Sunday, September 8, 2013

like a breath of fresh air, my father (part one?)

Then the north wind snapped her fingers. Old, stodgy air scattered and this new shaft of air poured in like a welcome rain on parched earth. Poured into, poured deep. Sleep came easily, work was a breeze, and in the midst of it all, my father rose up, gathered my presence.

My father as a young boy in the hollyhocks.

My father, dead since July 2005, has been lurking, right under my skin, and it’s been so strong lately that this week, when Finnigan’s person made a comment about the blah blah blah of baseball, throwing out phrases like “stoic humility” and “enduring failure,” my father came forth, and I had to dig out something he once said about being a Cubs fan. It is in print, memorialized in the January 1, 1986 issue of the ABA Journal. For 23 years my father worked for the Journal, the last 16 as its editor and publisher, and when he was stepping down, at age 66, the magazine ran an interview with him.
Bodine: One of the things that mystified me about you from day number one, although it became a little clearer during the 1984 season, was this unfaltering love that you have for the Chicago Cubs. You even follow them when they don’t break .500. Why is that?

Allen: I grew up in a community in western Illinois during the 1920s when radio broadcasting of baseball games came into vogue. Listening to the radio was an adventure. People listened to the radio simply to say they had listened or they had gotten station KDKA in Pittsburgh, which was a great accomplishment. Of course, the Cubs were the earliest team on radio that could be gotten in the Midwest. I think that was the way it developed, and I just always followed the Chicago Cubs since. The ’84 season was actually a bad time for an old Cubs fan because there were so many newcomers getting on the bandwagon … They filled the park—you couldn’t go out anymore and buy a seat the day of the game, which has always been one of the charms of Wrigley Field.

Being a Chicago Cubs fan is not about winning—that’s not the point to it at all. It’s being with them during the season and suffering with them as people suffer in their own jobs in life. You don’t always win everything at your factory, your office or wherever you’re working. That is really more of the charm, I think, than being a winner.

Sports competition is a microcosm. You win, lose, sometimes tie. That’s what happens in life. If you can’t be a loser, you’ll never be a winner.
In most families, I suppose, there are stories, tales that get repeated over and over, a groan for some, a giggle for others. The stories themselves are often innocuous, just snippets of time that through repetition take on mythic proportions while other snippets—those that are less amusing or just unobserved—are forgotten. And so it is with this snippet from my dad’s interview; it became somewhat of a scripture for me, for all of us.

Dad is so wise!

I photocopied the page it appeared on, cut out everything around it, and carried his words in my wallet, pulling them out whenever I needed someone older and wiser and perhaps more sober to help me defend my Cubness. It came in especially handy in 1987 when I lived in Columbia, Missouri, and the St. Louis Cardinals were in the World Series battling the Minnesota Twins. (For some reason I feel like high-fivin’ Dan Gladden right now.) The scrap of paper also came in handy when sharing Cubness with another Cub fan, for unless you are going to bitch and whine the night away, poetic waxing, it seems to me, is what Cub fans share. That, and tales of the goat curse.

Over the years this scrap of paper, this scripture from my dad, became worn and tattered. Then one day I shed my Cubness and threw the scrap away. So the other day when I needed the quote I had to haul a big old accordion file out of a metal filing cabinet that is in the garage between the beeswax and the wasps.

This is Finnegan.

In the file are scraps of paper from my dad that I’ve collected over the years, such as notes from Santa, augmented with some of the scraps of paper that came from cleaning out his files after he died, such as a Certificate of Award he won in 1928 for being “Neither Tardy Nor Absent.” Also in the file, of course, is the issue of the ABA Journal that contains “An Interview with Richard B. Allen,” and after finding the quote I wanted and sending it off I felt as if I had just told one of those old family stories once too often. I wondered what I was overlooking. So I sat down, read the full interview.

Another excerpt:
Bodine: A lot of these challenges [of putting out a monthly magazine] would drive an ordinary person completely crazy. You developed a reputation for being patient, never losing your temper, and you have a very gentle kind of humor. How do you accomplish dealing with all these challenges, and were you always this way?

Allen: I’ll answer the last one first: no. As a child, I had temper tantrums and was volatile, as I suppose all children are. It’s something you have to work on very assiduously. I did have a good experience of being thrown, against my will, of course, into the Armed Forces right after I was graduated from college. That was an excellent maturing process that I couldn’t have had unless I had been placed in those circumstances from age 22 to 27.

You have to work very hard to control yourself and not say what you think at the moment. Not make a decision unless you have to at the moment. But it is acquired—people are not born with it at all. It’s something you have to work for and acquire.

Bursinger: Are you originally from Illinois?

Allen: Yes, born on the prairies of Illinois in a small town that held two corn fields apart.
My father rarely talked about the past, his past, and all I know about “those circumstances” during the war is that he was in the Quartermaster Corps, stationed in New Zealand. Or was it Guam? My sister tells me that my father’s best friend never came home from the war. How I could not know this? Or did I know, and forget?

My father and I never talked heart-to-heart, he never counseled me or guided me, he never helped me with a career decision or any tough decision that I can think of. It’s likely I never asked for his help, though surely I needed it. What I remember about my dad, among so many things, is sitting with him year after year at Wrigley Field, our heads bent over scorecards. And I remember dancing with him at an ABA meeting in Montreal when I was maybe 19 or 20, and as he smiled and twirled me around a near-empty dance floor I realized he was a bit tipsy, and I realized what the heck, that’s okay. And I remember wheeling him out of the apartment he shared with my mom just a month or so before he died, when he was so very weak, and so very disgusted with being so weak, and tired, I think, of everyone fussing over him, and driving to the multiplex because he wanted to see Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith. And no matter how little was said about it, I remember always knowing very well how much he loved me.

My dad loved so many things, from bread-baking to opera. And he collected things, from every recording of every musical to Kirin beer mugs. He enjoyed a good beer and fine wine, trying his hand at making both, and there was a short period of time when it was not unusual for a family dinner to be punctuated by the blast of a bottle blowing up in the basement. And he got quite silly around dogs.

And Queenie and Buster got quite silly around him.

He loved travel and by attending meetings and conferences associated with work he was able to explore cities all over the world. And he loved Chicago. He loved its culture, its sports, its stories, its people, its elevated trains. He loved the law, words, the craft of writing and the task of editing. In the file folder I found sheets of paper on which he had typed quotes about various things, but mostly the Cubs, and in the file folder I found two sheets of slightly yellowed onionskin paper on which he had typed three poems by Robert Frost: Fire and Ice, Dust of Snow, and Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.

Those poems are the reason my father is so present right now, so thankfully present. Suddenly I know, without a doubt, that he would see nothing particularly wacky about how I live and where I live. He would understand without question that part of me is simply struck by
The way a crow / Shook down on me / The dust of snow / From a hemlock tree … 
and he would take it on faith that my choice to follow that part of myself is the right thing for me to do. He would not question it, he would not judge it.

My dad’s loving support has been there all along, of course, but like Dorothy in Oz, I lost sight of it. Maybe that’s because he became ill that first year after I moved from Chicago. He never had the chance to embrace this part of my life, and I never had the chance to feel that embrace. But now, well, this week it’s been like finding a crazy pair of ruby red slippers in a file folder in the garage. And they were there all along. My dad is no longer lurking under my skin, but rather it feels as if he’s right here, smiling and chuckling, saying go ahead, go ahead. And maybe, just maybe, I have something yet to learn from him.

Yiminey! Cricket in the garden!