Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Sports, Part 2

My dad's philosophy of raising and managing two active boys (my brother and me) was to introduce us to as many sports and activities as possible and see which ones stuck. For me, some did stick and become lifelong pursuits: chiefly basketball, golf, and tennis. Others, like fishing and hunting, did not. I still participated in them during my childhood years though because they were an excuse to get some dad time.

My brother and I were willing to endure the boredom that was fishing with our dad for the glory that awaited us: swimming in the pool at Mac’s Hidden Cove, our annual summer vacation destination near Shell Knob, Missouri. The swimming pool sat at the bottom of the hill and at the end of the dead-end road that led into the hidden cove. It was visible from our second floor room. I would stand on the balcony outside our room staring longingly at the blue water of the pool until it opened at 10:00 a.m. when Steve and I would hold a foot race to see who could be the first to dive into the water. With his five-years-older and longer legs, he usually won. But that was no big deal because I knew I would soon experience the pure joy of jumping feet first into the water, making a huge splash, and then standing in the shallow end of the pool, my teeth chattering as my small body adjusted to the chilly water.

It was a good thing that I didn't often reach the pool before my brother because at another motel, when I did get there first, things did not turn out well. I jumped into what I thought was the shallow end, but when my feet didn’t reach the bottom, I realized I was in the deep end. I thought my young life was over as I flailed around underneath the water, in panic mode, until I felt my brother’s arm around my waist, bringing me to the surface and steering me toward the safety of the edge of the pool. As much as I fought with my brother growing up, I’m grateful that he became that day and will always remain the guy who saved my life. Were it not for him arriving at that motel pool when he did, I wouldn’t be around writing this today.

Of the sports my dad introduced to me, the one that I liked even less than fishing was hunting. Hunting was a family activity (for the men anyway) and, as such, there was never any question about whether I would participate, but would I enjoy it? Not so much. Hunting trips in the Tandy family typically included Dad, my brother, Steve, Uncle Jim (Dad's brother), my cousins, Bruce and Harold, and me. We only hunted birds—pheasant and quail. Most times we would drive out to some fields near Wichita though there were a few longer trips to Western Kansas where, presumably, there were more birds to shoot.

My brother and cousins embraced everything about hunting enthusiastically. They especially liked the guns. I was different in this regard. I never particularly enjoyed shooting guns, and my main objective on these trips was to avoid shooting one of my family members accidentally or being shot myself.

There was a legendary story that was always told on these hunting trips. It was about Uncle Jim and his younger son, Bruce. As the story went, Jim and Bruce were walking down the tree row when they heard a rustling in the trees just ahead. Jim hollered to Bruce, who was walking slightly ahead of him, “Get down!” Bruce obediently hit the ground whereupon Jim calmly took aim over him and brought down a pheasant. The story made an impression on me, not just for Jim’s trickery in getting the shot for himself but for the very real fear of someday getting a load of buckshot in my ass because I had failed to “get down” quickly enough.

My memories of these hunting trips are decidedly negative. I remember walking lots of tree and hedgerows and not seeing any birds. I remember being extremely cold. I remember the frustration of shooting at a bird and missing. On the other hand, I don’t remember ever asking to stay home from one of these trips, so there must have been something I liked about them.

What I liked was the fellowship. It was a good feeling to spend time with the guys of the Tandy family, to hear the banter and teasing that went on among the group and to be included as one of the men. This was particularly significant to me as the youngest of the bunch, always feeling like I had to fight for my place at the table.

I also loved the stories that came from these trips, stories that were told and retold and embellished with each retelling. Some of these became legendary, like the one about Jim tricking Bruce to get a good shot for himself. Another story in the legendary category went like this: We had stopped for lunch at a café, and Uncle Jim had gone to use the restroom. He had been gone for awhile when my cousin Bruce went to check on him. According to Bruce, Jim cracked the bathroom door open enough to whisper that there was no toilet paper. This presented a real problem since Jim had not realized this fact until after he completed his business. Uncle Jim asked his son to bring him some toilet paper, but instead Bruce returned to the table and announced loudly, “Jim Jam’s in the bathroom, and he ain’t got no toilet paper!” This story was oft repeated at family dinners, much to the dismay of my mom and my Aunt Sybil.

One of the most embarrassing moments of my entire life happened on a hunting trip when I was around 13. We were heading back home and stopped at a gas station. The attendant had finished filling up the car, and some of our group were still in the store. Since there was another car waiting to get to our pump, I offered to move our vehicle out of the way. Now my motivation was not to be helpful. Rather I saw an opportunity to drive for the first time ever in what looked like a fairly non-challenging situation. Dad made a decision that he would soon regret and said yes. I got behind the wheel, started the car, and though I was going for drive, I accidentally stopped at reverse, and promptly hit the gas, backing into the waiting car, breaking our taillights and the other car’s headlights.

Well I felt absolutely terrible. And my shame was increased by performing this stunt in front of my brother and cousins, all of whom had their driver’s licenses and for whom this event, in my mind at least, confirmed their belief that I was a worthless little twit!  Amazingly,  Dad did not yell at me or berate me or threaten me with a loss of allowance. He patted me on the shoulder, told me not to worry about it, and went to trade insurance information with the other driver, who was no doubt in shock and disbelief about what had just happened. Years later, after I had kids, I would look back at this incident and my dad's reaction to it with considerable awe.

As I look at the trajectory of my life since my childhood, these hunting trips take on added significance. As I said, I’ve never really liked guns even though like most kids, I suppose, I was excited to get my first BB gun and practice shooting cans in the woods. When it came time to move on to shotguns, I was happy to use one of my dad’s old ones, unlike my brother and cousins who lusted after their own shiny new 12 gauges.

Years later I would become a faculty member at a Quaker university, where the pacifist stand of the Friends denomination proved very attractive to me. Since childhood, I’ve never owned a gun, and I’ve never hunted. My brother and cousins, on the other hand, continue the Tandy tradition to this day.  A boy who was afraid of guns in Kansas when I grew up would have been called a sissy, and I guess by those standards I was. As far as I know, of all the Tandy boys, I’m the only one who didn’t continue the hunting tradition and pass it on to his kids.

Even though my dad never played basketball with me, it's the sport I most associate with him. I realize now this is because I remember my dad not as a player of basketball but as a fan of the game.

Dad was an avid supporter of the Wichita State Wheatshockers, to whose home games he had season tickets. He took the game seriously.  Wins were met with much rejoicing; losses were mourned and hashed and rehashed. It was from him I learned how to be a fan.  When you're a fan, objectivity is not an option:  you live and die with the team. You invest yourself in their fortunes, in good times and bad.

Of course, being a fan has its perils.  You can go overboard at times.  I remember the first time I was fortunate enough to go to a Shocker game with him: I was amazed when he voiced his displeasure at a call in loud, rather direct terms. And since his seats were courtside, I'm pretty sure the refs heard him.  I was surprised because in every other setting, my dad was a quiet, unassuming man who seldom raised his voice.  He was a gospel preacher, after all; wasn't he supposed to be setting an example for others?  

Looking back, I wonder whether the basketball arena provided a space for him where he could set aside his preacher image for a couple of hours and just be a regular guy.  Unfortunately, the lesson I learned was that it was okay to yell at referees, a practice which would get me into trouble later when my sons played high school basketball.  However, the enduring lesson I learned was that part of living, part of being human, is caring, even if it’s caring about something as mundane in the grand scheme of things as basketball.

Years later, when my two sons played high school basketball, Dad flew out to Oregon twice, both trips being planned around the boys’ basketball schedules. I was curious to see how he would respond to watching his grandsons play basketball. He was in his 80s, his hearing wasn’t good, and he was having trouble seeing out of his right eye. I just didn’t know how engaged he might be.

I should have known better. Where basketball was concerned, things hadn’t changed that much. He watched the game intently, clapping and cheering at the right places, which were often when one of his grandsons had completed a nice pass or scored a basket. And he still monitored the referees closely. His voice was no longer as strong as I remembered it back at those Shocker games, but it was loud enough that he could still voice his displeasure at a bad call. When the referee called a foul on Jackson, Dad waited for a quiet moment in the gym and then let out an exclamation that sounded like “shoowee.” Though I don’t know the exact definition of the term he was using, the meaning was unmistakeable: the referee had just made a horrible call, a ridiculous call, and Dad did not want this gross miscarriage of justice to go unnoticed. So he expressed himself in the loudest voice he could muster: “Shoowee," as if he had just discovered a skunk had sprayed his sleeping bag.

Three years before Dad died, I was able to spend my spring break with him at his retirement apartments. He had recently moved to Reflection Ridge after selling the house he lived in for some 54 years, the house where I grew up and learned to play basketball on the driveway hoop. My visit coincided with NCAA March Madness, so that week we watched a lot of basketball together.  While he seemed feeble in many ways, when it came to basketball, he still retained the old competitive fire.  If he had no particular reason to root for a team based on region or conference, he would still pick a favorite; then he would react with emotion to the ups and downs of that team throughout the game.

He still complained about the bad calls.
He still cared.
He was still a fan.

A year after Dad died, the Wichita State Shockers made an improbable run to reach the Final Four in the NCAA tournament. A colleague gave me a Shocker t-shirt, and I watched every game I could. I cheered my heart out for the Shockers: the underdogs, the good guys, as my dad called them. I complained to the television screen about the horrible calls the referees were making. I lived and died emotionally with every three pointer made and missed. 

But mostly I thought about my dad.
How much he would have loved this.
How much I wished I could have been watching these games with him.
How much I missed him.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Sports, Part I

Growing up, I loved these sports, in order of priority:

1.  Basketball
2.  Swimming
3.  Golf
4. Tennis
33. Fishing
99. Hunting

My dad loved games and sports of all kinds, and he excelled at many of them. He had been an intramural champion in college, and during his military service in WW II, he was assigned as a coach/trainer to soldiers who had been wounded in combat. He loved to watch sports on television (even boxing, for which I did not share his enthusiasm), and he always participated in softball games and pitched horseshoes at church picnics.

My Uncle Jim and my cousins, Harold and Bruce, often encouraged Dad to perform feats of strength—like a one-handed chin-up or push-up. As a scrawny teenager, I marveled at my dad’s physique and athletic prowess, and participated in intense but short-lived weight lifting regimens in hopes of someday matching his impressive biceps and formidable forearms, a goal I never quite achieved.

Basketball might have been number one on my list because I grew up in Kansas, the home of James Naismith, who invented the game. More likely, as with other sports, I liked it because my dad liked it. It was his favorite sport to watch on television, and for as long as I can remember, he and my mom owned season tickets to the Wichita State Wheatshockers home basketball games. On infrequent but glorious occasions, I would be invited to attend a Shocker game, usually when my mom decided not to use her ticket. Going to see a game in person with my dad was the best, but more often I had to settle for watching a Shocker away game or an NBA game on television with him.

Dad worked two jobs and was always busy. I don’t remember him playing games at home with me and my brother much, outside of the occasional game of eight ball once we got our pool table in the basement. But when I got old enough, he did invite me to play golf and tennis with him. It was because of sports we spent time together as father and son.

Golf was the best.

It’s 5:00 a.m. on a summer Monday in Wichita. Dad has just left my room after telling me it’s time to get up and get ready if I want to go with him to play golf, or more accurately, attempt to play golf. I rub my eyes, put on my dark brown, horn-rimmed glasses, and search for my shorts, t-shirt, socks, tennis shoes, and hat.

I help my dad load the golf bags in the trunk of the car, and we head to Sims public golf course, a five-minute drive from our house. I don’t like getting out of bed so early, but Dad’s philosophy is it’s best to play early and beat the heat. We live in Kansas, after all, and from June to August, the temperature is likely to hit 100 degrees by late morning. Besides that, there’s not too many other golfers willing to sacrifice sleep for the cool temperatures, so most Mondays we are the first ones to tee off at the course.

Or wait to tee off. Often we have to pass some time in the clubhouse waiting for the sun to come up so it’s light enough to hit. The other problem with ridiculously early golf games is the dew. Even though it’s dry as a bone during the summer days in Kansas, the early morning fairways and greens of the golf course are wet with dew. This is a beautiful sight as the rising sun highlights the sparkling drops at the tips of the perfectly manicured grass, but it’s not so beautiful for the golfer whose well-struck drive off the first tee sails high in the air but only bounces once or twice before the ball is swallowed up by the sodden blades of grass. 

Putting is even more difficult under these conditions. For the first four or five holes, the greens are so wet you have to wind up like a major league pitcher before whacking your ball toward the hole, only to see it stop two feet short despite your John-Daly-like effort. Then around about the sixth hole, when the sun’s rays have restored the greens to their typical parched condition, you strike your golf ball firmly only to see it scoot past the hole and roll off the green, further from the hole now than before you putted.

As a beginning golfer, I’m more worried about making contact with the ball than with how far it goes. My dad is an excellent driver. He’s learned to channel his considerable muscle into striking the ball so it routinely travels 250 yards down the fairway. And straight as an arrow, the ball usually ending up in the middle of the fairway in ideal position for an approach shot to the green. I, on the other hand, if I’m lucky, strike the ball on my first swing attempt and watch it rise like a blooper between first base and right field and end up 50 yards down the fairway.  By simple mathematics, this means I take five shots to gain the position my dad earned in one. 

Dad is a patient man and never complains that I’m slowing him down too much as he waits for me to catch up. Apparently so are his friends, who are part of our group. The nice thing about golf is that no matter how badly I’m playing, I can look forward to the Pepsi and cherry moon pie my dad will buy me before we start the second nine.

Tennis had these advantages: it was played in the evenings, so I didn’t have to get out of bed at an absurd hour, and it took much less time than the three-four hours required for 18 holes of golf. With my dad, I mostly played doubles, being called in occasionally as a substitute when one of the three regulars he played with were unavailable.

Tennis was also the only sport I was able to letter in during high school. I would have preferred basketball, of course, but I was too short and too slow to make the team once I reached my large public high school. Tennis at our school, on the other hand, was not a popular or in-demand sport. In fact, the school had trouble some years fielding six players for the varsity squad.

This was partly a socio-economic problem. My high school was in a part of the city with a less affluent population. At least in my view, tennis was a rich kids’ sport, so the high schools located in higher income neighborhoods tended to have the best tennis players. The situation worked to my advantage since I was just competent enough to earn the number six spot on the team, thus lettering, in spite of compiling a win-loss record of 0 and 7 in my Junior year and 1 and 6 in my Senior year.

Our coach, Earl Fultz, was the driver’s ed teacher, and he demonstrated a decided lack of interest in the sport of tennis. His chief contributions included providing us with balls for practice and driving us to matches at other schools. I don’t remember that he ever actually coached us. I know he spoke to the team occasionally, but all I can remember is the introduction he used on every occasion: “Now on this thing here, boys,” a line that all the members of the team took delight in repeating, doing our best Earl Fultz imitation, when he wasn’t around. We were largely left to our own devices in practice, the only coaching we received being done by our peers. Thus, our team record was not much better than my individual match record.

Fishing had this in common with golf: my dad liked to rise absurdly early and hit the water before the sun came up.  Mercifully, I only had to endure fishing once every summer when my family made its annual pilgrimage to Mac’s Hidden Cove near Shell Knob, Missouri. On these trips, Dad’s main objective was to go crappie fishing every morning. He loaded an outboard motor in the trunk of our car and rented an aluminum fishing boat from Mac at the motel when we arrived. Each morning he rousted me and my brother out of bed pre-dawn, and we walked down the steep dirt path leading to Table Rock Lake and the boat dock.

I liked walking to the boat dock in the dark. It would have been way too creepy had I been alone, but I wasn’t, so it all seemed kind of adventurous and surreal. Once we arrived at the dock, and stepped onto the wooden planks, we had to be careful to keep our balance as the dock moved up and down with the motion of the water and with our weight as we walked toward the stall where Dad’s rented boat awaited us. We would hop in the boat, Dad would start the motor, then sit in the back of the boat and steer us out into the middle of the lake. “Early morning is the best time to fish, boys,” he would tell me and my brother, “before all the other fishermen stir things up.” Once Dad found just the right spot, he would kill the motor, help us bait our hooks, then we would sit.

On most mornings, experience gave me cause to doubt my dad's maxim about early morning fishing. We were fishing, but in my mind, the sport as we practiced it should have been called Sitting since that was what we were doing mostly. And to me, an active ten-year-old, that was extremely boring.

But then there was the occasional morning when the fish were biting, where my cork, which had only been in the water a few seconds, bobbed once then went down, plunged beneath the still-dark surface of the water, and I fumbled with my pole to find the handle and turn, feeling the tug on the end of my line, knowing the fish was swimming further down with my hook, finally exerting enough pressure to reverse the path of the fish until it broke the surface of the water, and I was able to maneuver the fish into the bottom of our boat. I didn’t like the slimy feel of the fish’s skin or the sharpness of its fins, so Dad would often have to grab it and work the hook out of its mouth before placing it in the wire mesh basket with the rest of our catch.

All these sports—golfing, playing tennis, shooting pool, watching basketball on television—I realize now were not primarily important in and of themselves. They were significant to my childhood because they gave me an excuse to hang out with my dad, and they gave him an excuse to hang out with me.

Had it not been for these sports, I don’t know where the opportunities to converse with my dad, man to man, or, more accurately, man to boy, would have come from. He was not the type of man to sit down for a father-son chat, and he was of a generation of fathers who did not express their emotions openly to their children. Such occasions would have been painful and awkward for us both. But somehow it was easier to talk as you were strolling down a fairway on the golf course, or sitting in a fishing boat shrouded in the pre-dawn darkness, or during the television commercials of a college hoops game. 

Perhaps my dad knew these things, and that’s why he created these opportunities for me. Or maybe he just enjoyed these sports himself and since I was handy, he invited me because he hoped I might enjoy them too. Either way, I’m grateful. I have a much better appreciation of my dad and a stronger love for him because of sports. Plus, I’ve also come to realize that by introducing me to golf and tennis, he gave me the gift of two sports I could play and enjoy for a long time.

The greatest gift he gave me, through sports, was his time and attention. If sports were his love language, then I would listen and learn to speak it. That was infinitely better than getting no father love at all.