Before we get into the nitty-gritty of my fear of abandonment, I feel like I should give you a few more snapshots of why I described my dad’s death at age 36 as leaving a “howitzer sized hole” in my comparatively stable childhood. It had to be more than a round of golf and a sound byte of theology, right?
So, a few polaroids from his “don’t tell your mom” file:
He bet me twenty 1974 dollars that I couldn’t hit the bird that landed beside the row of tin cans that lined the back chain-link fence with the pellet gun. He paid up right then and there, too.
We had to call the fire department as we’d started a small brush fire that went beyond the reach of our garden hose behind that same fence in the aftermath of a bottle rocket war.
The great Bactine dousing that followed the skateboard road rash incident in which legendary Savoy Street got the better of the no pads/no helmet tank-topped me. “Stop yelling before your mom comes out here,” he whisper-yelled in the garage.
“Say that word to your mother again and I’ll knock your teeth down your throat and you can pay for the next round of braces. We clear?” It was more terrifying because he never ever raised his voice. Calm. Matter-of-fact.
An awful lot of long summer days on the Warrior River. We fish off the pier or out of a small aluminum boat that had a trolling motor that he’d let me use. There was also a depth-finder but I’m not sure what it did or if I ever used it correctly. Don’t even get me started on the fun of water skiing or having a boat full of buzzed uncles pulling you and your cousins on an inner tube.
A vacation sample (we always went to the beach with extended family): Playing for a few hours in the ocean with red flags that were meant for other people. When our moms figured out they were meant for everybody and the storm kept going, they took us to play ski ball and pumped in nickels all day. One night he and my buzzed uncles were going to the dog track and let us pick a dog in a race and said they’d make a bet for us. He taught me the difference between a quinella and a trifecta. I lost two 1975 bucks.
Uncountable hours shooting baskets, hitting baseballs, catching passes, stopping pucks, and all that. The bumps and bruises and scrapes were intentionally kept from mom, especially when they involved mouthguards and braces. I wasn’t into fishing and hunting and I suspect he gave up more than a few opportunities to drink and fish and hang with his cronies so he could coach me when I was on teams or just have a catch until it got dark and dinner was ready.
But where we really connected was regarding Auburn sports. You can’t explain a culture to people who aren’t in that culture so I won’t try. My grandmother told me years after he died that “Your dad just loved the dirt of that place, and you do, too.” I don’t know if it was genetic or learned, but in either case, I know it’s possible to love a place.
[Whispering and shaking me] “Shhhh. Wake up. Don’t say anything and don’t make a sound getting dressed. Auburn shirt. Don’t forget shoes, either.”
“We’re going to the Auburn game today. Gotta get on the road before your mom wakes up. I’ll call her once we’re halfway. Shhhh.” (My mom later divulged that he’d clued her in on the deal about three days earlier but he thought this was fun).
Keep in mind that Auburn football was not only a bad football team for most of my childhood, but they were constantly in the shadow of the Evil Empire across the state and their legendary coach (who shall remain nameless here because people in my home state name everything from dogs to children after him to this day) were winning all kinds of championships. My mom graduated from the Evil Empire as did my maternal aunts and cousins. My dad and I were underdogs in both football and family.
A lot of stories were told to me about my dad’s less than stellar performance at AU. His inability to make grades kept him off the freshman team (they had those back then) and my mom told me that he was sincerely worried about being pulled out of the line at his graduation ceremony as were the folks before and after him because they failed a needed class that semester. He joked that if I ever went to Auburn I should talk to somebody about transferring the extra “quality point” he no longer needed to graduate. I dunno, either. It had something to do with how they computed grades back then.
If the Tigers played in my hometown, we went. If we didn’t have tickets for a game on campus, we’d sit outside and hold up fingers to try to buy them from what used to be called scalpers but is now referred to as the “secondary market.” If that failed, on more than one occasion, we’d loiter at the pass gate where the Boy Scouts who cleaned the stadium in exchange for free admission entered and when some troop walked we’d get in line at the back and he’d lie to the attendant that I’d forgotten my uniform and he was just a dad trying to get the leader’s attention. It worked almost every time, too.
We watched them lose. A lot. He always took me to the homecoming game, too…so we’d be guaranteed to see them win at least once a year. We’d go early and walk around campus visit his buddies and walking into that stadium…
…oh, man. The agricultural roots of the school guaranteed green grass even in the Fall. The orange and blue block-lettered “War Eagle” on the press box that existed before the numerous expansions that came when we got good. The famous “Heeeeeeeeeeeere come the Tigers!” when they ran out on the field in those navy blue home jerseys. The clapping along with the fight song and screaming “Give ‘em hell!” twice (don’t tell mom). The living and dying that took place during that three-hour block of time back before all the games were on television. Before we went in, he’d give me his honest opinion of the game, which was mostly, “Son, we’re probably gonna get beat pretty bad today.” When his prediction came true, when we got in the car before he fired up the Caprice Classic, he’d say, “I’d rather be an Auburn fan and lose than be for anybody else.”
When we couldn’t go to the game we’d have a radio on the front porch and we’d nervously throw a football for a while, stopping when things got tense and recreating touchdown plays right after they happened. Of course, this was after the yard work was done. In Alabama, on a Saturday, something is getting mowed.
My guess is that Auburn football Saturdays were his church. When you think about it there were a lot of similarities:
Fellowship = tailgaiting with friends
Bulletin = a game program with a cool cartoon Tiger defeating the rival mascot on the cover
Passing the Peace = saying “War Eagle” and having it returned by everyone
Call to worship = pregame festivities
Hymns = Fight song/alma mater, both of which I knew the words to by age 4.
Service = the game itself, with emotional highs and lows and talks of miracles needed and wondering what we did to anger God so much he punished us with that football team
Benediction = “The final score, Auburn 52, UT-Chattanooga 0. War Eagle, and please drive safely.”
When I got older, I didn’t have to pray about what school to attend. My mom saved his 1964 class ring for me and told me I could have it once I checked the box on my application for class schedule that asked, “Graduating this quarter?” Several times during my less-than-stellar undergraduate career there she asked me if I needed his extra quality point.
I tell you all this because it’ll explain my mom’s first words to me the day he died…
(see you on Monday)