Changing The World One Pansy At A Time!

Friday, August 22, 2008

Songs My Father Taught Me

I woke up singing this morning. Not an unusual occurrence in this house. But the song was. “Paper Doll” by The Mills Brothers:

“I’m going to buy a paper doll that I can call my own…”

What the hell? I look at the calendar; August 22nd. “ahhhh…my Dad’s Birtthday!” He loved The Mills Brothers! I started thinking about all the songs he taught me, about singing in the car with him, about how music & later, films and gardening, became the language that was the surest & safest way for us to communicate.

If you’ve ever seen the film, “The Great Santini” you’ve had a small glimpse of my adolescence. But instead of basketball the blood sport in our house was football. My Dad LIVED sports & actually made most of his living coaching. And any son of his HAD to play SOMETHING. I can still see his incredulous face when I told him at 10 tears old that “I don’t like baseball because people keep looking at me!” He just walked away shaking his head.

It took a few years but I did find a sport that I thought I could stand; football. Mainly because with all the equipment, and not being the quarter-back; I thought I could blend in & hide. Then God showed his dark sense of humor because I was good! Very good. My Dad was absolutely delighted. It was like he was seeing me for the first time. I played for 5 years & HATED every awful second. I hated the practices, the other players, the coaches, the games, reviewing the endless films of the game with my Dad showing me what mistakes I had made. I even hated the freaking GATORADE & still cannot look at a bottle to this day. But he said that I was the most naturally gifted player he ever saw! That was high praise.
And the sad thing was this: I did run faster, hit harder, tackle deeper, than any other player on the field to preserve the ONE thing I did like about football: THE UNIFORM!! I loved those tight white pants, & the red & white (later black & gold) jerseys, & the white striped, spikey shoes! And no one, I mean no one, was going to dare muss me up! I once faked a slight injury because I was so upset that I got a grass stain on my white pants & feared I would start crying. I KNEW not to share any of this with my Dad.
It was all worth it in 1979. I was voted Outstanding Lineman of The BucksMont Catholic League. There was a big banquet. I dressed like I was going to the Oscars. “This is it!” I thought. “I can quit after this” “He’ll be happy now.” Then I heard God laughing again. As I walked to the stage to accept my award; I heard a scuffle behind me. Some pro football player (who’s name escapes me) was talking about me & handing me the trophy. I looked into the crowd to see men carrying my Dad out of the hall. “WAIT!!! You’re missing this!”This is for you!!” It turns out that in my big moment of triumph, my Dad was having a massive, but ultimately not fatal heart attack. I swear to God!

Eventually in High School I had enough pretending. I quit football because I wanted to be “in the plays” the musical productions at school. I summoned the guts to tell my Dad. Again he sadly shook his head & walked away. He did not speak to me for a year. He told my Mom that I was throwing away a college scholarship. “Tough!” I said. Then a funny thing happened. Once I started to be cast in roles, he came around. He never once missed a performance of any show I ever did. Not one. His legs had started to bother him & he couldn’t sit still for very long. So he would stand at the back of the theatre, every theatre, every show; the entire time. I could always see him there in the semi-dark, smiling. I would never look directly at him for fear of losing it.

Odd that a man like him would have a son like me. Just a little game of DNA roulette, I guess. But I loved him very much. Most especially because he never entirely stopped trying to communicate with me. After I stopped playing baseball he started to give me record albums ( Glenn Campbell, Bobby Sherman (!!!) Jesus Christ Superstar) wordlessly asking me: “is THIS it?” “ “Is this what you want?” Knowing somehow that it was. I still know lyrics from old songs that he taught me in the car. “Me & My Shadow” “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down & Write Myself a Letter” “Flat Foot Floozy” “L-O-V-E” “ “Sentimental Journey”

But my favorite is the first song he ever taught me. The one he used to sing me to sleep with. The one I could not get out of my head as I held his hand while he was dying:

“Good night rocking horse cowboy
Time to go to bed,
Sleep tight, rocking horse cowboy; rest your weary head…”

Sleep tight, Dad!
Happy 76th!!

P.S. I don’t mind getting dirty now Dad. In fact, I love it. I’m a gardener.

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