I’m sitting at a bar, having dinner, and a baseball game is on the TV above the bar. San Francisco versus the Mets, I think. This recalls for me that baseball was one of the ways (perhaps the only way) in which my father and I bonded – insofar as Harold and I bonded at all.
I remember going to a baseball game with him. Dallas didn’t have a major league team in 1959, and the game we attended was a small affair. Wooden bleacher seats; I remember that, and the lights on the field. I don’t know if I ate a hot dog, or if Harold drank a beer. Both of those things are possible, but I don’t know. They’re not part of what I remember. I just recall being there with Harold, and the rough wood of the seats, and the glaring brightness of the lights. Oh, the teams, of course, but they were out beyond the chain link fence, so a bit remote. And in any case, they were just the supporting cast for the central attraction: doing something with my father; something that was fun, not tedious, or aggravating; something that would give us an opportunity to talk with each other about anything other than grades, and discipline, and keeping my mother happy.
There were other people in the bleachers, but not a crowd. Some of them were heckling the batter, and criticizing the umpire; talking, as a way of shaping an outcome.
Part of my memory of Harold is that he never really transmitted anything to me. We went to a baseball game. Maybe two or three; I don’t know. We played catch in the back yard a few times. My kid-sized leather glove went the way of all things years ago, but I still have my bat. It’s a Louisville Slugger. Child size, of course. I used to have a baseball that I think I got at a game. (I caught it? Harold caught it? I don’t know.)
Baseball could have created a thread of communication between me and Harold, but it didn’t work out that way. My fault, I guess. Even at 12 years old, I wasn’t really into sports. In seventh grade I was on the football team for my elementary school. Football has a venerated place in Texas society, so perhaps that was part of my motivation. Or maybe I wanted to belong to something; be part of a team, which was not the case in the rest of my life. Whatever my reasons may have been, in one game I fell and my chest was stepped on by a much larger boy from the other team. After that, I decided that football just wasn’t for me.
Looking back on it, I think I was something of a disappointment to Harold and Dorothy; as though I was never the kind of boy they thought they’d gotten when they adopted me. Not boy enough, not tough enough or sporting enough, or … something.
Perhaps joining the seventh grade football team, or volunteering for the Army nine years later, were attempts to prove something to Dorothy and Harold. Or did I do those things to prove something to myself?
Around the same time I was playing football, when I was twelve or thirteen years old, I was being set upon (bullied is what it would be called now) by a neighborhood kid. He hit me at one point, and bloodied my nose. I went home, and told Harold about what had happened. He exhorted me to take this kid on. He told me that I needed to stand up for myself and go fight this boy, and then proceeded to give me advice about fighting: pointers on pugilism.
It was bad enough that I felt pressured by Harold to do something I had no desire to do. There was also the fact that my father had never seemed like a fighter to me, so it was rather jarring for him to want me to go fight this (now completely forgotten) neighborhood boy. But I don’t know; maybe during his teen years in Tulsa and Denver he had to fight to defend himself. If so, he never shared any stories about those experiences with me.
The man was an absolute cipher to me. I know he delivered newspapers in Tulsa, and he was a bike messenger for the Continental Oil Company in Denver, but I know that mostly because of research I’ve done in the years since he died in 1983, at the age of 79. I know he played baseball in Denver for a team sponsored by a Texaco gas station where he worked. I also know he was a musician in a large dance orchestra. He played the banjo.
I know all these facts about him, but none of the passion or joy that must’ve animated those pieces of his life was ever shared with me. Perhaps when Dorothy and Harold adopted me in 1948, not knowing what to do with this child who had been dropped into his life four and a half decades on, he relied on memories of his relationship with his own father. I guess. I don’t know. I just don’t know. And that not-knowing, along with complete ignorance when I was growing up about my birth father, left a certain void in my life. The place for Mother was filled to overflowing by Dorothy, but the slot for Father was barren.
I tried to counteract that, I tried to fill that void, by being a different kind of father to my three daughters. I had no template for that, no exemplar to which I could refer. Harold had not given me what I felt I needed – his stories; his living, emotional self – so I tried to share my own true self with my daughters.
At the same time, I was sorting out just what that meant to me, but I didn’t want my daughters to have to guess who I am. I didn’t want them to have to look for clues, left like a trail of breadcrumbs through the forest. How can you construct an understanding of someone from breadcrumbs, or from photographs with nothing written on the back, or old newspaper clippings that told you something about your father that you never knew until a decade after he died?
I wanted to know Harold as a person, not as a cardboard-cutout of “Dad”, but there was no warmth between us, no bond of any sort, in fact, except for the fact of living in the same house together. It feels like he just hovered around the edges of my life when I was growing up; a gray, opaque presence who, like footprints on a beach, has been washed away with time.
That’s how I have felt about him for many years: a ghost who left no trace of himself. But then, a few nights ago, I realized that he had transmitted something to me, if only by osmosis.
Harold didn’t love nature, or art, nor did he like to read books. He wasn’t interested in architecture, and he never talked about politics. What he did love was music.
This realization came to me while in the middle of a prosaic task, as realizations so often do. I was listening to music while making dinner. One of the CDs was recordings by people like Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman and Harry James; a kind of jazz that we now classify as “Big Band” music. It’s music that I heard over and over again while I was growing up (along with other musicians, like Al Hirt and Pete Fountain). Until I was old enough to have my own record player, and develop my own musical tastes, it was the soundtrack of my life, and it’s music I still like.
So, when that CD started playing, it put me in mind of Harold, and made me smile a bit. That’s not the same as knowing him, or hearing stories about his life as a musician. It’s not the same as connecting with him. Hearing Benny Goodman play the clarinet on “Don’t Be That Way” reminds me of Harold, but it doesn’t make me nostalgic about him. How can you be nostalgic for something or someone you never really knew? It’s like trying to recall a dream, hours after you wake. You were doing something – what, exactly? – and there were other people there – who were they? – and it seemed really significant when you were in the dream. But now that you’re awake, you can’t quite put your finger on what that was all about, or who those people were, and eventually, the dream fades completely away.
so haunting. i was struck by how many times you said “I don’t know.” the difficulty of constructing a reality around a void. beautifully written, too, michael.
Thank you, Susan.