Always in my heart

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On the occasion of my daughter’s 18th birthday, I have boxes of pictures and just as many stories to share about her. My life hasn’t been what it was before she was born on April 4, 1999, and I don’t mind that one little bit.

Being a parent once scared me to death. Nothing quite compares to holding a little one in your hands, figuratively and literally. I put it off for all of my twenties, and by the time I hit 30 it couldn’t be deferred much longer.

I’m sharing one picture here, and one story as well. The picture was taken when she was in kindergarten, and it shows the happy but shy girl that she was in those days. Looking at it reminds me of how kindergarten once seemed far away, and yet one day it arrived. And now she’ll be going away to college in a few months. I’ve always made a point of enjoying it while it lasted, because it sure didn’t last for very long.

My favorite story about the lovely girl who forever changed my life took place a few days before she was born. My wife and I had tickets to see a musical at the Oriental Theater in Chicago. During one rousing musical number–I think it was in the second act–my wife grabbed by hand and pressed it against her side. I was amazed to feel my unborn daughter kicking along with the music. She’s always been a theater kid, and studying musical theater in high school is as natural for her as a fish swimming in water. But I truly believe it started for her on that night.

She’s grown so much in the 18 years she’s been with us, and it’s been such a joy to watch it all happen. The law says she’s an adult now, and she can do many more things today than she could yesterday. I’ve lost whatever legal rights and responsibilities I ever had for her, but my job as a parent isn’t done, nor is it ever likely to be. So we’ll keep on travelling down that path toward whatever she’s going  to be in life.

This is an important day in her life and in mine, and I’m writing this to recognize how far the two of us have come together. It’s been quite a ride so far, and I can’t wait to see where it goes from here.

It’s gotta be rock and roll music, if you wanna dance with me

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I’ve been writing this blog for almost six years now, and have put more than 1,500 posts up for the world to consider. I do it because I know that we’re all mortal, and when we leave this world there will be few traces of us left behind. Whether anyone alive today reads these things or not, I want future generations to have some insight into the life that I lived, in the early 21st century in the United States of America.

My main writing muses became pretty clear early on in the development of this blog. Baseball and the Chicago Cubs were one, and just behind that came a music genre known as rock and roll. I’m not a musician, so my interest in this music comes strictly from a consumer standpoint. I admire musicians a great deal, because they have a talent that I wish I had.

Rock and roll first entered my life back in late 1976 or early 1977, in my parents’ house in Jerome, Illinois. We had recently moved into the house, and their old turntable–along with a few LP albums–took up residence in the basement. When my siblings and I and our neighbor from across the street figured out how the thing worked, we immediately gravitated toward Side 1 of Beatles ’65. It was filled with two-minute songs that opened my world up like nothing ever had before. They were catchy, which was the essential part of the music, but they also told stories that went beyond “The Farmer in the Dell” and all the kiddie songs I had known before then. It was the first step in the transition away from childhood and into the world of adolescence. It truly did change my worldview in a way that nothing else had before.

My favorite song on Side 1 of Beatles ’65 was “Rock and Roll Music.” This song not only introduced me to the music I loved, but it gave it a name, too. “Just let me hear some of that Rock and Roll music…” was sung by John Lennon, but it wasn’t until many years later that I discovered he didn’t write those lyrics. Chuck Berry first wrote and recorded the song in 1957, and it ushered in a musical wave that I caught on to some 20 years later.

The first record that I ever bought for myself was the Grease soundtrack in 1978, and even though it had no Chuck Berry songs on it, it was filled with the music that he had inspired. Disco was also on the airwaves back in 1978, and I heard plenty of it on the airwaves of the AM hit music station where I lived. But it was a fad, which fortunately passed away in a few years’ time. While other genres have met with a similar fate, rock and roll has endured for me. As AC/DC once proclaimed, “Rock and Roll will never die.” And that’s exactly what Chuck Berry’s legacy will be.

If you ever wanted any perspective on how important Chuck Berry was in rock and roll’s history, consider that he opened up the Rock Hall in Cleveland back in 1995. Without Chuck Berry, the music–and the building that honors it–would not exist.

From the time I began purchasing music for myself–when I started to view the world through something other than a child’s eyes–I’ve wanted to hear some of that rock and roll music. My gratitude to Chuck Berry for creating it–and for giving it its name–is beyond my ability to describe it here. But the effort is one that must be made, so let’s just turn up his music and appreciate it for as long as we can.

With thanks to my Dad on his birthday

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Family has been one of the constant themes on this blog, since I started writing it more than five years ago. I’ve put over 1,500 entries into this space since then, but I didn’t get through the first ten posts before I mentioned my dad for the first time. Since I’ve always been one who prefers writing over speaking, this is the best medium for wishing my dad well on his 70th birthday. I hope he still has many more birthdays ahead of him, too.

Parenting is great for many reasons, but perhaps the best one is that it wakes you up to how just difficult it is to raise a family. My own daughters don’t understand that yet, and I’ve told myself that one day, if they’re lucky, they will. But it will probably take arriving at the gates of parenthood to drill that point home. That’s certainly how it worked for me.

My dad gave me his name, and for many years I hated being a Junior. But now I’m OK with it, and I like his (and my) distinctive middle name. The world has thousands and thousands of Robert Harrises, but at least we have an interesting way to stand out in that crowd.

I’ve also written about being left-handed on many occasions, and I get that from my dad. It makes me different from most people, since we lefties are never in the majority anywhere (except for the cast members of Seinfeld, where Julia-Louis Dreyfus is the only righty in the bunch). I also enjoy counting Jimi Hendrix, LeRoy Neiman, Barack Obama, and David Bowie–among many others–in my lefty tribe.

But the thing I’ll always be most grateful for is that my dad taught me to learn how to love baseball. I had no idea about what baseball was as a kid in the 1970s, but that summer my dad took me to St. Louis to see a doubleheader against the Mets in the first Busch Stadium.

I’ve written about this before, how being a part of the baseball experience shaped me like nothing had before, and not too much has since. The best way to get into a sport is to go and see a game for yourself, and that’s probably always been the case. I’ve been to hundreds of ballgames since then, but that first game still remains a treasured memory. At one point in the game, Ted Simmons doubled off the outfield wall, and everybody came to their feet and cheered. All subsequent baseball memories have built upon that moment for me. I don’t know if I’ve ever thanked my dad for taking me along that day, but I need to do that here.

The Dad memories don’t stop there, either. I remember playing Pong with my dad in either a department store or a grocery store, back in the 1970s. The sensation of being able to move a controller and have it move something on a TV screen was pretty revolutionary to the young kid I was at the time. Today’s kids won’t ever know what that feels like, but I remember it because I was playing a game with my dad.

My dad also took me to see Star Wars back in 1977, around the time that I turned nine years old. Before that, the only times I had been to a movie theater were old Disney movies with my mom. Those were fun, but Star Wars was different. Seeing R2D2 on screen again in The Phantom Menace a year ago reminded me of how excited I was to see him for the first time. And without my dad, that moment wouldn’t have happened.

So as my dad celebrates a big round number for his birthday this weekend, I’m happy that he’s made it this far in his life’s journey, and that I was along for a good chunk of the ride.

My letter of thanks to Jack Brickhouse

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Dear Jack,

Today was the kind of day that makes cemeteries interesting. As I drove through Rosehill on the far north side of Chicago, I watched the dried leaves blowing across my path on the way to the mausoleum where you are interred. This is generally not baseball weather here in Chicago, but you never saw a team like this year’s Cubs, either.

As I arrived at the door and removed my Cubs hat, I was appreciative to live close enough to be able to pay a visit to you before the World Series began. Thanks to your broadcasts on WGN through the years, a person didn’t have to live in or around Chicago to become a Cubs fan. That was true for me, who grew up in Cardinals country near Springfield, Illinois.

The Cardinals games of the mid-1970s–when baseball entered my life–were broadcast on the radio on KMOX in St. Louis. Everybody knew the sound of Jack Buck’s voice, but nobody got to watch the team actually play, unless they appeared on NBC’s Game of the Week or ABC’s Monday Night Baseball. But the Cubs did it a different way in Chicago by putting every game on TV, and for me it made all the difference.

I loved being able to watch a few innings of the Cubs games after school, or even entire games during the summertime. Night games on the road were OK too, but afternoon baseball at that gem of a ballpark in Chicago was pure happiness to me.

Many of today’s Cubs fans aren’t familiar with your work, and I think that’s unfortunate. Without you and your broadcasts on Channel 9, the Cubs wouldn’t mean nearly as much to me as they do today. But the World Series is upon us, Jack, and I wish you were here to enjoy it. Ernie Banks never saw one, and Ron Santo didn’t, either. But Billy Williams is still here, along with names you used to call for me like Rick Monday and Jose Cardenal and Bruce Sutter. Cubs fans my age love names like Barry Foote and Mick Kelleher and Champ Summers, because they belong to a specific time and place, and the sounds they remember from that era are your “Hey Hey!” call and they way you pronounced every Cubs win a “thriller.”

There was no better way to remind myself of how I came to be a Cubs fan than to come and pay my respects at your gravesite this morning. I’ll make sure to enjoy these upcoming games against Cleveland, not only for myself but for you and all the other Cubs fans who weren’t able to see it. I hope you’ve got a great seat where you are, Jack, because you deserve to have it. Thanks again for helping me to take baseball in once upon a time. This week wouldn’t be the same without you.

Rob Harris

Chicago, IL

Cape memories

My wife and younger daughter are on Cape Cod this week, and it’s been quiet around the house in their absence. But I wanted to share some old pictures before they left, because time moves so fast, and one day’s little kids become another day’s adolescents/teenagers. Enjoying this process–as I’ve always tried to do–is the best we can hope for.

Shut down Volkswagen

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My parents had a light blue Volkswagen Beetle like the one pictured above when I was a kid, and I called it a “Vopiad” because I couldn’t say “Volkswagen.” It’s a happy memory for me.

But those warm fuzzys have been abolished forever by the way Volkswagen has behaved since 2009. They installed software that was specifically designed to beat emissions testing into many of their models, but which then shut off when the car was not being tested. Their cars thus spit many times the allowable limits of pollutants into the air, which I and everyone else on the planet had to breathe.

Volkswagen is paying for their deception, as they should. But the settlement funding seems to be directed to the people who bought these cars in the first place. Those of us who breathed in foul air over these past few years apparently won’t see a dime in damages.

I frankly don’t want any money from Volkswagen, but I do want them to pay. And the only fitting penalty I can imagine is to have them shut down for good, permanently unable to soil our environment with their products ever again.

This won’t happen, of course, but it should. There’s nothing Volkswagen can do, and no check they could ever write, that will undo the environmental damage they’ve caused through their subterfuge. May the people who dreamed this scheme up–and who knew and did nothing about it through the years–be criminally punished for what they have done. And may the name “Volkswagen” forever be synonymous with irreversible environmental damage. They’ve certainly earned it.

Birthday wishes to my kids’ Uncle John

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Iles Park, Springfield, IL, circa 1975

My sister, my older younger brother, and I were all born in June. My brother’s birthday comes first on the calendar, so the family birthday season kicks off today.

We had a lot of fun together through the years, and even if I’m not happy with how I look in this old photo, I’m glad to have a reminder of us being kids together.

I hope he has a great day, and a great year following after that.

MMM, Donuts

For International Donut Day, I wanted to see if it was possible to go five years of writing a blog and NOT mention donuts along the way. Turns out it isn’t, at least not for me.

The Dunkin’ Donuts ad pic was taken on a visit to Fenway Park shortly before I began this blog journey back in 2011, but I apparently never wrote anything about it. Until now, anyway.

The glazed donut pic was added to a piece that I wrote remembering Halloweens gone by, from my youth in Jerome, Illinois.

And as a bonus sweet treat, here’s the story of the 16 year-old who is credited with inventing the donut hole. Wherever you are today, Hanson Crockett Gregory, we are all in your debt.

 

Shakedown, 1979

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I was never a very big fan of Smashing Pumpkins, but I do like their song 1979. The nostalgic video for the song conjures up some images from being a kid at around that time. 1979 was either at or near the end of my childhood, but whatever lay ahead in life was still off in the distance. I hardly knew what would come at me next.

When I started writing this blog five years ago (minus about a month or so), it was a story that set everything in motion. I went to a garage sale and found the sort of thing that the eleven-year-old I once was would have thought was pretty cool. I wrote about it from an adult’s perspective, but I was really–now that I’ve had a few years to think about it–trying to tell the story of the man I’ve become in the years and decades since 1979.

My nickname as a kid was “Robbie.” I don’t think I’ve ever brought that up before, and it wasn’t too long after 1979 that I realized “Robbie” was a child’s name, and started calling myself “Rob” instead. Over the course of time, Rob has gone by “Robert” in official, formal settings and “R. Lincoln” as a nom de plume, to separate myself from all the other Rob/Roberts out there with my last name. But I’ve made it a practice to avoid calling or thinking of myself as “Robbie.”

The Smashing Pumpkins song on the radio this afternoon brought memories of Robbie flooding back to me. Robbie liked the disco that was on the radio that summer, but then he heard rock and roll from the Eagles and other artists, and disco became a thing of the past. Robbie grew–a lot–in the years ahead, and became a clumsy, awkward kid. He never did lose the glasses, and the terrible haircut he once had didn’t get much better, either.

Robbie was afraid of everything in 1979. He couldn’t take swimming classes because he was afraid of drowning. He was afraid of dying, because he didn’t yet understand that everything dies, someday.

Robbie had barely ever been outside of Illinois in 1979. He had never flown on a plane, or spent the night in a hotel, or ever had occasion to tell anyone a story about anything. He really didn’t have anything to say, let alone a way of capturing his thoughts for anyone to consider.

But it’s now more than three decades later, and Rob has done things that Robbie never dreamed of. In some way, the 1,500 posts and 500,000 words that Rob has created in this space over the past five years are a record of his life. Robbie can’t read those stories, because he got left behind back in the late 70s or early 80s, but he would greatly enjoy learning about how his life has turned out.

 

My Dancing Queens

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When you have two lovely, artistic-minded kids and a few thousand pictures saved on a hard drive, as I do, putting something like this together when you learn about #InternationalDanceDay isn’t very difficult. Call it a labor of love.

May everyone do a little dance today.

Saying thanks to The New Yorker

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Many years ago (almost 34 years, to be exact) I wrote a letter to the editor of a wrestling magazine. The young teenager that I was at the time watched a lot of professional wrestling on TV, and they were to me what Batman and Superman were for those who read comic books. Dusty Rhodes, Ric Flair, Dick the Bruiser and, most of all, Roddy Piper were living, breathing examples of escapism and super powers. I would practice wrestling moves on the bed at home, or with my two younger brothers. It was a fun time in my life, and I miss it in some ways.

I felt sufficiently moved by my admiration for Roddy Piper to write a letter and put it in the mail slot of the hospital where I went to visit my dying grandmother. I never really thought they would publish it, though. Just saying it, or writing the words down, was enough for me at that time. But they published my letter in the fall of 1982, and the excitement I got from seeing my words and my name in print is something I haven’t since forgotten. My name has occasionally made its way into print, but literally millions of my words have been submitted  for public review since then. It’s tremendously gratifying to know that many of my ideas and words are floating around, somewhere.

Two days ago, in the aftermath of Prince’s sudden and shocking death last week, I was again moved to send out a letter to the editor of a magazine, this time The New Yorker. I was barely aware of who Prince was back in 1982 when I wrote my first letter to the editor, but I learned not too long after that. And just as the Internet has come along and brought great change to the way news and ideas are shared with the public, I didn’t actually write out a letter this time, but I did compose the following as an email:

It’s April 25, and the news of Prince’s sudden passing still feels shocking and raw. We’ve all had a weekend to mourn and reflect on what his music meant for those of us who grew up in the 80s, as well as those who either discovered his music after that, or those who followed his newer music right up until the end. It’s a hard time for all of us, no matter which category we may fall into.

Your April 25 cover is a fascinating glimpse into this present day. There’s just no way that anyone connected with your magazine could have known that, by the date appearing on the cover itself, we would lose a man who was an absolute wizard on the electric guitar. Nor could you realize that the man whose music broke down every barrier–racial, gender, and generational, to name just a few–would leave us within days of this cover’s appearance. And yet, there it is on your cover, in red and blue (and the fact the two colors combine to make purple is another inexplicable coincidence).

We can see people of all concert-going ages, backgrounds, and stations in life joined together in a room, enjoying themselves in a way that would not be possible in any other public setting. The guitar’s fretboard we can see on the cover, but the guitarist’s identity in this idyllic scene remains unknown. My interpretation is that the guitarist most likely to make such a gathering possible is the one who is being commemorated in purple in your next issue.

I’m already thinking of these as the most accidental–and yet most appropriate–covers pairing that we’ll ever see. Many thanks for such an unintentional gift.

Whether the New Yorker does anything with this note is besides the point. I had something to say, and I said it. And the internet and this blog allow me share this message with whatever part of the online world wants to read it, too. Just having an outlet for the idea is enough. And when the Prince tribute cover arrived in the mailbox today, I had to put the covers side by side and share them here. They are the beautiful ones, indeed.

The sky was all purple

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Springfield, Illinois–the town where I grew up–doesn’t have very many suburbs, but I lived in one of them. And for this suburban child of the 80s, the electric guitar reigned supreme. Led Zeppelin was my favorite, of course, but any record would either rise or fall in my estimation of it, based solely upon the level of guitar work it held forth.

Eddie Van Halen was in the pantheon of guitar gods, and others sometimes entered into his dominion. Sammy Hagar played some mean guitar, and those two joining forces in the 80s made me absolutely giddy with joy. Judas Priest had two dueling guitarists, which also raised their stature, at least for me. In a nutshell, to paraphrase Gordon Gekko, guitar was good.

Prince’s Purple Rain provided the first glimpse to me of how gifted he was on the guitar. The solo at the end of “Let’s Go Crazy” was ferocious, and the only thing I knew that was any better turned out to be that album’s title track. Prince sings the final lyric to that song, lets out a note that would make Les Paul proud, and then punctuates a beautiful song with some positively searing guitar work. None of the spandex-clad dudes from the Sunset Strip could touch that.

Maybe that’s why I loved Prince’s halftime show at the Super Bowl so much. He asks the crowd “Can I play this guitar?” and then proves to everyone that yes, he can play it, and better than any other guitarist could.

Nobody ever puts Prince high enough on the list of “greatest guitar players of all time.” Names like Hendrix and Clapton and Jeff Beck invariably appear, and they’re all great artists. I would not want to disparage any of them. But when Prince chose to turn it loose on the guitar, nobody did it like him.

I’m watching the sunrise this morning in Wilmette, Illinois (although I don’t actually live here). The suburban kids who live here, and in a million other places, might not treasure the electric guitar in the same way that I once did. But those who do would be well-advised to savor the guitar work Prince laid down through the years. Then they might understand how a little bit of greatness can go a very long way.

A siblings day remembrance

 

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I was very fortunate to have some fun people to grow up with. Peg is my only sister, John is my older little brother, and Mickey is my younger little brother. I could tell stories about them all (and I have to my own kids, at various times), but I’ll let the pictures do the talking here.

Thanks for all the memories and laughs!

Now it’s Mom’s turn

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Last month, on the occasion of my Dad’s birthday, I shared a picture of him and a few words in this space. His clothes and his hair had changed over the 40 years since the picture was taken, but he’s still around and I’m very glad about that. He didn’t pull a David Bowie and die two days after his birthday (and yes, my dad is at the same age Bowie was when time caught up with him).

So today, a mere six weeks later, it’s my Mom’s turn. She too is in her 1970s finery, in this case a brown sweater that you can look at and almost hear the opening bars to Hotel California or Don’t Stop playing in the background somewhere. I grew up in the ’70s and the ’80s, and while I love the music of the 80s, the fashions of the 70s were so much more interesting.

My mom gave everything she had to me and my siblings, as we were growing up so many years ago. The only way to repay that is to recognize it (which simply can’t be done as you’re growing up yourself) and then, if the time comes, to do the same for your own kids. The circle is then reinstated, and the world keeps spinning on.

I know that my Mom reads my blog (she’s one of the few, I would imagine) so I’m happy to share a few words (and a groovy picture) in the hopes that we’ll get to do this all over again every March 24, into the foreseeable future.

Cheers to you, Mom. And thanks very much.

The coolest card so far

Baseball cards are a cheap buzz for me. It goes back to when I was six or seven years old, when my dad gave me some change and told me I could go into the store by myself and buy a pack of baseball cards. It was the first thing I had ever purchased on my own, and it had an effect on me that I still remember all these years later. Needless to say, baseball has been important to me all through my life.

There’s a thing I do, sometimes, when I find myself in a Dollar Tree store. Up by the registers, they offer a variety of trading cards and stickers for sale. Sorting through them takes some time, but there’s a company that packages 30 cards together, of all years and brands, for the grand sum of one dollar. Somebody once got the idea that these things had some intrinsic monetary value, and as a result there are now billions of them, sitting on the shelves in Dollar Tree stores everywhere, waiting for someone like me to help relieve the oversupply.

The collective value of 30 old baseball cards isn’t even 30 cents, so it’s not a financial proposition for me. These things cost a penny apiece when I was a kid, because that’s all the value they have. Anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool.

But each pack of these things is a chance to find something interesting. The cards are old enough that the “promising rookies” who petered out and never got a whiff of the major leagues can be identified. Every player is a story that’s as easily discovered as a trip to google or baseball-reference.com. 30 potential stories for a dollar? It’s hard to beat that.

So yesterday I found myself in a Dollar Tree store, and I picked up a pack of old baseball cards. The cheap buzz comes in from tearing open the plastic, looking at the cards inside, and enjoying the rush of potential discovery. It’s probably what heroin feels like for some people, but without the side effects like addiction and the risk of an OD. It’s the lowest grade rush that I’m willing to look for.

Yesterday’s pack contained the most unusual and unexpected card I’ve ever run across. The pictures of the front and shown above, but basically the Score company, in 1991, put an American flag on the front of a card, and a prayer for the safety of soldiers in the first Iraq war (and for world peace in general) on the back. There was no has-been (or never-was) baseball player shown, but a reminder that baseball is the American game, and some things are far more important than being able to hit a curveball (or to throw one, for the pitchers of the world).

I thought of my friends who went to Iraq, and those who have served our country in uniform. Having never done so myself, I am grateful for those who do. I don’t like wars, and I’m critical of politicians who send soldiers into battle for reasons that later turn out to be false and misleading.  But that doesn’t mean the bravery and sacrifice of those in uniform is lost on me. Far from it.

This piece is written to honor those who serve, and to recognize that the 30 chances to tell a story in each pack of outdated old baseball cards can sometimes lead to something much more interesting than I ever thought possible.

A day with my mom

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I’m getting to a place in life where many of the people I know have lost one or both of their parents. I have to admit to an embarrassment of riches on this front, because both of my parents are still with us, and still physically and mentally vibrant. I don’t usually think in terms of blessings, but it’s impossible to see this as being anything else.

My mom came to Chicago this weekend, to see both of my daughters perform onstage. The weather was abnormally spring-like for late February, and I was glad because it allowed us to get out and enjoy the city. The planet’s still in trouble from all the things we’ve been doing to it, but at least it gave me the chance to enjoy a day with my mom. Everything’s relative, isn’t it? And yes, I did intend that pun to get through.

My mom has given me and my siblings everything she had, and feels bad that she couldn’t do more. I feel that way about my own kids, and every parent has the same feelings, I suspect. But if we’re really lucky, we’ll get the chance to spend a day with them and tell them how much it is appreciated. That’s what love is made of.

 

My hipster dad

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About five years ago, or perhaps even longer than that, my parents gave me a box filled with old memories like report cards, event programs, birthday cards and, most importantly, pictures. The photos from my youth have certainly been fodder for many interesting #TBT posts on Facebook and other social media outlets.

Once a photo makes it onto the Internet, it can live forever in the online world. And so it is with this beauty, taken in the Summer of 1976. My dad, who was not yet 30 years old, is holding my baby brother, who is turning 40 years old himself this summer. I love the colors, the glasses, the hair, and the way this photo preserves a moment in time that can never be brought back again.

Today’s my dad’s birthday, and I wish him the very happiest of days. And, as a bonus, I offer this image of his bad self, so that 40 years from now someone else can appreciate that 70s style.

Scars that can’t be seen

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For the 30th anniversary of the Space Shuttle disaster in 1986, I offered up my memories of that terrible day on my Facebook page, and then shared the senior year photo that I had taken when I was 17 and thought that the future would go on forever.

Looking at it again today, I was struck by the absence of the ever-present scar under my right eye. When I had the picture taken, I requested that the photographer airbrush it out, because vanity wouldn’t allow me to share it with everyone else in the senior yearbook pages. I couldn’t get them to fix my chipped front tooth, but removing the scar made me feel good even though, as I type this out, it’s still there on my face, as it has been since I was about 9 or 10 years old.

As I looked at the picture today, for the first time in decades, I thought back to the day it happened, when I got the scar that will follow me to my grave. It’s strange that I never really thought about it before today. Like my belly button and my fingers and toes, I just considered it to be a natural, immutable part of me. It may well be immutable, but it sure wasn’t natural.

Back in the summer of either 1978 or 1979, my siblings and I kept ourselves occupied in the summertime at what we called “the playground thing” run by the local recreation department at the elementary school I attended. Had it been anyplace else I wouldn’t have gone, but I was familiar with how to get there, and it was fun to play sports and shoot carroms and do things that kids used to do before video games captured everyone’s imagination, mine included. Once the Atari set in around 1980 or 1981, I wouldn’t have done anything like this. But in hindsight, it was a lot of fun.

At the end of the summer, there was a wrap-up event at Iles Park in Springfield, which was a block away from where my grandma and grandpa lived. Again, if I wasn’t familiar with the park already I wouldn’t have gone, because I wouldn’t hav been able to convince my mom to take me someplace I knew. Such was life for the 10-year-old that I was back then.

So we played games and ate food and had fun with lots of kids we didn’t know from all around the city. I was having a great time, when a kickball game was arranged on a baseball diamond. I had only played kickball on the asphalt playground at my school, so playing it on a dirt infield was a new treat. What a day I was having!

I don’t think I knew anybody who was on my team that day, and that made it even more fun. Since I played first base sometimes on my Khoury League baseball team, I gravitated over to that position when we took the field for the kickball game. And when some kid on the other team lifted the ball into the air to my right–toward second base–I knew I could catch it. I focused on the ball, took a few steps to my right, and then–nothing.

Well, not exactly nothing. Nothing that I can remember is a better way to put it. The next thing I knew I was in the hospital, with stitches being applied to my face. 13 stitches in all. I had collided with an older, bigger kid who was playing second base and was convinced that he could have caught the same ball that I was chasing after. I never saw him coming, and the force of the impact drove my plastic glasses frames into my cheekbone. One of my front teeth had also sustained a chip that wasn’t fixed for many years after that. While dentistry could mask one of the effects of that day, surgery to hide the scar was never really an option. My glasses had created the scar, but they can hide it pretty well, too. It isn’t until people see me without glasses on that they even notice it’s there. And that’s fine with me.

I looked at that retouched photo today and thought–for the first time–about the kid who ran into me that day. I heard that he had got on his bike and rode away after it happened. Maybe he didn’t want to hang around and see if I was OK. And in the big picture, I turned out fine, the chipped tooth and the scar notwithstanding. I wondered where he is now, and what happened with his life. I wondered if he remembers a kickball game on a baseball diamond in Iles Park a very long time ago. But then again, he didn’t end up with the souvenirs that I did, so why would he remember it like I do?

Questions like this are ones you can never get the answers to, and it’s better that way. What happened on that day was as much my fault as it was his. And since he was bigger than I was at the time, I got the worst of our collision. That’s life. Some days you get the bear, and some days the bear gets you.  So to the unknown kid, whoever and wherever you are, please know that life went on for me after that day. And it only took 35 years before I gave you another thought. That’s pretty good, right?

 

I was once a Cardinals fan

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Forty years ago, I was a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals. My dad took me to my first baseball game–a doubleheader against the Mets at the old Busch Stadium in St. Louis–in late July of 1975. It was the most exciting thing I had yet experienced in life, and the result was a love for baseball that continues to this day.

My time as a Cardinals fan was brief, however. I found the Cubs and Wrigley Field on a TV broadcast in late September of 1975, and they have been my choice team ever since. I couldn’t watch the Cardinals on TV in those days, and that was enough to shift my loyalties to the team from the north.

Had I remained a Cardinals fan, which there are more of than Cubs fans in the city I grew up in, life would be different, I’m sure. The Cardinals are accustomed to winning, and their success makes them the red yang to the Cubs’ blue yin.

This season could offer more of the same, as the Cardinals have the best record in the game, and the Cubs are trying to chase them down over the last six weeks of the season and into the playoffs. However it turns out, I’ll always look back at that short two-month period in 1975 as an example of how life can bring about changes.

And with that in mind, go Cubs!

Running away from me

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My little one was in a hurry to get back to the ranger station and get a plastic junior ranger badge. It wasn’t anything more meaningful than that.

Even so, it felt like a metaphor of some kind. Like her youth is getting further and further away. And when that happens –as I know it must–it makes me very sad.

I first came to the Smoky Mountains when I was about her age. And I hope she comes back someday, with her own kids. But for now, I’ll just enjoy my time with her as much as I can. That’s all there is to do.

UPDATE: This was first written in the fall of 2014, and not recovered again in my Drafts folder until the summer of 2015. I lost the image I wanted to use for this when I switched cellphones in late 2014. The picture above is from an April, 2015 trip to California (Monterey, if anyone really wants to know). But perhaps not surprisingly, the feelings that inspired this draft ten months ago in the Smoky Mountains are still just as strong today, and perhaps even a bit stronger than before. I suppose that feeling isn’t going to go away.

Spending an afternoon with my mom

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There’s a scene from Good Will Hunting that has stayed with me, more so than the remainder of the movie. In the scene, the Minnie Driver character says that she would trade all of the money she has to spend another day with her dead father. And the reason she would is because once somebody is gone, there’s no way of bringing them back. So enjoy your loved ones while you still can.

My mom was 21 years old when I was born. At an age when I was still finishing up college and enjoying the carefree (as in, child-free) days of my early 20s, my mom didn’t have that. She had me and my sister and two brothers to contend with. Not that it was an actual competition, but she had demands on her time and resources that I can’t imagine. And she did a great job of raising us, I have to say.

I’m very pleased to report that she’s still with us today. I get to enjoy spending time with her while she’s still young enough to get around without a wheelchair or a walker. And we did exactly that a week ago, for the funeral reenactment of Abraham Lincoln. It was six hours in the car to spend four or five hours with the woman who did so much for me back when I was unable–and sometimes unwilling–to appreciate what that meant. It was a trade that I was glad to make.

I know that my mom reads my blog. So in a sense, I’m writing to her knowing that she will see it and probably get emotional. I’m getting emotional writing it, myself. But on the off chance that anybody else ever finds this online, here’s a picture and a story about my mom. She, like all mothers, loved her children and didn’t get nearly enough in return for her emotional and financial investments through the years. This is a humble attempt to repay a debt that can never be fully squared. And I’m very pleased to still have the opportunity to make payments on this account.

Playing a new game

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A few days before my family and I left for a vacation in California, my little one told me that she had been reading my blog, and it made her sad. It’s certainly not something that I wanted to hear, so I decided to ask her why.

“You tell stories about the run and jump and other things we don’t do anymore, and I miss them” she told me.

I told her that I wrote stories here so that she and I could have a record of them, and if we outgrew them one day–and we’re bound to do with most things–we can look back at them fondly. And if some stranger we’ve never met before wants to read the stories, that’s OK too. Better to have the stories than to rely on our memories, which are wonderful things but are not always as reliable as they could be.

My reply seemed to satisfy her, and I was reminded of our conversation a few days later, when we were on a beach near Pacific Grove, California. We were on the 17 Mile Drive, which I had never heard of before and now I’ll hardly ever forget it. But there’s a story to tell that I hope she finds some day.

The waves came crashing in, as they always have done before, and the two of us decided to turn this experience into a race. We would walk out toward the water as the wave was coming in, and after it crashed and the water came ashore, we’d begin to backpedal, all the while saying “back…back…back” as if this would keep the water away from us.

A successful round was going all the way back before the water reached your toes or–in my case–your shoes. It was fun because even if you misjudged the wave’s size or speed, the worst that would happen is some surprisingly cold water would touch your feet. With all of the hardships in the world, a few moments of trying to outrun an ocean wave felt like a rare treat.

We called our game “Back…Back…Back” and I’d be surprised if we ever had an occasion to play the game again. But it marked our time on the beach that day, and proved to me that while some games might be outgrown or cast aside, our love and our ingenuity never will.