more than seven years, but coming here a couple times a year somehow just feels right. I also suspect we have unfinished business between us.

I envision us sharing a smoke on a Saturday afternoon over a couple of glasses of bourbon or scotch as we listen to Ernie Harwell call a Tigers game. We had our differences, Dad and I, but whatever they were we could always put them aside for a couple of hours for the enjoyment of a baseball game.

One of my fondest memories is sitting alongside my dad, behind first base at Tiger Stadium. The year is 1968, it’s September and the Bengals are destined to go on to win the World Series the following month. Denny McLain would win thirty-one games that season, but it would be Mickey Lolich who would win the Series MVP award.

Earlier that summer, Dad had come home one evening after work and slipped into my hand a brown piece of paper haphazardly torn from a grocery bag. I turned it over and saw some markings. Puzzled, I looked closer. I turned the scrap ninety degrees, then ninety more: the first set of markings soon turned into a word, a moment later the word became a name. When I recognized the first name I didn’t have to puzzle over the second—“Bill Freehan!” I exclaimed, overjoyed. It was that famous Freehan trot I always emulated after drawing a walk and making my way down to first base during our neighborhood baseball games.

“I ran into him in a grocery store this afternoon,” Dad told me, matter of fact.

I was thrilled, not only by the treasure, but because Dad chose to give it to me instead of keeping it for himself—I was touched by his selflessness. Today I’m ashamed to admit that I can’t recall what became of that scrap of, to me, priceless grocery bag.

The Yankees were in town for a weekend series, it was late in the game with the Tigers comfortably ahead and McLain was on the mound. Mantle stepped up to the plate. Beyond the twilight of his career, he was in that crepuscular place reserved for athletes who have overstayed their welcome in a game in which, at some point, experience no longer counts. He’d lost his timing, along with much of his grace, and he routinely swung wildly and missed pitches that, a few years earlier, he would have sent into orbit.

McLain looks in to Jim Price for the sign. He shakes off the first, as well as the second. Then he leans back, steps off the rubber, and holds up the ball for Mantle to see, seeming to ask Mickey where he’d like the pitch.

The crowd, which has grown complacent with the home team’s lead, senses something is up. Mantle gamely swings his bat—arcing gracefully through his wheelhouse—to indicate where McLain should leave the ball for him. McLain nods, goes into his wind-up… bloops the ball right where Mickey wants it, and Mickey fouls off the pitch.

McLain looks at Mantle as if to ask, “What do you want from me?”

McLain lobs the next pitch in the same place and Mantle launches the ball into the right-field bleachers. The crowd erupts.

Mantle had certainly hit longer and more important home runs, but the crowd perhaps had seen the writing on the wall, although they may not yet have read the text: this was Mantle’s final appearance at Tiger Stadium, and the home run counted as the next to last round-tripper in his if not long but illustrious career. Mantle retired from baseball the following spring.

Beside me, Dad snorted his disgust. To him McLain committed the ultimate sin in baseball, or in any sport: allowing the opposition to score. Perhaps he recalled all too well the Black Sox scandal, thirty-nine years before I was born, in which eight Chicago White Sox players, Shoeless Joe Jackson among them, were found guilty of conspiring to throw the 1917 World Series. Although he was only a year old at the time it happened, the story reverberated throughout the baseball fraternity for decades.

Years later, after Mantle died the result of a bad liver, I realized Dad knew more about Mantle’s off the field behavior and drinking habits than I did when I was 11, and that that perhaps played a part in his reaction that long ago afternoon.

I push myself away from the side of my truck and slowly make my way up the small knoll toward my dad’s marker. I’m thinking about that day at Tiger Stadium, the images undimmed by the passage of thirty-five years, and I regret not having relived the experience with Dad that final year of his life. In retrospect I think I feared that, had I asked him if he recalled what was for me such a memorable experience, he might say “No.”

I feel emptiness and a pain in my chest. I suspect the pain comes from not having more such fond memories, and wishing I had fewer memories of a childhood in which Dad often seemed a ghost, except as a disciplinarian.

I was six or seven years old when I took a spill from a bike that didn’t belong to me. It was too big for me and I was riding too fast and lost control. I landed hard, the bike on top of me, and promptly burst into tears. Dad, who’d watched the entire proceeding from a lounge chair on our porch, crossed the street in no great hurry. Perhaps he already knew what hadn’t yet occurred to me: that I was crying more from having given myself a good scare than from being hurt, although I’d banged my ankle pretty hard.

He carried me back across the street and, once he’d determined I suffered no real damage, scolded me for being on a bike that I hadn’t yet grown into and for being so reckless. The lesson I came away with was to avoid risk.

I kneel at the slab of marble that marks my dad’s existence and brush away a few dried grass clippings:

James C Guest

SSgt US Marine Corps

World War II

Oct 29, 1918 — Feb 10, 1998

FtCusterPlaque

Dad served in the Pacific arena and saw action on Okinawa, where some of the bloodiest fighting of the war took place. Dad had been retired from the Marines several years before he met and married my mother—“I was smitten,” Dad related to me once shortly after Mom passed away. “She was the first woman I’d ever met who not only knew but had read…” I curse myself for not being able to recall the name of the author he mentioned: another element of his life has passed from existence forever.

Growing up I knew little of his wartime experiences. In youth we believe that little of what happened before we got here is of much importance. Still I learned, the hard way, that Dad was not an ex-Marine or a former Marine. He was a retired Marine. I learned that the Marines are a far more elite group of this country’s armed forces than is the Army.

Dad kept in touch with a select few of his comrades, most of whom to me were merely names he mentioned from time to time, save one—Sgt. Major Bean. Bean I met several times before he passed away the result of having acquired the HIV virus from tainted blood he’d been given during heart bypass surgery. I was eighteen the last time I saw Bean. I had already reached my adult height but still skinny; Bean looked at me approvingly before looking over to my dad and exclaiming, “God, Jim, he’s a good-looking kid. We’ll make a Marine out of him, eh?” He promptly looked back at me and asked, “Do you like to kill?” I managed to stammer that the only things I’d ever killed were mosquitoes and that while I couldn’t say with any degree of certitude I enjoyed it, I enjoyed a certain gratification in succeeding with my first strike initiatives.

Dad never talked to me about joining the service. He never explained to me what I might be missing by forgoing a tour of duty during peacetime—the camaraderie, the male bonding. Years later, when I asked him why he never advised me, he merely said he thought I should live my own life and make my own decisions. I realized much later that I couldn’t have made an informed decision without the information he had withheld from me. I was angry but kept my disappointment to myself.

I recall standing next to Dad at the foot of the Marine Corps Memorial in Washington D.C. during one of the many Marine Corps reunions he attended. It was the summer of 1966. Earlier in the day, on a bus ride to the Marine Corps base in Quantico to attend an artillery demonstration, Dad introduced me to General Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller, the most decorated Marine in history. I heard the reverence in Dad’s voice as he introduced me to this small and wiry man who, to me, seemed ancient. The best part of his life was obviously behind him, but he seemed an important personage to my dad, so I tried to hold him in some higher esteem.

That evening, at the foot of the memorial, as I looked at the names of battles during which Marines lost their lives etched into the pedestal, many which I couldn’t pronounce, I heard my dad hiccough. I looked up at him and saw tears coursing down his cheeks. It was the first time I’d ever seen my dad cry. It would be many years before I understood the why behind the tears.

I asked my dad twice—once when I was a kid and again during the last year of his life, when I was forty-one—to share with me some of his overseas experiences. The second time I’d hoped to come away with a greater understanding of why he was the way he was, and that perhaps, in sharing, he might experience a sort of healing. Each time I asked him, he refused. Whatever he did on Okinawa, whatever he saw, whatever he endured, he took with him when he died.

I learned more about the Marine that was my dad, after his death, from an older cousin who recalls Grandma reading a letter that her Uncle Jim had written on the back of a dead Marine, and that for years he couldn’t stand the sight of ketchup on the kitchen table. My cousin relates her favorite uncle’s homecoming: “He was tall and looked so handsome in his uniform. He dropped his duffel bag on the landing and I squealed, ‘Uncle Jim, tell me some stories about the war!’ He looked at me and his smile disappeared and he told me very sternly that I was never to ask him about the war.”

Dad related to me, a few months before his death, a different, very abridged account of his homecoming: “I always felt cheated,” he said holding back his emotion, “because the family moved while I was overseas and I never felt the satisfaction of coming home.”

Dad’s footlocker now serves as a coffee table in my house. Inside it are many treasures he left me, some which I’d never seen while he was alive. A black and white photograph depicting Dad as a young, handsome Marine in his dress blues sits next to the flag I was presented after his death.

I display in my living room the saber he took from a Japanese soldier he left no longer in need of it, along with some photographs of John Wayne and Robert Ryan on location during filming of Flying Leathernecks. Dad sheepishly tells the story of his celebrity encounter: “They were rehearsing for a scene and the question came up whether the correct term was ‘graves duty’ or ‘grave duty.’” Graves duty meant retrieving the remains of dead Marines after a fire fight. “Wayne looks at me and says, ‘What about it, Sergeant, is it grave or graves?’ I told him, ‘graves.’” Of course when I tell the story I embellish it and impersonate my dad impersonating the Duke, and I end the tale by saying “And that’s how my dad became an unofficial adviser to John Wayne on the set of Flying Leathernecks.”

On March 14, 1997, I stopped by the house to pick up Dad. Four months previously he had been diagnosed with colon cancer, had since had a colostomy and begun chemo and radiation therapy. But that morning I was driving him to a memorial service for my mother, his wife of forty-three years. Mom had died three weeks previously.

Dad’s eyes were red and he confessed to me how much he missed her, and how much he’d be willing to bargain for the chance to help her down the hall and to the bathroom just one more time. And then he burst into tears. Somewhere I found the wisdom to put my arms around him, noticing how narrow his shoulders had become, and held him until his grief was spent. He suddenly cursed himself for his weakness. I surprised myself further with additional wisdom, assuring him that his tears were in no way a sign of weakness, that they were a normal and healthy response to grief. He looked at me, and somehow we each understood that the student had, for that moment at least, become the teacher. The hug was something I gave often over the next eleven months, knowing how difficult it was for him to initiate it, and getting as much in return as I’m certain Dad received.

Seven months later, just a few weeks before Dad checked into hospice, I stopped by the house to take him to dinner. Dad was lonely without Mom and detested eating alone, and so this was a custom we repeated several times a week: I picked him up after work and took him to his favorite greasy spoon diner where everyone knew his name and where he seemed to take great pride in introducing everyone to “my son.” He of course insisted on picking up the tab for “intruding” on my time.

On this particular evening I turned to lock the door while Dad took a cautious first step down from the porch and toward the car. He suddenly lost his balance and took a spill onto the concrete, hitting his knee hard. I bounded down the steps, knelt beside him and, after making certain he hadn’t seriously hurt himself, helped him to his feet. He attempted to hide the fear in his eyes by muttering something about his knee buckling. I drew a breath, prepared to scold him for not waiting for me, for taking an unnecessary risk, but some distant memory—the memory of a father scolding his young son for taking an unnecessary risk by riding a bike that was too big for him—stayed my mild rebuke.

Once Dad checked into hospice, I watched him slip the rest of the way away from me.

One afternoon, while I was sitting at his bedside, his eyes suddenly flashed open, he cast a furtive look at me and exclaimed, his voice laden with paranoia, “ Who are you?” I winced inwardly, but placed my hand on his to reassure him. “It’s okay, Dad, it’s me, Joe. Your son.” The tension immediately left his face, and while I saw no recognition in his eyes, the smile that spread across his mouth assured me in return that he trusted my words. The smile lingered but a moment, before he drifted off again, but I was convinced that in that moment I also glimpsed no small measure of pride.

Two weeks later, at Dad’s memorial service, I spoke a few words; afterward family and friends told me that they were good words, spoken with eloquence. I thanked them because that was the polite thing to do, but I thought, then and even now, that they weren’t nearly enough. That a man’s life can be summed up in but a few hundred words seems, somehow, amoral.

Since Dad died I’ve returned to Washington D.C. to stand at the base of the Memorial I first saw in 1966, and I’ve read With the Old Breed, considered by many historians to be the finest account of World War II combat in the trenches ever written by an enlisted man. The author, Eugene B. Sledge, or Sledgehammer as his buddies called him, in his account of the fighting on Pelilieu and Okinawa told me all I needed to know about my dad’s service to this country, including what “graves duty” often really entailed—picking up corpses that have been sitting in the sweltering South Pacific sun for several days only to have the weight of the body cause it to separate from the arms—and I now understand a little better why he was the way he was.

So now these twice yearly sojourns to visit Dad at his grave site, the closest I can come to his realm without stepping over to the other side. I wonder if he is aware of my presence, if he can hear my silent musings, my audible ruminations, or if he even cares that I visit. I often wonder if the reason I visit is because I’ve taken it upon myself to care enough for both of us.

I take a long drag on my Onyx Vintage wondering how it could’ve burned down so quickly.

I want to forgive my father for so much, but in order to forgive him I must elevate myself into a position of judge, and that’s something I find I just can’t do.

So instead I decide that I must accept that I am who I am, in part, as a result of this man about whom I know so little. I need to consign him to a less prominent place in my life, perhaps in some favorite corner to which I can come from time to time if only to dust off the cobwebs.

I resolve to stop staring at my past looking for answers, or to assign blame, and to start living my life today. Wanting to believe that I have within me the power to change and the courage to risk, to become the man I want to become, I resolve to reach out for my dreams, even if they should exceed my grasp, for, as Robert Browning wrote, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp. Or what’s a heaven for?”

My cigar has gone out, and something in my eyes blurs my vision; I blink away the moisture and lay my hand on the cold marble into which my dad’s partial obituary is chiseled. In time that will be all that remains of him: a name, a rank, a war and two dates, not so unlike those around him in this honored place.

A moment later, I stand, sigh, and make my way back down the knoll, the white markers across the way bearing witness to my departure, the silence a stark contrast to a battlefield I can only imagine.

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